Two BJP MPs from West Bengal recently called for separate states to be carved out in Jangalmahal and North Bengal respectively. While these are individual statements, which the BJP leadership has distanced itself, West Bengal has also seen three full-fledged movements for separate states since Independence — all from parts of North Bengal.
A look at the two BJP leaders’ remarks and the three statehood movements:
What the BJP MPs from Bengal said
On June 13, BJP MP from Alipurduar John Barla demanded a separate state or a Union Territory in North Bengal, saying the region has lacked development over the years. On June 21, BJP MP from Bishnupur Saumitra Khan demanded that Jangalmahal region (formerly a Maoist belt, not in North Bengal) be made a separate state, contending there have never been serious development there.
The following day, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh clarified: “Some of our leaders have made some statements in their personal capacity. It has nothing to do with our party line or opinion which is against any form of division of West Bengal.”
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The demand for a separate state for Gorkhas in the Darjeeling hills and parts of the Dooars and Siliguri terai regions began as a violent movement in the 1980s, initially spearheaded by Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) founder Subash Ghising. The demand stemmed from allegations that these regions were deprived of basic amenities such as electricity, healthcare, schools, and jobs.
The agitation peaked in 1985-86, with over 1,200 deaths. It ended with the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988, which administered the Darjeeling hills for 23 years with some autonomy.
In 2007, the statehood demand resurfaced after Ghising’s former aide, Bimal Gurung, broke away from the GNLF and formed the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. The GJM took over the Gorkhaland movement, spearheading agitations in 2011, 2013 and 2017.
In 2011, the Gorkha Territorial Administration was formed for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas, replacing the DGHC. But Gurung resigned from the GTA in 2011 itself, citing interference from the state government, and renewed the Gorkhaland agitation.
In 2017, following a 104-day shutdown in the Darjeeling hills and a violent agitation, Gurung went into hiding. He resurfaced last year and extended his support to the ruling Trinamool Congress. Since then, the Gorkhaland demand has fizzled out.
The BJP has been winning the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat with the support of GJM since 2009, but its leaders have steered clear of discussing the Gorkhaland demand.
This movement came from within the Koch Rajbongshi community, a Scheduled Caste in West Bengal. The proposed state covers seven of North Bengal’s eight districts including Cooch Behar, where the movement is centred, as well as Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Dhubri and Goalpara districts in Assam; Kishanganj in Bihar; and Jhapa in Nepal.
The demand was first raised in 1995 following the formation of the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), an armed militant organisation. Its stated aim was to address problems faced by the Koch Rajbongshi people such as unemployment, land alienation, neglect of Kamtapuri language and identity, and economic deprivation.
The movement fizzled out in the early 2000s due to a leadership crisis and the arrest of several operatives of the KLO and the All Kamtapur Students Union (AKSU).
Greater Cooch Behar agitation
The movement was started in 1998 by Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA) general secretary Bangshi Badan Barman. The proposed state comprised seven districts of North Bengal along with Assam’s Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Dhubri.
In 1949, Cooch Behar was merged with India as a C-category state through three treaties. On January 1, 1950, the Centre bifurcated the erstwhile kingdom, with parts going to West Bengal and parts to Assam.
This statehood movement never gained momentum, and there has been no major agitation since 2008 when the Greater Cooch Behar Democratic Party held a fast-unto-death demanding the release of Barman and 55 others who had been arrested in 2005.