Arup Jyoti Das
When it comes to understanding Koch identity, we often tend to understand it either from a colonial perspective or from a nationalist perspective i.e. Assamese or Bengali. Colonial historical literature, as well as anthropological literature tells us to see communities or groups of people like Koch as a part of some racial box, putting them in language groups, as well as racial groups. Communities like Koch, if we follow colonial narratives, have to be part of the Bodo race, a term used by colonial administrative scholars and self-styled anthropologists. This generic term (Bodo) was used to include many other tribes like Mech, Kachari, Garo, Rabha, Tiwa etc into it. In the post-colonial scenario, banking on the colonial literature, the Mech community of Assam abandoned the Mech identity for Bodo. This new identify benefited the Mech (now Bodo) in many ways. Whatever belongs to Kacharis or Koches has been claimed by the Bodo tribe as their own. This became fatal for the Koches, as Koch history and Koch historical areas have been claimed by the Bodos. Taking advantage of the inclusive Bodo term, the Bodo tribe successfully established an autonomy arrangement called BTAD exclusively for them in an area which was part of the historical Koch Kingdom.
The Bodo case is only one example. There have been some serious political and social invasions on the Koches which have put the Koch identity into crisis. The Rabha tribe of Assam has been accused of using Koch culture and traditions heavily. The Rabha community has one section called Koch Rabha, who are actually Koch, but entered the Rabha fold in Assam, most probably to avail the benefits of Scheduled Tribe (ST) as Rabhas are ST in Assam. Its an irony that when the Koch identity in Assam (as well as other parts Northeast India) is in crisis, one section of the community is trying hard to reclaim or save what the Bodos have intellectually taken from them, while another section has given up the identity just to avail some constitutional benefits. Moreover, the Meghalaya Govt. has recently taken an initiative to take away the political rights of many minority tribes which include the Koches of Meghalaya.
It is worth mentioning here that the vast literature that was produced under the patronage of Koch King Narnarayan is now a part of Assamese literature history. Literature produced under Koch King Prananarayan was almost equally claimed by both Bengalis and Assamese. In Garo Hills, local sources report that there are many archeological evidences which prove that Koches are the sons of the soil of Garo Hills i.e., Meghalaya, but there is no initiative to unveil those truths. In West Bengal and Bangladesh, there is an everyday attempt to erase the Koch history and heritage. Such is the situation of the Koches around South Asia. The question is, who to blame for such a situation? The Koches have the tendency to blame others and their own destiny for everything. However, it is not always true. Rather than others, it is the Koch people who have done the most damage to themselves. If we look into the history a bit critically, we will find that its not foreign invasion but internal conflict of the Koch Royals which weakened the Koch State for centuries till it disappeared. Even now, Koch Civil Society organizations and student bodies are divided and hardly come together to work for the Koch Society. Moreover, they maintain close relationship with political parties of contradictory views. The conflicts among various organizations as well as individuals are not only political but also social and cultural. Social and cultural differences among the larger Koch society is more damaging in the present time, since it is also contributing to identity conflict.
The main challenge of the Koch society at present is to solve the identity conflict which prevails within itself. A large section of the community is abandoning the Koch identity by following Hindu ways of life and believing that they are the Kshtraya Varna of the Hindus is the core this indentity crisis. This section of the Koch society likes to call themselves as Rajbanshi and they have dislike for the Koch term. Though in the recent time, particularly in Assam, the gap between Koch and Rajbanshi has been bridged to a great extend, it has a long way to go in West Bengal.
The Koch community has come a long way; hence, it cannot be compared with the other present STs of India. They formed one of the powerful Janapadas (republics) of the 16 Janapadas of ancient India called Komboja or Kocha Janapada. This community has gone through many social, religious and political changes. Sankala Deep Koch of 6-7th century was a renowned warrior of his time. The community has still preserved its ancient language, astrology, weaving, art, music and much more. A group of new generation Koches have started their quest for the truth of the Koch people. The truth will indeed enlighten the community.
(In this article, the term Koch includes all the Koches who consider or like to call themselves as Rajbanshi.)