Kamtapuri agitation

Lack of development gives rise to separatist sentiments

--Jaydeep Mitra

North Bengal is once again in the grip of restlessness. But this time it is not the echo of the separate statehood demand of Gorkhaland that reverberated in the hills, rather the Rajvanshi community, with their demand for a separate state of Kamtapur, has sent the river Teesta’s waters surging. Kamtapur being their cherished state of the future, they like to call themselves Kamtapuris. They have formed their own organisation, the Kamtapuri People’s Party (KPP) which is spearheading the agitation. With large sections of Rajvanshi people rallying behind the KPP, the CPI(M)’s dominance in this part of the state is faced with a serious challenge, and this polarisation may put the CPI(M) as well as the Left Front (LF) into discomfiture in the coming assembly elections.

The KPP has put forward a charter of demands containing eleven demands. Among its demands are: carving out a separate state of Kamtapur comprising several North Bengal districts, recognition of their vernacular, Kamtapuri, establishing a separate university, development of education etc. Sections of the Rajvanshi people claim that they are a community distinct from the Bengalis, and their language cannot be called Bengali. According to them, it is a different language, the Kamtapuri, having particular traits of its own. They contend that they carry a distinguished tradition -- a history, social existence and culture distinct from the Bengalis, and hence demand formation of a separate state on the basis of recognition of these distinctive features. Some sections of the Rajvanshis are inclined to the idea that the Bengali language has been imposed upon them, and their culture and their very existence are threatened by Bengali chauvinistic aggression. They tend to think that the only redressal to their grievances lies in the formation of their own state. This vociferous demand of recognition of their language has however triggered a controversy as to the exact status of the language of the Rajvanshis: whether it is a fully developed language or a local Bengali dialect of the ethnic people.

The KPP has organised several large mobilisations and CPI(M)’s alienation from the Rajvanshi community is quite evident. The atmosphere is charged with tension, and the state administration has resorted to large-scale terror to deal with the Kamtapuri agitation. A special task force has been formed, and the police, in the name of nabbing criminals, is swooping down on villages and apprehending KPP activists. According to KPP President Atul Roy, 600 KPP people have been put behind bars and only a handful of KPP leaders are left free. The KPP has threatened economic blockade and has declared that they would prevent transportation of tea, oranges, timber, jute-goods, etc., the traditional produce of North Bengal Districts, from North Bengal to South Bengal. Soon after becoming Chief Minster, the first visit that Buddhadev Bhattacharya undertook was to North Bengal. Though he conceded that dispossession of land and large-scale unemployment lie at the root of the grievances of the Rajvanshi people, still the local CPI(M) bosses and even some state-level leaders tend to theorise that the desperate effort of the ‘dispossessed landlords’ to re-assert themselves lies behind the Kamtapuri agitation. They even allege that the Kamtapuris have built their own armed formation, the Kamtapuri Liberation Organisation (KLO), and discover KLO’s linkages with ULFA and even ISI hand behind it. Not only that, they even talk of the US conspiracy of ‘Operation Brahmaputra’, the objective of which is to disintegrate the entire North-East. With the JMM leader Sibu Soren visiting North Bengal and supporting the demand for a separate state of Kamtapur, there is a new twist to the agitation.

The CPI(ML) Liberation State Committee in West Bengal did not remain a silent spectator and has intervened in the situation. It has noted that behind all this discontent and separatist statements of the Kamtapuri people lies the continued neglect and deprivation of North Bengal. It has observed that agriculture in North Bengal is in very bad shape. Lack of irrigation facilities has reduced agriculture to a single crop a year. The LF government always talks of the Teesta Barrage Project that will usher in golden days and enormous prosperity for the people of North Bengal. But the project has been going on for twenty-five long years and nobody knows when it will be completed and deliver the goods to the local people. Land reforms carried out here are marked more by their failures than achievements, and its impact is conspicuous by its absence. Another feature that seems to plague the North Bengal scenario is the mushrooming of unauthorised tea-gardens. These tea-gardens come into being mostly through the acquisition of land from the Rajvanshi people, rendering many of them into dispossessed peasants. A large chunk of land has thus changed hands from the peasants to the tea-garden owners, and according to one estimate, about 40,000 hectares of land has been garnered by these tea-gardens.

The CPI(ML) has also placed a 12-point demand charter before the Left Front Government for the development of North Bengal. Commenting on their lineage, the CPI(ML) has observed that the Rajvanshis have descended from the Aryans and large sections of the community consider themselves to be belonging to the Bengali nationality. Some noted Rajvanshi historians also uphold this position, and they have never questioned their Bengali identity. On the contentious issue of language, it has held that many colloquial languages have contributed to the development of the Bengali language, and the Rajvanshi language has also helped in its development. While Bengali developed into a full-fledged language, the Rajvanshi language has remained a dialect of the local ethnic people. For a healthy resolution of the debate, it has called upon the State Govt. to appoint a commission comprising noted historians, literary persons and linguists. Calling the Kamtapuri agitation a separatist movement, it opposed the demand of a separate state in no uncertain terms. Besides, it is not only the Rajvanshi people who are the victims of deprivation, the condition of people belonging to other communities are no better. In the charter of demands placed by the KPP, the basic issues of the people were conspicuously missing. The KPP leadership’s linkages with the Trinamul Congress (TMC) raises doubts about its real objective. KPP president Atul Roy has gone on record saying that, “Mamata Banerjee’s aim is to banish the CPI(M), we also hold the same view. As such we need to have an alliance with Mamata”. The political circles in the state are abuzz with the possibility of a TMC-KPP alliance in the coming assembly elections. The CPI(ML) has categorically stated that when the KPP’s agitation crosses the democratic borderline and treads the terrorist path, when it makes the left activists its target and opposition to the Left becomes its overall orientation, its political character would also turn reactionary.

The CPI(ML) organised a large mobilisation on 15th November, 2000 at Siliguri, the nerve-centre of North Bengal. The mobilisation called for development of North Bengal and underlined the LF’s indifference and utter failure on this count. Addressing the rally, Com. Kartick Pal, State Secretary, said: “We do not support the demand of a separate state of Kamtapur. The Rajvanshi Community does not also constitute the majority in North Bengal, and most of the people here are also not in favour of a separate state. But the question remains: how could such separatist aspirations raise their head even after so many years of the LF rule? The LF has utterly failed in developing North Bengal and the problems of the people remain unsolved.” Other speakers stressed the need to forge broader unity against the saffron fascist coalition, and against the anti-people activities of the LF.


For ending labour migration under inhuman conditions

In Chattisgarh State, out of the 16 districts, 11 districts are under the impact of drought. The Government, under the chief-ministership of Ajit Jogi has been avoiding any relief work under the pretext of lack of aid from the Centre. The result is that entire villages are fleeing from the district in search of work. The contractors who take the labourers from the villages in the name of providing jobs force them to board trucks laden with cement bags and other construction material, and most of these trucks are plying in the night time. On 20 December, some 73 men, women and children from Balauda Bazaar area were being taken on a truck laden with cement for work. Near Moora village the truck overturned. The villagers were crushed under the weight of the cement bags, immediately killing 9, whereas some 40 were grieviously injured. People from the adjoining village as well as truck drivers passing that way helped to pull out the victims whereas the police arrived pretty late to assist the rescue operation. There being a relatively strong organisational base of the CPI(ML) in the area, activists and workers of the Party involved themselves in the rescue operation throughout the night. Next morning, when the police, without making any declaration about compensation to the victims’ families, began to remove the dead bodies, Com Narottam Sharma, Raipur District Secretary of the CPI(ML) and Com. Bhagmal Dhruv, AICCTU leader and leader of the stone quarry workers’ union of Moora, along with around 1000 people, stopped the police and demanded that some peoples’ representative or minister should come to the spot and declare compensation to the families of those wounded and killed. The road blockade continued for about 8 hours. At 4 p.m. the police lathicharged the masses and arrested both the leaders.

Later, the SDM declared a compensation of 25 thousand each to the next of kin of the deceased. On 22 December, hundreds of people demonstrated at the DC’s office and sat on dharna, demanding release of their leaders. The dharna was led by CCM Com. Rajaram and State Secretary of Chattisgarh unit of CPI(ML) Com. Shambhu Singh. On 19 December, a dharna organised by CPI, CPM, Loktantrik Congress and CPI(ML) demanded that drought relief be provided by the govt., ‘food for work’ scheme be implemented, and migration of workers be stopped immediately. After a day-long dharna, the CPI(ML) leaders were released on personal bonds. A delegation under the leadership of Com Rajaram met the Home Secretary and submitted a memorandum with the above demands.