Kolkata: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is all set to send its first representative from West Bengal to the Rajya Sabha, has picked as its candidate Anant Maharaj, an influential figure from north Bengal who has helped the party win elections but is also an advocate for a separate Cooch Behar state.
Heading a faction of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA, a body seeking statehood for Cooch Behar), Anant Rai adopted the ‘Maharaj’ title about two decades ago. He belongs to the Rajbanshi community or the Koch-Rajbanshis, who account for about 33 lakh of Bengal’s population, according to the 2011 census.
The Rajbanshis, who are concentrated in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Uttar Dinajpur, Darjeeling and Malda districts of north Bengal and Murshidabad in south Bengal, trace their roots to the medieval Kamta kingdom spread across present-day West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Bihar, Bangladesh and Nepal.
A separate state of Cooch Behar comprising the north Bengal districts and parts of lower Assam has been a long-standing demand of the GCPA faction led by Maharaj.
Confirming his nomination, Maharaj told ThePrint Wednesday, “I have accepted BJP’s Rajya Sabha ticket and am happy. Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to me over the phone on Tuesday, the day Nisith Pramanik (Minister of State, Home) came to my residence.”
However, when ThePrint asked him if he would continue to demand a separate state, Maharaj said it wasn’t the right time to talk about it as he was busy with his nomination paperwork.
Meanwhile, justifying his party’s pick, Pramanik told the media in Cooch Behar, “We want a representation of people’s voices from north Bengal and that’s why we have picked Anant Maharaj. He won’t just speak on behalf of Cooch Behar but all of Bengal.”
The TMC said Maharaj’s nomination was part of the BJP’s ‘Bengal bifurcation agenda’. Speaking to ThePrint, TMC state vice-president Joy Prakash Majumdar said, “Anant Maharaj is not a BJP member. He wants a division of Bengal and the BJP picked him. He can be made a Cabinet minister in the reshuffle also.”
“Going by the panchayat poll results, the BJP has lost ground in almost every district of north Bengal,” he added. The TMC swept the panchayat polls in West Bengal this week.
Meanwhile, political observers say this move could cost the BJP later. “Anant Maharaj has an agenda for a separate state of north Bengal. This will create trouble for Bengal BJP in the long run as the TMC has stood against separate statehood,” political analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay said to ThePrint.
Political analyst Snigdhendu Bhattacharya said Anant Maharaj’s choice could be an advantage for the TMC. “By picking Anant Maharaj, the BJP is trying to send a message that they are focused on north Bengal. But he has been a strong advocate of Bengal’s bifurcation, which the TMC will use against the BJP…(after all), south Bengal has 34 Lok Sabha seats but the BJP didn’t pick anyone from there,” he said.
Six Rajya Sabha seats from West Bengal, along with two seats each in Gujarat and Goa, will go to polls on 24 July. While the Trinamool Congress is set to retain five, the BJP, with 70 seats in the West Bengal assembly, will manage one RS seat.
Rajbanshis & Bengal politics
Rajbanshis, listed as a Scheduled Caste, have a hold in about seven of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats and 15 assembly segments in West Bengal. They account for an estimated 30 percent of north Bengal’s population.
With Anant Maharaj’s backing, the BJP swept all seven seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, including minister Pramanik’s in Cooch Behar.
In the 2021 assembly elections, the BJP grabbed 30 of the 54 assembly seats in this region despite a Trinamool tide.
In 2021, the central government conferred the Padma Shri to retired Rajbanshi teacher Dharma Narayan Barma.
Over the years, the TMC has also sought to woo the Rajbanshis. In 2012, the Trinamool government set up Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University, named after the 19th-century Rajbanshi social reformist. The Mamata Banerjee government also declared Panchanan Barma’s birth anniversary on 14 February a holiday.
In 2020, Mamata Banerjee announced the formation of a separate police battalion, ‘Narayani Battalion’ of Cooch Behar, ostensibly fulfilling a demand of north Bengal.
(Edited by Smriti Sinha)