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Explained: The Koch Rajbongshi vote in Assam, West Bengal

Who are the Koch Rajbangshis? How significant are they politically? Who is Ananta Rai, whom Shah is visiting in Assam?

Written by Abhishek Saha , Santanu Chowdhury | Guwahati, Kolkata |
Updated: February 11, 2021 9:25:07 am
Assembly elections, Koch Rajbongshis vote, AMIt shah Assam Visit, AMIt shah Bengal visit, Indian express newsIn West Bengal, the community could be a deciding factor in at least 15 seats (out of 294). They account for more than 30% of the electorate in North Bengal.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah will on Thursday visit Assam and West Bengal, where he will address a community vital to upcoming Assembly elections in both states — the Koch Rajbongshis.

In Assam, he will visit the home of Ananta Rai, an influential leader said to be a descendant of the erstwhile royal family of Cooch Behar. In West Bengal, Shah will flag off a yatra and visit the Madan Mohan Temple in Cooch Behar.

Who are the Koch Rajbangshis?

They are a community that traces its roots to the Kamata kingdom, which comprised parts of Assam, West Bengal and adjoining territories. “In the medieval period, the community was dominant and ruled their territory of Kamatapur, which comprised a large part of Bangladesh, West Bengal, Bihar and India’s north-east,” says a 2014 paper by researcher Hirokjeet Roy published in the Economics and Political Weekly.

After Independence, the princely state of Cooch Behar became part of West Bengal. Today, Koch Rajbongshis are found in Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal and Bihar, and in Bangladesh, Nepal and some parts of Bhutan.

How significant are they politically?

They are estimated to number over 33 lakh in West Bengal, mostly the northern districts, and have a large presence in Assam.

“We are one of the largest communities in Assam, with our own language and culture,” said Hitesh Barman, chief adviser of All Koch Rajbongshi Students’ Union (AKRSU). He said the community, while spread across Assam, can influence around 28 Assembly constituencies out of 126.

In West Bengal, the community could be a deciding factor in at least 15 seats (out of 294). They account for more than 30% of the electorate in North Bengal.

“In several constituencies of lower Assam, the minority votes will be dominant. But in many North Bengal constituencies, the Koch Rajbongshi vote is the deciding factor,” said a BJP leader in Assam.

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Who is Ananta Rai, whom Shah is visiting in Assam?

Rai is the founder of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA) and proclaims himself a Maharaj. He earlier used to live in Cooch Behar and now lives in Chirang district of Assam. He told locals that the GCPA is already an ally of the NDA.

“Rai is considered a religious leader in Chirang and has a large following amongst the community. Hence, Amit Shah coming and meeting him has a lot of political significance, for Assam and especially for North Bengal,” a senior BJP leader in Assam told The Indian Express.

What are the issues that matter to them?

A number of organisations representing the community, mostly based in West Bengal, have been demanding a separate Kamatapur state consisting of North Bengal and parts of lower Assam. There is also a militant outfit, Kamatapur Liberation Organisation.

“Amit Shah is coming to consolidate the Koch Rajbongshi votes over which Ananta Rai has considerable influence due his position as a religious guru. But the BJP should talk about issues and demands by the community, like that of our own state — they should not only look at us for votes,” Barman of AKRSU said.

How are parties wooing them?

In West Bengal, they largely used to support the Left Front during its 34-year rule. When the Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011, many supported the new ruling party. But in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won 7 out of 8 seats in North Bengal.

In 2012, the Trinamool government set up the Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University, named after a 19th century Rajbongshi leader and reformist. Ahead of the Assembly Polls, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has announced three new police battalions including ‘Narayani’ in Cooch Behar; the Koch Rajbongshis have long demanded a ‘Narayani Regiment’ in the Indian Army. The Centre, for its part, recently awarded the Padma Shri to Dharma Narayan Barma, a retired teacher from the community.

In Assam, the government last year formed the Kamatapur Autonomous Council comprising predominantly Koch Rajbongshi villages in some lower Assam districts.

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Grant of ST status to Koch Rajbongshis (among six communities in Assam) remains in the pipeline. Last month, BJP national president J P Nadda claimed that the ST status has already been granted, but the Opposition said it is misinformation.

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