Negotiating with the Changing Landscape: The Case of the Rajbanshi Community

Once spread over a vast contiguous landmass that covered India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, the Rajbanshi community has undergone several changes in the colonial and postcolonial period due to the drawing and redrawing of the political borders. Particularly, the emergence of modern nation states in the Indian subcontinent has impeded the consolidation of the Rajbanshi community.   

The Rajbanshi identity has been characterised by diversities based on the location. These diversities are stark, and have been apparent in the socio-economic sphere and in the cultural practices. They are largely attributed to the unprecedented changes that took place in the landscape of the Rajbanshis during the precolonial and the colonial period. The territorialisation of the landscape in line with the requirements of the modern nation state in the colonial period followed by the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 scattered and reduced the “traditional home” of the community into the peripheries of three independent countries of South Asia, namely India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. This has a significant effect on the course of the Rajbanshi identity in the postcolonial period. Contextualising the above issues, the article looks at the various intricacies and the negotiation of the Rajbanshi identity in conforming to the changing landscape, characterised by multiplicity and heterogeneity in terms of geography, demography, religion, culture, race, ethnicity, and so on.

The Changing Landscape

The ambit of the present discussion covers a large landscape that has been broken into parts, and its uniqueness invisibilised due to the changes in post-colonial South Asia. Even the cartographic images of the landscape inhabited by the Rajbanshis in the pre-colonial period do not provide a complete picture. Nevertheless, the traditional homeland of the community largely covers the parts of present-day Assam, northern part of West Bengal (North Bengal), Purnia district of Bihar, Garo Hills of Meghalaya in the Indian territory; Rangpur district in Bangladesh; the eastern Terai region of Nepal, and the foothills of Bhutan. Prior to the emergence of modern nation states, the landscape was a contiguous one, and endowed with plain alluvial soil, vast forest cover, and numerous rivers, which facilitated agricultural production and human habitation for centuries. The landscape is surrounded by the Himalayan mountain of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh in the north, River Karatoya and the hills of Nagaland and Manipur in the east, Mizoram and Tripura in the south (Ahmed 1990: 169).  

Rajbanshis in Precolonial Period

Over the years, borders were drawn and redrawn several times to tinker with the continuity of the landscape. First, the Rajbanshi landscape was ruled by several dynasties at different times in the history with periodical breaks that had fostered chieftains and landlords to fill up the power vacuum in the precolonial period. The territories of one dynasty, by and large, overlapped with their predecessors, and the boundaries were ostensibly remained fluid. The territory held by both the Kamrup–Kamata Kingdom, which reigned over the Rajbanshis between fourth and 15th century AD, the Kamatapur Kingdom of the 16th century AD largely conformed to the similar geographical areas with occasional deviations. In fact, Kamrup, Kamata and Kamatapur were used synonymously to refer to the eastern part of the Mughal India, which lies east of the Karotaya River in Bangladesh. The Muhammadan historians too considered, “the Kamrupa and Kamata synonymous” (Gait 2008: 4344).

The emergence of the Koch Kingdom over the ruins of Kamata in the 16th century has been considered as a remarkable phase in the consolidation of the Rajbanshi identity. It is interesting to note that Bisu, the founder of the dynasty and son of Haria Mandal, a chieftain of the TibetoBurman origin, discarded the tribal affinity of his father, but retained Koch identity of his mother (Bisu’s mother, Hira belonged to the Koch origin) adopted Hinduism and assumed the name Biswa Singha after his coronation (Barpujari 2007: 6971; Gait 2008: 4950). In fact, the nomenclature Rajbanshi, which means descendant of the royal lineage, is a Hinduised or Sanskritised articulation of the upward mobility, which the king adopted to gain legitimacy from the upper caste in consonance with the Hindu religion. Thus, the rulers of the Koch Kingdom endowed with the Kshatriya status outgrew the notion of a tribal kingdom (Guha 1983: 5), which marked an unprecedented development in the frontier landscape. The consolidation of the Rajbanshi identity can be largely attributed to this transition, which patronised many tribal communities and the lower castes to emulate the Rajbanshi community.

Second, the landscape inhabited by the Rajbanshi community under the Koch Kingdom transformed into a heterogenous space owing to the migration of various ethnic communities from Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal initially. It witnessed migration from central India and Bengal later on. The scope for free mobility among Rajbanshis, which even David Ludden (2003) observes as the fundamental feature of the Indian society until 19th century, also contributed to the heterogeneity of the landscape inhabited by the Rajbanshis. Consequently, the landscape of the Rajbanshis also offered an opportunity for cultural and political interaction among various communities (Misra 2011: 48). The intermixing of various communities cannot be ruled out, which has been quite apparent in the physiognomy of the people in the region (Chatterji 2011).    

The Influence of Islam

Third, the proselytisation of the indigenous communities, including the Rajbanshis, to Islam, which began after the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khalji during the early 13th century, was another seminal moment in the history of the community. The expedition of Bakhtiyar Khalji in 120506 to Tibet, followed by the Mughals with the occasional lulls, up to the end of the 17th century, to a large extent, changed the territory and the demography of Rajbanshis. It is believed that the expedition of Bakhtiyar Khalji in this unusual terrain—covered with thick forests and raging rivers, and peopled by Koch, Mech and Tharu or Tiharu tribes—was guided by “Ali Mech,” who had been converted to Islam (Barpujari 2007: 35-36). From this account, it can be assumed that Ali Mech could be a chief of a village or Mech tribe, but to trace the differences among the Koch, Mech, and Tharu tribes at that time was almost an impossibility. Although there is no evidence to understand whether the conversion was voluntary or due to coercion, but nevertheless, Ali Mech has been considered as the first to convert to Islam from the indigenous groups in this frontier land. The penetration of Islam provided an alternative to the caste-ridden Hindu society that subsequently influenced the Rajbanshis and other lower castes to accept Islam. Even Richard Eaton (Eaton 2014: 118) observes that “Muslim converts in Bengal, were mainly from the Rajbanshi, Pod, Chandal, Kuch and other indigenous groups that had been lightly exposed to Brahmanic culture.” 

The Transformation under the British

Fourth, the annexation of the region by the British East India Company in 1773, along with the introduction of the bureaucratic administration, conforming to the notion of territorialisation of the modern nation state too, changed the sociopolitical and economic aspects of the people in the region. The beginning of the British rule under the East India Company marked a significant departure in the politics and administration, which were hitherto unknown during the precolonial period. For the first time, the region was annexed and administered under the Province of Bengal, which had been taken over by the British in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey. A treaty signed by the East India Company and the Koch Kingdom acknowledged the “subjection of the Raja to the English East India Company,” and the “annexation of Cooch Behar to the Province of Bengal.” Further, the treaty also allowed the East India Company to accumulate “one-half of the annual revenues of the Cooch Behar forever” (Aitchison- II in Roy Saynal 2004), which had several ramifications on the socio-economic conditions in the region.

The Emergence of Modern Nation States

Fifth, the decolonisation of the Indian subcontinent and the transfer of power in 1947 between the two partitioned countries—India and Pakistan—followed by a large-scale movement of people across the borders had a major impact on the political history of this fragile landscape. The partition of the subcontinent and the creation of the political boundaries afresh not only restricted the free mobility that had existed among the community before 1947, but it also encouraged the growth of different sociocultural values to suit the majority imagination within the scattered pockets among the Rajbanshis. Additionally, along with the international boundaries, the Rajbanshi identity has also been marked by the complexities and the contestations necessitated by the state boundaries within a country. Thus, a Koch-Rajbanshi or Koch, as has been known in Assam, is significantly different from the Rajbanshis of North Bengal as well as from the Koches of the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and vice versa. The perceived threat for the security and the sovereignty of the country culminated in the establishment of a “hard” border in the divided Bengal to restrict the free mobility of the people across the region. The division of Bengal into eastern and western parts, and the inclusion of Rangpur, an emerging Rajbanshi elite-dominated region, into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) has changed the sociopolitical equation and the cultural relations to prevent the formation of a consolidated Rajbanshi identity in the post-colonial period.

Negotiating with the Complexities in the Post-colonial South Asia

Conforming to the complexities thrown up by the redrawing of the landscape, the Rajbanshi community has begun to be identified in conjunction with the mainstream regional identity. The Rajbanshis of Assam are considered as Asamiya; Bengali in North Bengal and Bangladesh; Bihari in Bihar, and Nepali in Nepal as well. However, in the recent past, there have been efforts to create a subnational identity against the onslaught of mainstream nationality. On the other hand, there has been an emergence of Koch affinity among the members of the community in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and in parts of upper Assam region. Even this affinity has not been a homogenous one as substantial differences are noticed between the two groups in terms of language, religion, culture, caste, among others.   

The negotiation of the Rajbanshi identity with the mainstream regional identity is not bereft of complexities and contestations. In the case of Assam, it is widely accepted that the Rajbanshis or the Koches have largely integrated with “the mainstream Asamiya nationality who have left their tribal language,” (Hussain 1992: 1048–49) and emerged as “Hindu Assamese Caste” (Baruah 2010: 172–83). However, the integration of the Rajbanshi community with the mainstream Asamiya nationality has not been coherent and uniform, especially in western Assam, particularly in the erstwhile district of Goalpara. Referred to as “Koch-Rajbanshis” in the western part of Assam, they have been considered substantially different from those living in the eastern part of the state, or those inhabiting Ujoni Asom. However, they are culturally more similar to those in North Bengal and vice versa. The Koch-Rajbanshis of western Assam and the Rajbanshis of North Bengal (despite the fact that they have been divided into India and Bangladesh) have been considered to be fully integrated with the mainstream nationality.  

The complexities do not end there. While the Rajbanshis in Assam have been vocal about their demand for a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and consider themselves as an indigenous and ethnic community, however, those in North Bengal have been demanding to be identified as a caste in the Hindu fold. These diametrically opposite and contested demands have become a political issue in both the states (Nandy and Raman 1997: 446). Considering the complexities of the Rajbanshi community in the social hierarchy, Virginius Xaxa’s analysis is significant: “The community is addressed and identified more by their ethnic names than the caste name, and it is not even sure that they have a caste identity” (1999: 1521). However, if we consider the regional diversity, perhaps, it becomes easier to locate the ethnic vis-à-vis the caste, ambiguity of the community, as has been the case of the Koches of the Garo Hills. The tribal affinity of the Koches of the Garo Hills largely remains intact till today in terms of their distinct language, considered to be Tibeto-Burman in origin, religion, culture, traditional practices, and so on. Even those who demand ST status in Assam consider the Koches of the Garo Hills as a reference point to support their claim.

Consolidation of Diversities, Not Identity

Moving away from the ethnic–caste contestation for a moment, if we club the Rajbanshi or Koch community of the entire landscape, transcending the political borders, perhaps, the importance of the strategic location and the larger society becomes apparent. The geographical aloofness of the Garo Hills from the plain is one of the major factors in the protection and preservation of the distinct identity of the Koches in the region, unlike other areas. However, it is important to emphasise that a large number of the Koches of the Garo Hills emulated the Rajbanshi identity and the Kshatriya status during the early part of the 20th century under the influence of the Kshatriya movement of the then Bengal, particularly in Rangpur. However, the fragmentation of the landscape and the inclusion of Rangpur into East Pakistan, along with the bifurcation of Meghalaya from Assam in 1971 as a separate state, and the declaration of Meghalaya as a tribal state, perhaps benefit the Koches to trace back their tribal origins, indigeneity, and the ownership over lands.

The Rajbanshis of Nepal too are marked by diversities and regional variations. The community has their presence in three districts, namely Jhapa, Morang, and Sunsari in the eastern part of the country. Jhapa is the eastern-most district of the country, and shares international borders with India through the Siliguri corridor of North Bengal. The district is home to the maximum number of the Rajbanshis, who are culturally more similar to their ethnic cousins living in the bordering villages of north Bengal. On the other hand, the Rajbanshis of Morang and Sunsari districts, which are located westward of Jhapa district, bear substantial differences compared to Rajbanshis of Jhapa. The differences are apparent in terms of language, culture, food habits, among others. Thus, it is important to note that the members of the community living in the villages of Jhapa share close sociocultural and economic relations with their ethnic cousins of North Bengal. On the other hand, the community has low presence in the district of Morang and Sunsari, and have largely been influenced by the mainstream Nepali imagination.

Identity Movement in the Making

Not much has been discussed about the intricacies involving the Rajbanshi community, barring few references in the historical works. The social history of the landscape has been largely dominated by the mainstream nationalities at the cost of narratives of the marginal communities. The identity movement that has emerged among the Rajbanshis in the recent past is an effort to assert their voice in the larger society.  

The negotiation with territory, religion, language, culture, ethnicity, among others, has culminated through the accommodation and reconciliation process of the community in accordance with the transition of the landscape. In conclusion, it can be argued that sociopolitical and cultural changes that have taken place during the precolonial and colonial periods underlie the intricacies and the heterogeneity involving the Rajbanshi community.  

The author would like to thank Monirul Hussain of the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University, Guwahati, for his observations and suggestions.

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