Political participation, as we understand is that all those activities relating to state governance which people carry out, voices they raise, opinions they express and take part in decision making which affect their lives. When, it comes to Rajbanshi group of people (all communities having different surnames but speaking same language - Kamtapuri / Rajbanshi and having same social habits) of North Bengal and adjacent areas of Lower Assam, Northern districts Bihar and neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh, undoubtedly their political participation does exist, but that can be said to be in subdued form.
Their total population across these contiguously located countries and states is almost two crores (20 million) and, in North Bengal of West Bengal state alone (where they are categorized as scheduled caste (SC) are no less than seventy lakhs (7 million). To save these people from further becoming politically alienated from the mainstream political system, immediate political measures are needed to bring them in the level playing field of political system of the State(s).
Let us now, discuss about the subject mainly concerning North Bengal region in the State of West Bengal; however, the discussion does have bearing on Indian States of Assam, Bihar and neighboring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh where Rajbanshi group of people are the sons of soil and ordinarily reside from time immemorial.
Hindrances for Political Participation by Rajbanshi Group of People:
i) Over the years, this community people have got divided into inhabitants of different districts, states and countries and are in disarray due to geo-political reasons. They were the majority population in northern parts of undivided Bengal and undivided Goalpara district (Lower Assam) in Assam till 1947 when India gained independence. At present, Rajbanshi people form the majority rural population in North Bengal. Similarly, in Lower Assam, they (Koch-Rajbongshi as they are now known) form rural majority in few districts. In both these regions, main reason behind their decreasing ratio of population is continuous migration of people from erstwhile East Bengal or East Pakistan which later became Bangladesh in 1971. As such, North Bengal and lower Assam too, became a favourable destination for the refugees to migrate. Rajbanshi people, the indigenous docile and simple people who have been the landowners, welcomed the refugees with open mind. They were unmindful of their future displacement. While compulsion for survival and progress compelled the refugees to struggle for having their political voice and take part in active politics, Rajbanshi people remained aloof from politics and lagged behind in all aspects – social, cultural, linguistic, economic and political.
ii) Due to availability of business opportunities, favourable geo-political situation and easy availability of land of Rajbanshi people, this part of the region kept attracting people from Bihar, Northeastern States including Sikkim to migrate and settle in North Bengal. In urban areas, the Rajbanshi people who were once the owners of the lands, most of them got displaced over the years especially from towns and business places. This trend will be disastrous for the community to survive as well as harmful for unity in West Bengal.
iii) Lack of cohesiveness amongst the different Rajbanshi Group of people such as Rajbanshi Kshatriya, Paliya in North Bengal (SC); Rajbanshi, Sujapuri in Bihar; Koch Rajbongshi in Assam (demanding ST status); Rangpuri, Rajbanshi in northern Bangladesh and, as Rajbanshi in Nepal is the hindrance for them to have political participation.
iv) To add to their woes, their mother tongue which was once the lingua franca or the common language for correspondence and communication among number of oriental kingdoms of the northeastern part of Indian subcontinent, has not found its place in the eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution. However, in West Bengal, it has been granted State recognition recently (in the year 2018) by passing a Bill in the State Assembly but in two different names – Rajbanshi and Kamtapuri. In Nepal, it is given due recognition as Rajbanshi language.
v) Identity crisis due to paradoxical social status (SC, ST, OBC) which is seen as low status by the Brahmanical society, protesting politics, urban centric politics, are mainly responsible for the Rajbanshi people to face discrimination from the mainstream communities. Although, they form the majority rural population, Rajbanshi people have been made victims of 'Vote Bank' politics and as such they are unable to decide their political fate at their own.
vi) These people are mostly caste Hindu and followers of ‘Sanatan Dharma’. Converted Rajbanshi to Muslim religion are known as ‘Deshi or Rajbanshi Musalman’ or ‘Nashya Sheikh’. In same language group, there are other indigenous people - Nath, Jogi, Mali, Teli, converted Christians and Buddhists. But, unity amongst themselves is almost absent as far as politics is concerned. Cultural bonding which has long-lasting effect for progress of society is lacking in them. State patronage of their culture remains inadequate.
vii) Characteristically, Rajbanshi people are religious minded which is good for them but some of their society, especially the rural folks often mix up spirituality, religion and superstition as one and same thing. Modern scientific thoughts and realistic views still keep them at bay. As such, they are being fooled by others including some of their own leaders for both personal and political gains. Some Rajbanshi people do believe that ‘Kaliyug’ is going to end soon and ‘Satyayug’ is in offing and, then their king will again take over the state to rule them. Such unrealistic and superstitious believe in modern times is actually harming them and pulling them backwards while other advanced communities of the society are progressing ahead.
How to promote political participation of Rajbanshis
Urgency of political participation by the Rajbanshi group of people in an effective, cohesive manner is a social requirement for their existence and progress in the society. In this matter, state power has a role to encourage them to develop political participation by this group of people. Being peace loving, docile and simple in nature, do not ensure their social upliftment in a democracy. Showing reluctance in politics is actually pushing them backwards.
Following measures are suggested for improve and promote political participation of Rajbanshi people:
i) Rajbanshi group of people need to shed their shyness from political system of the country. They may take pride in their historical past (which of course, many are unaware as their history is not generally found in academic curriculum of schools and colleges) but they should not live on the past, instead they should realise the urgency of democratic ethos of the present.
ii) Although, numerous developmental schemes for the Rajbanshi people in North Bengal formulated by the State government have actually helped these people to overcome the identity crisis. Today, they do give out their identity as Rajbanshi without hesitation but more measures are needed to promote political participation in them. Therefore, it is imperative for those, political leaders and the people at the helms of political power at both State and the Centre to encourage and involve Rajbanshi people in political activities. So that they too have a political voice and role in the political system.
iii) The literates, academicians, professionals and intellectual group of the Rajbanshi should discuss socio-economic, cultural and political matters among themselves and with the rural populace and encourage them to express their views, political opinion and take part in decision making relating to state governance and their lives.
iv) Opportunities need to be given to them to have free participation in the political system without fear and favoritism. These people should be involved in state political activities. These people need to be given a say in the State governance after having elected through adult franchise. Eligible Rajbanshi leaders need to be given party posts at all levels.
v) Suitable Rajbanshi candidates need to be given party tickets to contest elections in all those segments where majority population is Rajbanshi. Delimitation of areas need to be carried out afresh wherever Rajbanshi population forms majority.
Rajbanshi people form the majority rural population in North Bengal. Also, they form the single largest population in numerous parliamentary / assembly constituencies/ Panchayats in North Bengal and neighbouring States, too. As such, they need to have wholehearted political participation and, then only they will be able raise political voice and a say in state governance. We may say, if all these measures are taken in right earnest, then only, famous American President Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth’ will come true. To add, I may say that if the essence of democracy is ‘power to the people’, political participation by the citizens is a necessity for progress of any group of people. This is the urgency and need of the hour for the sanctity, progress and glory of democratic form of governments.