New Delhi/Kolkata: Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s comment that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not condole the death of the fifth victim in the state’s weekend poll-related violence who was a Rajbanshi has put the spotlight on this community.
Shah indicated that the Rajbanshi community isn’t an important voting bloc for the ruling Trinamool Congress.
In February, Shah had visited the Koch-Rajbanshi community leader Ananta Roy in Assam as the state as well as West Bengal were gearing up for assembly polls.
In both states, which are two of five currently going to polls, Rajbanshis are an important constituency politically, which explains the BJP’s clamour to connect with them.
But who are the Rajbanshis? ThePrint tells you about the community, its history and presence in some crucial states.
Who are the Rajbanshis
Rajbanshis inhabit parts of Assam, north Bengal, Bihar’s Purnia district, parts of Meghalaya as well as some regions in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
They find their roots in the Kamata kingdom. While several dynasties ruled the Rajbanshi community in the pre-colonial era, the 16th century marked a watershed with the Koch Kingdom taking over, which led to giving their identity greater definition. The word Rajbanshi literally translates to ‘royal community’.
The Rajbanshis have been granted a different status in different states. In parts of Assam and Bihar, they are classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs), in West Bengal they belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC) and in Meghalaya, to the Scheduled Tribe (ST).
In Assam, however, the assertion of the Rajbanshi identity and demand for it to be preserved has become a serious movement.
The Koch-Rajbanshi struggle in Assam
Koch-Rajbanshis in Assam are among the six ethnic groups demanding Scheduled Tribe status. This demand dates back to 1967 and has been accompanied by the struggle for a separate state of Kamatpur.
While the community claims it belongs to the ‘indigenous tribes of Assam’, the state government has contended that Koch-Rajbanshis embraced Hinduism and hence, have foregone their tribal characteristics for long.
The Koch-Rajbanshis in Assam have also been demanding that the Kamatpuri language be included in the eighth schedule of the Constitution. There is also the Kamatpur Liberation Organisation, which is a militant body that claims to fight for the rights of the Rajbanshi community and for the creation of a separate state of Kamatpur.
The Koch-Rajbanshis have had a chequered history with Assam’s other powerful tribe — the Bodos — and often found themselves in conflict with them during the late 1980s Bodoland uprising. This community has also been caught in the crossfire between the Bodos and Muslims in the state.
Politically, the community is significant in Assam with a substantial population in lower Assam. Rajbanshi leaders claim they have a population of 70 lakh across the state.
Its leaders also claim the community can be electorally influential in around 28 of the state’s 126 assembly seats.
No wonder then, that the BJP has been trying to woo this community. Last year, the Assam Legislative Assembly passed a bill for the creation of three autonomous councils, including the Kamatpur Autonomous Council. Shah’s meeting with Rai was also part of this continued effort to woo the Rajbanshis.
The Rajbanshis in West Bengal
Rajbanshis in West Bengal have a long and complex history that dates back to the early 19th century revivalist movement by a Rajbanshi leader Panchanan Barma.
Rajbanshi means people who belong to Raj Bansha or a king’s family. However, many historians and caste experts have said that it was a ‘created notion’ to get them social respect in the Hindu caste system.
In the early 19th century, Rajbanshis, who were treated as untouchables, led a movement for a status of Kshatriya Rajbanshi to get social justice. Experts believe that the effort of putting the Kshatriya identity forward was a deliberate move by Rajbanshis to reposition themselves in a social hierarchy.
The Rajbanshi Kshatriya movement was led by the elite leaders of the community such as Panchanan Barma. The community got the Kshatriya status in the 1921 census. Later, there was another movement by the community to get Scheduled Caste status, which was granted.
Post-Independence, Rajbanshis lost political power as Bengal was divided and they were displaced from their lands. Thousands of them, who were settled in East Bengal or present Bangladesh, migrated to West Bengal’s Cooch Behar, Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri districts, explains Professor Rupkumar Barman of Jadavpur university, who has extensively researched on the community and written several books.
A section of the community claims to have links with the Koch kingdom in Bengal’s Cooch Behar. It was one of the princely states in the country during the pre-independence time. Rajbanshis, however, remained marginalised in the four-tier Hindu class system that puts Brahmins at the top.
In West Bengal, while the community comes under the Schedule Caste category, the Rajbanshi movement had an anti-Muslim alignment because while trying to prove its Kshatriya identity, the community indulged in upper caste Hindu rituals, said a professor of Sociology who did not want to be named.
After Independence, the Rajbanshi community was divided into several splinter groups. One of these groups demanded a state for Koch Rajbanshi, while another wanted the SC status. The fight for statehood fell flat, but the community was included in the SC list.
In West Bengal, the community forms around 75.2 per cent of the SC population and 37.72 per cent of total population, according to the 2011 census. This means Rajbanshis can be influential in over a dozen of the state’s assembly seats, crucial for a party like the BJP that is attempting to overthrow a powerful regional party and make its mark in the state.
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