Recently there has been a lot of confusion regarding the usage of the term ‘Koch’ and ‘Rajbongshi’. People have raised questions on the validity of the usage of the term Koch and Rajbongshi together. Such question has mainly been raised in Assam and Meghalaya where Koch and Rajbongshi is used interchangeably and even used together as ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’.
The Koches of India are presently inhabitants of states- West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Bihar. In West Bengal and Bihar they the community is mainly referred as ‘Rajbongshi’, in Assam as ‘Rajbongshi’, ‘Koch’ and ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’ and in Meghalaya as ‘Koch’. Even though the community is referred as ‘Koch’, ‘Rajbongshi’ and ‘Koch-Rajbongshi’ in different states, but the origin of the community is one i.e, KOCH. The Koches are said to be of Mongoloid race, who were early immigrants from the Tibbetian region.
Now a question may arise, why are the Koches referred to as Rajbongshis then?
The ‘Rajbongshi’ term was first used instead of Koch mainly in the later-half of 1800’s. Such developments mainly took place in Bengal region when the Koch people came in contact with the Caste Hindu Society. The reason behind such a move was that the so called ‘Bengali Bhadraloks’(Upper Caste) considered the Koches to be of Lower Caste. The Koches belonging to a royal and princely linage could not accept themselves being placed lowest in the Hindu Caste system by the Bengali Bhadaloks. Thus, a process of Sanskritization began among the Koches to find a respectable place in the Hindu hierarchical social order. The term Rajbongshi came to be used more fluidly instead of Koch to show direct linkage with the princely class (Rajbongshi- Rajar Bongsho). Also, the original term Koch passed through more 3 distinct identities in different censuses in North Bengal- Rajbongshi to Bratya Kshatriya (1891), Bratya Kshatriya to Kshatriya Rajbongshi (1911, 1921) and Kshatriya Rajbongshi to only Kshatriya (1931).
The process of sanskritization by the Koches reached its peak under the Kshatriyazation Movement led by Panchanan Barma(1866-1935) in Bengal. The objective of the movement was to prove the Rajbanshis were Kshatriyas with a royal lineage and not Sudras as regarded by the Bengali Bhadraloks. In support of this claim the movement involved a ceremonial kshatriyaization process – brahminical rituals were performed to convert thousands of Rajbanshis to ‘Kshatriya Rajbanshi’ in the villages of North Bengal. Panchanan Barma’s movement was so influential in Bengal that the usage of the original term Koch almost vanished from the region.
However, where the process of sanskritization was not so strong among the Koches, the term Rajbongshi or Kshatriya-Rajbongshi did not replace the original term Koch. In Assam (from Barpeta onwards to Upper Assam) and Meghalaya the term Koch is still in usage. Interesting, the surname Rajbongshi is found in those areas, where this community identity themselves as Koch. Thus, the Koch and Rajbngshi are not two different communities but they are same. ‘Koch’ or ‘Rajbongshi’ or ‘Koch-Rajbongshi is used to indicate people from the same community.
Recently, in 2011 in a case between Hem Chandra Borah v. State of Assam a similar concern was raised by the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). There was confusion regarding which term to use – ‘Koch’ or ‘Rajbongshi’ or ‘Koch-Rajbongshi for the community in Assam. The Government of Assam in a letter to NCBC replied that the tem “Koch-Rajbonshi” should be used for the community, which is now a constitutionally recognised term.
(The witter is presently pursuing MA in Social Work at ‘Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action Center for Social Justice and Governance’, Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai. He can be reached at : firstname.lastname@example.org)
*(Sanskritization is a particular form of social change found in India. It denotes the process by which castes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes).