By Tirthankar Mitra
Even as panchayat election is inching closer, north Bengal is in the news for the wrong reasons. The demand for a separate state or Union Territory has resurfaced.
The present scenario, however, differs from the one which arose last year when BJP MP John Barla and MLAs Anandamoy Barman and Sikha Chatterjee demanded that north Bengal be declared Union Territory. This time it was Greater Coochbehar People’s Association (GCPA) leader Ananta Rai who has voiced an identical demand apparently sans BJP nod.
Even as the saffron camp in the state seeks to distance itself from a demand which faces strong opposition from a large section of populace of a once partitioned state, the BJP has failed to cover up its complicity in this matter. A meeting between Union minister of state and Coochbehar MP, Nisith Pramanik preceding Rai’s announcement of the demand for Union Territory is a clear pointer to the nudge and wink affair.
In so many words, it is a carefully thought out ploy to cut into Trinamool Congress vote bank stretching over extensive swathes of Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Darjeeling and Malda. It is Rajbanshis, if one seeks to zero in on to a particular community of voters.
The Koch-Rajbanshis had been a steadfast vote bank of the Left but in 2011 it shifted allegiance to Trinamool. But in 2019, after the BJP made their presence felt in North Bengal on the strength of Rajbanshi votes, their support emerged as a deciding factor.
Taking off the wrappers, this is a saffron camp game plan to polarise the political atmosphere of the state ahead of the crucial rural polls next year. The GCPA leader’s assertion that declaration of Union Territory status for Coochbehar being just a matter of time have triggered both hope and apprehension.
While Rai’s contention has been rubbished by Trinamool leaders, the state government inviting Rai better known as Ananta Maharaj to the inaugural ceremony of 210th Rash Mela in Coochbehar lends credence to his position and the agitation for Union Territory. For few in the ruling dispensation can deny with hand on their heart that it was a reaching out gesture to a political opponent who cannot be ignored.
Prominent state BJP leaders including state party president, Sukanta Majumdar and leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari are yet to support the demand for Union Territory of Coochbehar. For they are only too aware that in doing so they will dynamite the voter bank of saffron camp, comprising other communities who are chary of another partition.
Even Hooghly MP and yesteryear heroine Locket Chatterjee has rubbished the separate statehood/Union Territory demand. If her words cannot be reconciled with those of Barla, Barman and Chatterjee, it is an instance if political double speak.
It may be mentioned that BJP MP Soumitra Khan’s demand for the creation of Junglemahal as a separate region, did not receive Subhendu Adhikari’s support. The coincidences are piling up into enemy action.
Some political observers feel that BJP plans to deploy the formula by which it separated Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir. Only in this case, the state government will remain untouched.
However, the Trinamool dispensation cannot wish away the fact that Rai holds sway over a section of Koch-Rajbabanshi community and claims to have 18 lakh followers. If TMC and BJP turned a deaf ear to his demand, once, it can no longer afford to do so.
In sum, after its big loss in 2021state Assembly elections, the BJP seeks to get politically even with Trinamool. Given its professed declaration of not toppling elected state governments, the next best option to weaken the TMC dispensation is to chalk out a game plan to “reduce the state.”
To attain its end, a section of BJP leadership is in cahoots with GCPA leader Rai and stoking Rajbanshis sentiment. It is harping on the theme that sentiment of the Rajbanshi community that their identity will find expression once the Union Territory comes up.
Another upshot to the situation is in Congress support of Trinamool on this issue. Strongly opposing creation of a Union Territory carved out of West Bengal, state Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said “if the people of north Bengal have problems it is the job of the state government to address it”.
As the situation simmers, the saffron leadership seems to have overlooked the fact that the demand for a Union Territory dismembering the state can backfire on them. The wounds of 1947 partition have been healed but the scars remain; once the panchayat polls are over, the issues of Greater Coochbehar, Gorkhaland and Junglemahal will go into hibernation till the next election. (IPA Service)