Interview | 'There Are Few Documents on the Diverse History of Koch Rajbanshis'

With his forthcoming book tracing a historical frontier since 5th century AD and finding political resonance in Assam’s post-NRC scenario, author Arup Jyoti Das discusses the trans-border legacy and rights of the Koch Rajbanshi community in South Asia.

Guwahati: A few days after the lynching incident of two youth, Nilotpal and Abhijeet Das in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, a Koch Rajbanshi boy was brutally beaten in public. The video of that incident was streamed on social media and selectively ignored by both regional and national press. The mob had aggressively questioned whether his name appeared in the National Register for Citizens (NRC) or not.

This is not the first time that the rights of a Koch Rajbanshi individual have been violated. In the peak of the Bodo Movement (1989), more than 200 Koch-Rajbanshi families belonging to 43 villages from the northern part of Bongaigaon (now Chirang) district, fled from their homes, leaving behind their valuables and took shelter in various designated camps to escape the slaughter of armed Bodo militants. The dominant cultural amnesia might have wiped out these events but the long lasting trauma among those inflicted has remained intact.

Historically, the term “Koch” has three meanings and uses – it is the name of a dynasty, an ethnic group and a desh (country) i.e. Cooch Behar. Accounts from the Mughal period, like the Ain-i-Akbari and Baharistan-i-Ghaybi, have referred to the area as “Koch”. Within India and South Asia currently, the term “Koch” has been (almost) replaced by “Rajbanshi” in North Bengal, Bihar and Nepal. Since 1996, the terms ‘Koch’ and ‘Rajbanshi’ are officially used as one term ‘Koch–Rajbanshi’ in Assam.

When Cooch Behar was merged with Bengal with the disappearance of Koch Royals in January 1950, the Royal Heritage buildings were either occupied by the government or left abandoned to survive on their own. The former pride associated with the term ‘Rajbanshi’ (heirs of the King) has been lost. Very little is known about their social life under the royalty and the complex geographical division thereafter.

The Wire caught up with Arup Jyoti Das, whose fifth book Kamateshwar Biswasingha – The Last Rise of the Koches will be out in October. As a managing trustee of the Centre of Koch Rajbanshi Studies and Development (CKRSD) at Guwahati, he has worked extensively with the Kamatapur movement led by indigenous Koch-Rajbanshis for more than a decade. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about your new book – how is it different from the previous historical accounts on Koches in Assam?

My new book is about Biswa Singha, the founder of the last Koch State (Koch or Cooch Behar) in this part of South Asia. He came from the matrilineal tribal society (he’s popularly known as Hira Kuchoni’s son and his paternal ancestry is rather unclear). He rose from the humble position of the leader of cowherds (Gorokhiyar Roja) to the prestigious Kamateshwar (ruler of Kamata). He freed the territory (present North Bengal and Lower Assam) from Bengal rule and stopped the Bengal Expansion in Karotowa (now in present-day Jalpaiguri). He had also eliminated the stateless upper caste Bhuyan ruling structure from Kamrup (lower and middle Assam) to bring order and to form the Koch State in the region. His kingdom comprised areas in present-day Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh. I try to capture and document these historical changes keeping Biswa Singha at its centre.

Kamateshwar Biswasingha – The Last Rise of the Koches,
Arup Jyoti Das,

There are few documents on the multifarious Koch history. What’s worse, there is no work at all on the ruler Biswa Singha. Hence, the book has the advantage of being the first of its kind. I should not claim this as a benchmark, but I see a lot of hope. Its main objective is to fill up a huge gap in the historical chronicles of the region and bring justice to the living histories of indigenous peoples. My book is neither colonial, nor (sub)-nationalist – it does not try to impress any ideology.

How has the term ‘Rajbanshi’ evolved since Biswa Singha’s rule?

The term ‘Rajbanshi’ came into existence from Biswa Singha’s period as a section of the common Koches started calling themselves Rajbanshi or the royal descendents. This was a crucial period for the identity construction of the Koches. Once Biswa Singha consolidated power, a strong wave of Brahminical Hinduism entered the Koch administration and royal families. With this, their Tibeto-Burman tongue and traditions were mostly lost. Noticeably, majority of the Koches had decided to shift from a matrilineal tradition to a patriarchal set up. Among other political changes, women lost their importance in the royal family with this shift from the matrilineal tradition. I explore the folklore of Kuchoni (Koch Women) and Siva to critically discuss these altercations intertwined with caste, gender and geography.

How is it going to be different from colonial ethnographic history and hagiographies of rulers?

I have freed this book from the “white men’s burden” and the pressure of a nationalist hero-worship. It has paved its independent path. Ruler Biswa Singha does not need to be god-like at all, though rooted mythologies around him very much exist. Instead, I aim to present how a member of the peasantry i.e., Biswa Singha, by his virtue and leadership became a conqueror of the commoners. He had his flaws, like any ordinary man of his time – but the challenge is to offer a real prism of that period.

Rulers of the Koch dynasty have been glossed over in the Buranjis. Their names appear in brief chapters. Why do you think that is the case?

Biswa Singha and the indigenous Koches belong to a “disappeared nation”, which no longer serves any purpose to language-based Assamese or Bengali nationalisms. Hence, the mainstream impulse is to discard it from the pages of history. Assamese sub-nationalism is largely derived from historical incidents where the Ahoms fought with the Mughals (who are described as the enemies of the state in colonial and nationalist history writing). Interestingly, Koch rulers too had invaded Assam and subdued it for a while in the 16th century. They also invaded Bengal by making the Mughals an ally in the later half of the 16th century. Nationalist writers of modern Bengal and Assam may not like to write about powerful Koch invasions as part of their historical literature.

How has the response of the dominant media houses in Assam been with regard to raising issues of the Koch Rajbanshis. You are also a regular contributor to some Assamese newspapers.

Raising issues of the Koches and social justice in the Assamese media is not that easy. It takes months at times. Around 2007-08, I had written an article criticising late Rajanikanta Bordoloi’s novel Dandua Droh where he referred to Koches as Nihkulia (of lower caste). He had also advocated in his writing that an upper caste Kalita girl should rather die than marry a Koch prince. This was straightaway rejected by the editor on the grounds that I can’t criticise Bordoloi – a respected author in Assamese literature.

But, discrimination need not always be caste-based. It can also be inflicted by tribal nationalist groups. I have been trolled on social media for some of my writings on Koches by people from the Bodo community. Many from the community see Koches as the main hurdle for the creation of Bodoland – (an exclusive homeland for the Bodos).This is rightly opposed by the Koch-Rajbanshis because that area is a shared homeland for many.

Things have changed somewhat; yet, we have a long way to go. The fissures in the jatiyatabadi movement have been exposed today by the Koch Rajbanshi Civil Society Organisations in North Bengal and Assam. The Assamese language belongs to all of us, including Koch Rajbanshis, but not its nationalism. We have our own nuances and commentary on it; our languages – Koch (the Tibeto-Burman one) and Koch Deshi (Kamatapuri/Rajbanshi, the Koch State language) are fascinating examples of an ethnic and regional mix. And that doesn’t make us any less indigenous—we too, belong to this landscape.

Your second book Kamatapur and the Koch Rajbanshi Imagination (2009) dealt with the demand for Kamatapur. What are the challenges of leading the movement today?

The present trans-border reality of the Koch areas is the main challenge of the movement. Besides that, the leadership is not informed by research. The demand for Kamatapur rose from both West Bengal and Assam, but so far, there has been no united movement. The insurgent outfit KLO (Kamatapur Liberation Organisation) is mostly inactive. Given such a situation, I still think there’s much resistance in these histories that makes our dissent worthwhile.

Your forthcoming book closely observes changing maps. Tell us more.

It was only in the reign of Naranarayan (son of Biswa Singha), for a short period, that Ganga became the frontier of Mughal India and the Koch State when joint forces of both subdued Bengal. The huge Koch State was divided as Koch Behar (Koch Kamata) and Koch Hajo (Kamrup) between Biswa Singha’s sons and grandsons in 1581. It’s a complex map that changed multiple times – perhaps better comprehended by forgetting present political boundaries.

Koch Hajo became Bijni (Assam) along with two more small Koch principalities namely, Darang and Beltola (both in Assam). The Raikot family, descendant of Biswa Singha’s brother Siva Singha, continued to rule Baikunthpur (Jalpaiguri in West Bengal) and had fought with the Mughals many times to protect the Koch State. Two more Koch States emerged parallel to the main Koch state – they were Panga (now in Bangladesh) and Sidli (Assam). Modern day West Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh were created by dividing Koch territories. We tend to not recall that way too often.

So, the map of Kamatapur is not an exclusive one?

Kamatapur is not the name of a community, but of a historical region, a region which took shape in the mid 13th century. Though the area came to be known as Koch Behar, Biswa Singha declared himself as Kamateshwar or the ruler of Kamata. Kamatapur is inclusive; I say this because the monarchs who ruled it many years ago have been shown to have risen above ethnicity. Hence, it is not exclusively for the Koches, it can’t be. Otherwise, the demand would have been for Kochland, like Bodoland which advocates exclusive rights only for the Bodos. Since the Koches protected the frontiers, their inhabitation in this area goes back eons ago.

Kamatapur movement. Credit: Special arrangement

You’d mentioned that the Koches lost their privileges post the merging of Koch Behar (Cooch Behar) as a district to West Bengal.

Yes. Actually, the upper caste Hindu Bengali immigrants, who came to North Bengal, became the most powerful land holding class in the course of time. They were a privileged community in terms of education, social mobility skills and wore their caste on their sleeves. They treated the local Koch Rajbanshis as untouchables. Therefore, the Koch Rajbanshis were compelled to claim a dignified place through an upper caste mobility movement. It would sound harsh but Cooch Behar was conquered by Bengal in 1950 without a battle. With the annexation of Cooch Behar as a district, the last traces of Koch identity were effectively obliterated.

Why do the Koch Rajbanshis seek the Scheduled Tribe status today?

The growth of the ST movements of the Koch Rajbanshis in Assam is due to the tribal discrimination rather than caste. The dominant upper caste Assamese have lost their former authority to discriminate tribals, though they will continue to rule politics and government policies. Today, Bodos are the ruling majority of most Koch areas in Assam. This area is Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) which is an autonomous arrangement for the Bodos, a ST (plains) community. Koch Rajbanshis do not have any rights in this area because they have been refused inclusion in the ST category.  Koches around South Asia have their local problems too – in Bangladesh they are harassed as Hindus by majority Muslims. Then, in West Bengal, they are discriminated by Bengali Hindus on ethnic lines. Furthermore, in Assam, (particularly the BTAD region), they are discriminated as non-tribals.

Biswa Singha always sought to protect the commoners. When did the native insecurity crop in?

When Koch Rajbanshis became part of the peripheries of West Bengal, Assam and Bangladesh – they tried their best to adopt new identities as Bengalis or Assamese. Unfortunately, this peaceful process failed due to the resistance from puritan upper caste Assamese and Bengalis. Currently in Assam, it is not just the East Bengal origin Muslims, but the Koch Rajbanshis too, who are humiliated as “Bangladeshis”. When you are discriminated for decades for not being with the mainstream (politically, culturally, and ethnically), you internalise inferiority. Post 1950, Koch Rajbanshis became completely stateless – having no place to belong.

Do you then think the NRC will bring this indigenous community to justice?

Many Koch Rajbanshis were unable to find their names in the final draft of NRC – there were also those who were marked “D or Doubtful voters” by the state authorities. Koches are a trans-border community, like the Garos and the Khasis. They live in separate countries which were carved out of their ancestral lands. This involved a lot of invisible brutality on these communities that was created by Partition. The “two-nation” theory was to benefit Hindus and Muslims, not ethnic groups whose land they divided. Hence, these communities have a Bangladesh connection – as parts of their cultural memory and geographical reality. This bit is taken to discriminate them by teasing them as “illegal immigrants”. Such harassment is encouraged by the ruling government to get support from Koch Rajbanshi Civil Societies for the Citizenship Amendment Act which seeks to settle Hindu Bengalis in the region.

Will we get to read about Biswa Singha in English too? What’s next?

Hopefully soon, yes. I wish to write a history of Lower Assam (roughly areas of present West Assam and central Assam). Lower Assam was ruled by the Koches, sometimes independently and sometimes as a tributary. We need to tell stories of leaders like Sanatan Koch who challenged the Mughals in what is now the Barpeta district in the 17th century. Besides that, there was Koch King Krishanarayan who fought the British in 1791 in Assam. The next book will try to explore these lesser-acknowledged alternative histories.

Rini Barman is a Guwahati-based independent writer and researcher.