The agitation for a separate `Greater Coochbehar' State turns violent, and the West Bengal government suspects the hand of organisations from across the State's border behind the movement.
IT is not uncommon to see disgruntled political elements raise the demand for the division of a State as a shortcut to power. In the 1980s, Darjeeling in West Bengal witnessed an agitation for a separate State by the Gorkha National Liberation Front. North Bengal has already been witnessing such moves. Recently, the Greater Coochbehar People's Association (GCPA) began pressing for a separate Coochbehar State, putting the State on the boil once again. The GCPA has called into question the 1949 accession of the princely state of Coochbehar to the Indian Union and the merger of Coochbehar with Bengal in 1950.
On September 20, an agitation for statehood, under the banner of the GCPA, took an ugly turn. At around 11 a.m., more than 20,000 people gathered in separate groups at different locations, outside Coochbehar town, to go on an indefinite hunger strike. Convinced that the objective of the demonstrators was to create disorder, the police tried to restrain them, and they retaliated with brickbats.
The skirmishes continued until they reached a climax at Chakchaka, where two policemen, Jogesh Chandra Sarkar and Gour Chandra Dhar, were battered to death and Additional Superintendent of Police Mustaq Ahmed received serious injuries. Ahmed died on the way to hospital. Two women constables, Tanushree Biswas and Mumtaz Begum, were also injured seriously. The police tried to control the situation by resorting to a lathi-charge. At Khagrabari, they opened fire, in which two civilians were killed and five policemen were injured. By 5 p.m., the groups dispersed from the five points at which they had assembled, but the police picket and prohibitory orders remained.
The agitators demanded that Assembly elections should not be held in Coochbehar. They wanted the formation of an interim caretaker government by the Centre. State Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy dismissed these demands as untenable.
By September 23, with the number of protesters on the streets dwindling, GCPA general secretary Bansi Badan Barman called off the agitation and sat for talks with the district administration. This was an indication that the demand for statehood was not really supported by a movement of the masses. In a district with a population of 27 lakhs, a crowd of 20,000 is hardly formidable.
The police and intelligence agencies suspect that the GCPA has links with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Kamtapuri Liberation Organisation (KLO).
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told Frontline: "North Bengal has witnessed this type of separatist movement many times, like the demand for Uttarakhand. Then there was UJJAS [Uttar Banga Jan Jati Adivasi Sangathan], the KLO, among others. They seem to have forgotten that in 1950 Coochbehar was merged with Bengal, and at the State inauguration commission in 1956 none of the parties in the region demanded a separate State. What they are demanding now is absurd. They understand neither the Constitution nor anything of history. What they are trying to do is to confuse and mislead the people. I still believe that good sense will prevail and the separatists will come back to the mainstream. But the only thing that is worrying me is that we have intelligence reports that ULFA is trying patronise the GCPA following the failure of the Kamtapuri movement."
He continued: "Their announced programme was for a hunger strike, but in reality they had planned for large-scale violence, particularly against the police. The police were not prepared for this kind of violence."
According to police sources, though the backbone of the KLO was broken with Operation Flushout in Bhutan, stray Kamtapuri activists may have regrouped to operate under the GCPA banner.
Suspicions of a KLO hand in the violence became strong when the KLO called for a bandh in the region in support of the demand for a `Greater Coochbehar', on September 24, the day the Chief Minister planned to address a rally in Coochbehar. The call found no takers. Speaking at a massive gathering, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee stated in no uncertain terms that a separate State was not an option. He urged the people not to allow separatism to grow in their region. "Disturbances like what has happened here are a hindrance to development. Do not allow them, as there is still a lot of work to be done," he told the people.
Rather than fighting force with force, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is using development as a weapon against separatists. State secretary and Polit Bureau member of the party, Anil Biswas, said: "We have asked the party's district secretaries to draft the outline of the development work to be taken up in their areas. They will prepare the blueprints and carry out the projects. Development will be our weapon against separatist forces."
Chandi Paul, Coochbehar district secretary and one of the most influential CPI(M) leaders in the region, told Frontline: "The GCPA leaders lied when they said they were going to stage a hunger strike. What they did was block traffic, bringing normal life to a halt. The attack on the police was premeditated. The people of Coochbehar themselves were fed up and wanted the leaders to call off the strike."
According to Chandi Paul, the Congress and the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC) had a hand in the agitation. "By fostering a sense of discontent among the people and encouraging fissiparous activities, they intend to attack the Left Front government," he said.
The situation did provide the Opposition some scope for rhetoric, if not action. NTC leader Mamata Banerjee lashed out at the CPI(M)-led Left Front government and demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the violence. Defence Minister and Pradesh Congress Committee president Pranab Mukherjee reportedly blamed the State government for not taking adequate precaution to prevent the violence. He, however, rejected the GCPA's demand for a separate State.
District Superintendent of Police Jagmohan reportedly said: "The people here have not acted like this before, so we thought of restoring normality."
Although the GCPA was formed in 1998, according to some analysts the movement perhaps had its origin in the Hitosadhani movement of 1947, when Coochbehar was still a princely state. According to a report, a section of the followers of this movement wished the region to be merged with a neighbouring country, while another section wanted it to join Assam. By that logic, it is not difficult to see an ULFA interest in the movement for a `Greater Coochbehar'.
The district, which derives its name from the Cooch dynasty which ruled the region for several centuries, became a part of India on August 20, 1949, when the king, Jagaddipendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, renounced power and decided on the merger of the state with the Union of India. The transfer of administration took place the following month, and on January 19, 1950, it was merged with the State of Bengal.
The GCPA claims that Coochbehar's inclusion in West Bengal was "illegal", as, according to it, during the time of the signing of the agreement between the king and the Government of India, Coochbehar was promised the status of a `C' category State, but it was merged with an `A' category State.
Although it is unlikely that the movement for a `Greater Coochbehar' will gather enough momentum to be a cause for concern for the State government, it has the potential to be a tool in the hands of extremist and separatist groups - something the State government has reason to worry about.