Koch Identity and Unity: Still a long way to go

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.)

The Case of Hasha: Why Koches are son of the soil

Jajang Kama Koch

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Photo: KNC

Present day Rajbanshis of Bengal and Koch-Rajbanshis of Assam are originally Koch. This claim can be affirmed through several evidences, scattered throughout the linguistic, cultural and other social practices. As such, requiring a critical evaluation and closer inspection of the documents available.

In the year 1837, Martin had published a report, in which it is written “…in the Sanskrita language of the Tantras, the Koch are called Kuvacha, and by the neighbors they are called Hasa (Martin. Eastern India. Page-538; 1837 Vol-5). This calls attention to the fact that Koch have been addressed as ‘Kuvach’ in Tantras written in Sankrita whereas the local Kacharis have addressed them as ‘Hasha/hasa’.

A similar discourse has been reiterated by another colonial ethnographer named Hodgson. Hodgson  writes, “…They are called Kuvacha in Tantra, just named Hasa by Kacharis or Bodos of Assam, Kamal by the Dhimals, and Koch by the Mech or Bodos of Mechi (Hodgson B.H., Essay First on Koch, Bodo and Dhimal. Page- 145: 1847). Hence, an analogous conclusion can be drawn, that the  Koches  are referred to as Kuvacha or Kuvach in Tantric texts, whereas the Kacharis address them as Hasa. On the other hand,  the Dhimals inhabiting the area around Mechi river call them Kamal, and the Bodos living in the same area  addresses them as Koch.

The Case of Hasha

The word Hasha (ha nifisha) in Bodo language means ‘son of soil’. This can be easily discerned from the following Bodo linguistic pattern; ‘dawnifisa’  is pronounced as  dawsha meaning baby chick, ‘daw’ meaning hen ‘fisha’ meaning child , again ‘boronifisha’  means child of Boro, which is pronounced as borosha, similarly ‘ha nifisha’ pronounced as hasha, means child/son of soil, ‘ha’ referring to land or soil.

A notable phenomenon in this respect is that the Koch, Mech and Tharu  communities have lived together concurrently for a large  period of time. In which case, the usage of the term ‘Hasa’ to refer to a Koch logically points to the fact that the Meches residing in the Mechi valley and the Bodo Kacharis of Assam are not the same. Because the Meches of Mechi river valley use the term Koch whereas the Bodo Kacharis of Assam use Hasa referring the same group of people (ethnic/linguistic group).

Such appellative variations used for Koch by Meches/Bodos of Nepal and Bodos of Assam also

 suggest that the Meches have lived/socialized with the Koches longer than the Bodo communitywho have migrated from Kachar region at a much later point in history, and have thus come to refer the natives or indigenous Koch as ‘hasha’ or son of the soil. Regarding the migration theory of the Bodo Kachari community Dr. Francis Buchanan, had mentioned that:

“… The Kacharis are from a tribe, of which few families are settled in two eastern divisions of this district, and a great many in the lower hills of Bhotan, an in Assam.Indeed, they allege that their prince was sovereign of that country, when it was invited by its present rulers, and he still retains the sovereignty of a considerable extent of hilly country south from Asam, and east from Silhet (Cachar). It is perhaps from his territory that they derive the  name usually given to them, for my informants say that the proper name of the people is Boro.

Although long separated from their prince, and scattered through dominions of more powerfulsovereign, they allege that they still retain their loyalty and every year contribute to give him to support, its family wherever settled, gives from one to five  Rupees. Which are collected by persons regularly deputed from Kachhar the number of families in this district may be about 200.”

The land in which the Bodo community of Assam had later migrated was hitherto inhabited by the native Koch community and likewise referred to as Hasa by the Bodo community. The same land or the geographical area is now claimed by them as their homeland, ‘Bodoland’. While historical evidences reveal the otherwise, that they were merely migrators, in the post-colonial period.

In a pamphlet (or book) titled ‘Why Separate State’ published by All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) referring to the history of Bodo Kachari State and its authenticity, they cited Dr. S.K. Bhuyan stating:

” According to him the kingdom Cachar or which TamrodhwajNarayan was the ruler in the reign of swargodeo Rudrasingha and Govinda Chandra at the time of British occupation is only one of the numerous states brought to existence by political generous of Kachari people. Because the name, after which the district is called at present time the superficial observer is led to suppose that the habitant of Kacharis is ‘Cachar’ and that is only in ‘Cachar’. That the Kacharis experimented in the arduous task of state building”

Oral Perspectives

 Litterateur Raghunath Choudhury confides the same thing “Bodo people call the Koch-Rajbangshis Hasa, Muslim are called Bangal, Bengali as Bengali, Kolita as Kholta, Santhal asSantthal, Bhutanese as Ganga and Nepali as Nefal. They use the word Hasa even in their wedding songs…

Dawgabochoi aaoi dawgabochoi

Jingya dawcchi aaoi jingya dawcchi.

Hasa hobawnoi horawthoi

Gangya hobawnoi horawthoi.

 Translated-

Don’t cry daughter don’t cry

Don’t worry daughter don’t worry

We have not married you to a Hasa (koch-Rajbanshi)

We have not married you to a Bhutanese.

(Ashar Bati Alochona, MareyaDipak Kumar Roy, First year, third edition, May 1999, Shakti Ashram, Kokrajhar page no. 7-8)

Belated Jamini Kumar Barua too has confided that the Rajbangsi are known as Hasa. He has stated “we are the old inhabitants of this region. Previously only Koch-Rajbangsi and Bodo communities were to be found in Kokrajhar. Only after the British invasion other communities started migrating here. When Koch-Rajbanshis and Bodos were present here, the latter referred to them as Hasa… Hasa means son of the soil, we are the indigenous of this region” (Housh Alochona, sixth year first edition, 2016 page- 15).According to British documents, the Assamese  Bodo Kacharis called the Koch as Hasa. Also, the Bodo refer to the present-day Koch Rajbanshis or Rajbanshis, as Hasa. Emphasizing on the fact  that the present day Rajbanshi is a new ethnonym used for the Koch.

There are several references scattered which indicate that the Rajbanshis are Koch. A detailed study can help explain and specify the truth better. The Koch residing along the banks of Mechi river have mostly adopted the Rajbangsi identity. For which Koch are very hard to be found in this region.

(Translated from the original by Noya Koch, The views of the article is of the Author. The writes is a Guwahti based Activist and Researcher)

BOOK REVIEW: Koch Rajbanshir Kamatapur: Xopon, Dithok ne Matho Itihas

BOOK COVERKoch Rajbanshir Kamatapur: Xopon, Dithok ne Matho Itihas  by Arup Jyoti Das, Guwahati, Assam, Blue Sparrow Books, 2015, 176 pp, ISBN: 9781630417505,  INR 395/-

Marami Bhakat: Northeast India is much known to the world for its various movements for social justice triggered by ethnic identity. These movements have often demanded recognition of historical region and homelands. Kamatapur Movement is one such movement, which seeks recognition of a historical region called Kamatapur in the form of a state (federal unit) in modern India comprising areas of North Bengal and Assam. This movement is mostly spearheaded by Koch Rajbanshi people of Assam and West Bengal.  In this book author Das has taken up this social issue of the Koch Rajbanshis, which has been mostly ignored by the current academic discourse. Das is very much aware of trans-border nature of the movement, its historical complexities and current political narratives.

The book is largely divided into three sections. Thefirst section deals particularly with Kamatapur Movement with its historical background. This section has eight chapter devoted various issues like historical background, social mobility of the Rajbanshis and many more. The 2nd section is collection of articles on recent political challenges of Kamatapur area and political crossing of various ethno politics of confronting groups.  The 3rd section of the book contains another set of articles which are related to Koch Rajbanshi, but not directly to the Kamatapur Movement.

The Introductory chapter of the book gives us an outline of the whole Kamatapur Movement and has successfully discussed the various stages and layers of the movement. The chapter has discussed the rise of the armed struggle of Kamatapur Liberation Organization and role of various civil society organizations and students bodies which are involved in this movement for self- determination of the Koch Rajbanshis. The writer argues in this chapter that the aspiration of the Koch Rajbanshi for a homeland is much old and it has its roots in the annexation of Cooch Behar State with West Bengal as a district.

The 2nd chapter is about the Koch Rajbanshi people, their origin and migration theories. Here, Das has tried to look into the complexities of Koch Rajbanshi identity, its ethnic affiliation and the issues of transformation of the tribe to caste society. Das argues that Koch Rajbanshi people has the right to claim themselves as Kamatapuri, since they have been the main component of both ruler and ruled in the area for seven hundred years. Das has interpreted colonial texts, various legends and other local sources while framing his observation on the identity formation of the Koch Rajbanshi people. In his observation, Das says that Koch Rajbanshi is a “social category” rather than a hard bound ethnic identity.

The 3rd chapter analyses the historical background of the Kamatapur region, which comprises present Northern part of West Bengal and lower Assam.  The chapter starts with the history of Kamatapur of the middle of the 13th century and ends with emergence of colonial Cooch Behar in 1771.  This chapter is mostly confined with the history of present North Bengal and has not discussed the history of the Koch Rajbanshi of present Assam. In this chapter, Das has given a vivid description of Kamatapur kingdom from the pre-Koch period, emergence of Koch dynasty in Kamatapur and transition of Kamatapur into Cooch Behar Princely state.

The fourth chapter deals with the history of the Kamatapur of western side. Kamatapur was divided between the Koch royal families in the end of the 16th century as Koch Kamata and Koch-Hajo. The Koch Hajo region became part of modern Assam after independence of India. This chapter provides a valuable account of the history of Western Assam and lower Assam which was under the Koches till independence. Though brief, the author has given strong account of small Koch kingdoms and estates like Bijni, Gauripur, Darrang and Beltola. The discussion on the Beltola kingdom might be 1st of its kind for which Das should be given credit. This chapter gives the reader a clue why Kamatapur is demanded in Assam besides West Bengal.

The next chapter deals with the complexities and politics of merger of Cooch Behar Princely State into the Indian domain and then its annexation with West Bengal as a mere modern Indian district. The lost of the identity of the Kamatapur (Cooch Behar) region in Independent India has been argued as one of the root causes of demand for Kamatapur in present time. The author has mainly interpreted correspondence between Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and B.C. Roy to look into the politics of annexation of Cooch Behar with West Bengal. This chapter could have been deeper in investigating the issue.

The 6th chapter discusses the upward mobility movement of the Rajbanshis in the early 20th century which laid the foundation for a social justice movement in the later period. The chapter discusses how local Rajbanshis were alienated by migrant upper caste gentry who came from East Bengal and how power structure and land holding changes due to the same. This is an important chapter in terms of understanding the social causes which has resulted the present movement.

In the subsequent chapter, Das has discussed the language of the Koch Rajbanshis which is known as Kamatapuri, Rajbanshi or Goalparia. Das has avoided linguistic complexities while discussing language of the Koch Rajbanshis and mainly focused on the politics of recognition of the language. The next, chapter which is the last chapter of the 1st section, is the concluding chapter.

This book is a must read for those who wants to understand Koch Rajbanshi peoples’ aspiration for social justice. Das being a member of the Koch Rajbanshi community has found it difficult sometimes to disassociate himself from the sentiment of the Kamatapur Movement (as well as with the Koch Rajbanshi), particularly in the last section of the book, where he has written on various topics related to Koch Rajbanshis. Except this exception, Das has successfully played the role of both insider and outsider as a writer.

(Marami Bhakat is a Ph D Scholar at Dept. Political Science , Gauhati University)

Indigenous allies of the British Raj: The Rajbanshis of North-Bengal

Anuj Choudhury

The history of India has so far remained the exclusive domain of the elites, composed mainly of the Upper Caste. Had the Subalterns penned down their own experience, today the face of India’s history would have be a different one, as the poem expressed above.

What makes poet like Nabadwip Chandra Roy Barma praise the British? If a half-thinking Indian reads this poem, he might get furious on the Rajbanshis. However poem like this is an act of opposition on the ‘great civilization’ that India, over the years has falsely boosted itself to be. In fact, many depressed classes like the Rajbanshis in North-Bengal saw the British Raj as liberators, mainly from the treachery and hegemony of the Upper Caste Hindus.Full Story

Gauhati High Court admits Writ Petition in Koch-Rajbongshi S.T issue

Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, the Gauhati High Court admits the Writ Petition being W.P (C) No. 5978 / 2013, in regard to the scheduling of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the Scheduled Tribe’s list of Assam, filed by Centre for Koch Rajbanshi Studies and Development (CKRSD), a non-profit organization from Guwahati, represented by its Chairperson, Sri. Vikram Rajkhowa and Managing Trustee, Sri. Arup Jyoti Das. Hon’ble Justice Ujjal Bhuyan issued Rule to both the State and the Central Govt. giving three months notice.

The Koch-Rajbongshi community of Assam is an indigenous aboriginal tribe of North-East India, which has been demanding for inclusion of their community in the S.T lists of Assam since 1968. On 09/08/1994 the Tribal Research Institute, Govt. of Assam submitted a report stating that there are adequate justifications for the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam. Based on the said report the Registrar General of India had also given ‘No Objection’ to the inclusion of the community in the S.T list of Assam. Thereafter the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 1996 to provide for inclusion of Koch-Rajbongshi in the S.T list of Assam was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 14/02/1996 and again on 12/07/1996. The House referred the said Bill to a Select Committee of Lok Sabha, which also recommended the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam. In the meantime as Parliament was not in session the President promulgated the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Ordinance, 9 of 1996 on 27/01/1996 to give effect to the Scheduling of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam. The said Ordinance was re-promulgated three times, i.e., Ordinance No. 19 of 1996, No. 30 of 1996 and No. 3 of 1997, but as the Bill was not enacted on time the said Ordinance lapsed and since then the issue of the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the S.T lists of Assam is hanging. Being aggrieved the Centre for Koch Rajbanshi Studies and Development (CKRSD) has filed the present petition before the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court seeking adequate relief.

The Chief Secretary – Govt. of Assam, the WPTBC Deptt. – Govt of Assam, the Tribal Research Institute – Govt. of Assam, the Secretary – Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Secretary – Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India has been made respondents. Senior Advocate, Sri. P.K Goswami and Advocate, Sri. Santanu Borthakur, is appearing for the petitioners before the Hon’ble Gauhati High Court.