On June 7th, the Chief of the banned armed outfit Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO) warned Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee before her visit to North Bengal that –
“Mamata Banerjee should not come to Koch-Kamatapur. She cannot interfere or oppose the formation of Koch-Kamatapur state. The situation will be horrible if force is applied. I will sacrifice the lives of millions of people. There will be bloodbath,”
Ironically, the BJP backed the banned outfit’s demand, saying the party has no problem in carving out a new state of north Bengal districts. To counter, Mamata Banerjee on the other hand made it clear that she is not going to allow a division of Bengal by saying that “I will not allow Bengal to be divided till I have blood in my body.” But, putting aside the politics being played by both the BJP and the TMC, what is this talk of a separate Koch-Kamatapur state all about? Even in the video message where the KLO Chief warns Mamata Banerjee of bloodbath, he does not forget to mention that the Koch-Kamatapur, also known as Cooch Behar, was a C-class state as per the India Accession Treaty. But, there is more to it and here I will briefly talk about the Koch-Kamatapur state and its historical significance- which is rapidly changing the political chemistry of Bengal.
The geographical location where the ancient Kamata-Koch kingdom emerged was the Teesta-Brahmaputra valley which was bordered by the natural boundaries. Two rivers, the Teesta and the Karatoya, formed the western boundary while the Baranadi and the Brahmaputra rivers determined the eastern boundary. Bhutan Duars is the northern limit and the confluence of the Brahmaputra and the Karatoya in Rangpur is the southern boundary of the valley. In the present political map it comprises of Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and southern part of Darjeeling districts of West Bengal, part of Dinajpur and Rangpur districts of Bangladesh, and Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Bijni, Darrang and Kamrup districts of Assam.
This region was also known as Kamata during the Muslim period or during the Bengal Sultanate. Kamata was the western part of Kamarupa where the Khenas had established a kingdom in the 15th century. Later, the Koch kingdom emerged in the ruins of the Kamata kingdom and the territorial boundary was almost identical with Kamata. The kingdom of Visva Singha (founder ruler of the Koch kingdom) was extended from the Baranadi in the east to the Karatoya in the west and from Bhutan Duars to Ghoraghat (Rangpur) in the south.
Under the leadership of King Nara Narayana, the kingdom got its highest territorial expansion comprising the Teesta and Lower Brahmaputra valley and began to be known as ‘Koch’ or ‘Behar’. However, the kingdom was divided into two parts in 1581 due to the internal conflicts between King Nara Narayana and Raghudeva Narayana, nephew of the king. After the partition of the kingdom, eastem part had been counted as Koch-Hajo and the main branch came to be known as Koch Bihar or Cooch Behar. In the last days of independent status of the Koch-Kamata kingdom, it was extended from the Bhutan frontier in the north to Rangpur in the south and from the Teesta in the west to the Sankosh in the east.
Emergence of the Koches as a political entity and their successful warfare had alarmed the neighboring states i.e. Bengal, Ahom and Bhutan. The Ahoms, an emerging tribal state of upper Assam, integrated under the kingship of Dihingia Suhimgmung Raja (1497 – 1539 A.D.) after defeating certain tribal powers of upper Assam, were looking towards Lower Assam. Hence conflict between the Koches and Ahoms was inevitable. Similarly, the Afghans and the Mughals of Bengal did not tolerate the emergence of a tribal power under the Koches just in the immediate proximity of Bengal. Sulaiman Karrani, the Afghan Sultan of Bengal (1565-72 A.D.), after conquering Orissa (1567-68) marched towards the Koch kingdom and reached as far as Koch capital but got back to his own capital at Tanda without permanent political result.
Finally, division, segmentation and intra-Koch conflict eventually resulted into the loss of eastern Koch kingdom to the Mughals and the Ahoms .On the other hand, the Koches of the main branch were demoted to the vassalage of the Mughals for few years particularly up to 1632 A.D., having political autonomy and certain other requisites of an independent state. The Mughals, however, failed to subdue the Koch kingdom into a permanent feudatory state. Shaistha Khan was busy with the Mughal state affairs and there was no Mughal pressure on the Koches at least for two decades (1665-85 A.D.). However, the Kamata-Koch state became a segmentary state towards the end of 17th century and after a long negotiation with the East India Company, the Anglo-Cooch Behar Treaty was concluded in 1773 A.D. by which Cooch Behar accepted the feudatory status of the Britishers and later became a princely state, named Cooch Behar, to the end of the British rule in India. The princely state of Cooch Behar joined the Indian domain in 1948, a year after India got independence from the Britishers and after the creation of Pakistan through partition by means of an agreement made on 28th August 1949 between the Governor General of India and the last princely King of Cooch Behar. Finally, in 1949, Cooch Behar, which was categorised as type-C state, was silently annexed as a district of Bengal, with the population and territory of the erstwhile Koch-Kamata state being divided between Bengal and Assam. Since then there have been various segregated movements both in Bengal and Assam for creation of a separate state of Kamatapur. Various organizations such as Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association, Kamatapur Progressive Party, Kamatapur People’s Association, All Koch Rajbongshi Students Union etc. have been putting forward their displeasure regarding discrimination, under-development and exploitation of the Koch-Rajbongshi people living in the peripheral regions of both Bengal and Assam through demonstrations, protests and petitions. However, the demand for a separate state was first strongly raised in 1995 after the formation of KLO. Recently in December 2021, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that procedures are being formed between the Centre and KLO for a possible peace talk. Therefore, it becomes evident that the chemistry of political equations may rapidly change in Bengal as this demand for a separate Koch-Kamatapur state is seemingly progressing to take a centre stage, while both the BJP and the TMC clinging into two completely opposite poles.
Nirban Ray is a Phd. student at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. (firstname.lastname@example.org)