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The demand for Statehood in north Bengal

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Activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad take out a motorcycle procession, urging people to abstain from voting in Jalpaiguri district.
Activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad take out a motorcycle procession, urging people to abstain from voting in Jalpaiguri district.

MARCUS DAM

Nepalis, Kamtapuris and Koch-Rajbangshis are asking for the creation of separate States

Hemmed in by Nepal in the west, Bhutan in the north and Bangladesh in the south, the geo-politically sensitive region comprising the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar in north Bengal is a cauldron of ethnic sentiments, with communities becoming vocal about their aspirations in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.

Whether it is the Nepalis (who prefer to be called Gorkhas in the Darjeeling hills), the Kamtapuris in the Dooars and Terai regions or the Koch-Rajbangshis of Cooch Behar, the demand is the same — the creation of a separate State. Their demands have not found favour with the mainstream political parties of West Bengal, all of which are stoutly opposed to any division of the State. But politics in the region took a new turn recently, with the Bharatiya Janata Party, much to the discomfiture of its State unit, announcing that it would view the demands for a separate Gorkhaland and a separate Kamtapur State “sympathetically.”

Since early this year, the region has been witnessing spasmodic violence after the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) carried its statehood campaign to the Dooars and Terai areas of Jalpaiguri district — an area that has been incorporated into the contours of the Gorkhaland State it proposes. Clashes between the Nepalis and the tribals opposed to the GJM’s demand have threatened to snowball into an ethnic conflagration.

Though a tenuous peace has been restored, with the GJM leaders calling off their movement in the plains at the prompting of the State government, the Nepalis and adivasis, who constitute a large chunk of the population, are still restive. But a section of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP), which claims the support of a majority of local tribals, has since turned vociferous in its demand for greater autonomy to the tribal belt in north Bengal. It has also called for a poll boycott in protest against what it calls the government’s failure to address their grievances such as reopening of the 14 tea gardens whose closure threw hundreds out of work.

“The GJM has threatened our identity by its demand for a separate State that includes a predominantly tribal region, and the State government has done little to alleviate our distressing economic conditions,” says Rajesh Lakra, general secretary of the ABAVP’s Dooars-Terai coordination committee.

The decision to stay away from the polls could affect the prospects of the Left Front candidate for the Alipurduar (ST) seat; for decades, the Revolutionary Socialist Party has had a support base in the local tribal population.

The Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP), which is calling for the creation of a Kamtapur State comprising the districts of north Bengal and some in Assam, split into two factions in 2004 following differences within the leadership. The KPP and the Kamtapur Progressive Party have identical statehood agendas, despite their leaderships blaming each other for the division. Contrary to intelligence reports, both deny links with the militant Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, which has been responsible for subversive activities in the region in the past years.

The two factions are also divided over support to the GJM’s Gorkhaland demand. On its stand on the question of the territory common to their respective statehood claims, Atul Roy, president of the Kamtapur Progressive Party, which backs the GJM, says: “Such matters will be sorted out later.” Nikhil Roy, president of the KPP, which is opposed to the GJM, warns: “North Bengal will be on fire if a separate Gorkhaland is created on land whose original inhabitants are the Kamtapuris.” The KPP is contesting eight Lok Sabha seats in north Bengal.

To add to an intriguing political landscape is the demand of the Greater Cooch Behar Democratic Party (GCDP) for a “Greater Cooch Behar” comprising five districts of north Bengal and four of Assam. Its leader Bangshi Badan Burman will contest Cooch Behar (SC) from jail; he has been detained under various charges, including the murder of policemen during a demonstration in support of the statehood demand that turned violent in Khagrabari in September 2005. The party will contest the polls for the first time and has found support in the Nationalist Congress Party.

“Each of the ethnic communities has a right to demand a separate State,” says Ashutosh Barma, president the GCDP — a remark that sums up the perceptions of leaders of the different ethnic communities.

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