Jai Gorkha, Jai Gorkhaland.
These are two words, embedded deep in the hearts of nearly 2 crore Indian Gorkhas across the country. It is the dream of a homeland that they cherish, an essential pre-requisite to acquire a distinctive identity for Indian Gorkhas, separate from those in Nepal.
There is no room for denying the depth of this emotion and the warmth attached around this sentiment. The past week’s developments in the Darjeeling hills showed, once again, how quickly the issue of Gorkhaland can galvanise an otherwise divided society and divergent communities in the hills.
The Darjeeling hills are on fire and burning. The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is evidently struggling to restore normalcy sending in the army and para-military forces and the state’s own police to Darjeeling.
She also pledges that a division of the Darjeeling Hills from Bengal would be resisted by blood. On the other end, Bimal Gurung – the Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha leader – is trying to seize upon an opportunity to ignite Gorkha anger and emotions to achieve the goal of a separate state that he had promised to the hill people as far back as 2007. “This is the final call for Gorkhaland,” he exhorts the hill people from his hideout.
The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland has often been weighed by reason and also by emotion. To justify or nullify the demand for Gorkhaland as something black or white is a difficult proposition. History has it that the demand for Gorkha autonomy and a separate state dates back to more than a century and could be one of the oldest in the country.
In 1907, the Hillmen’s association had raised the issue of being separately administered from Bengal. In 1929, the Hillsmen’s Association was joined by Gorkha Officer’s Association and Kurseong Gorkha Library in submitting a petition to the British demanding separation from the province of Bengal.
The issue surfaced once again in 1941 in the demand for Darjeeling to be excluded from the province of Bengal and made into a separate Chief Commissioner’s Province. This was followed by a resolution taken by the Communist party of India in 1952 demanding autonomy for Darjeeling.
Darjeeling has witnessed two violent movements in the last 31 years, beginning 1984 when Subash Ghisingh launched his outfit – Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) –and settled for a partial autonomy for long 23 years in 1988. But it fell far short of the expectations and aspirations of the hill people, paving the way for his ouster. Bimal Gurung emerged as the new messiah of hope for the Gorkhas. With an emphasis on a “peaceful Gandhian movement” Gurung had been at the helm for the past 10 years but without having realised the Gorkha dream.
Increasingly cornered by an aggressive political regime under Mamata Banerjee, Gurung’s agitation has finally taken a violent turn with government offices, forest rest houses, health centres and transport services having been set on fire. He has asked tourists to leave Darjeeling and has given a call for an indefinite shutdown.
In the midst of all these trouble and turmoil it is worth taking a look at the major reasons that could have been responsible for depriving the Gorkhas of a homeland. Here are some:
Reason One: Small Geographical Area for a Separate State
Talking to a cross-section of people it emerges that the geographical composition of Darjeeling had stood in the way of its statehood. Darjeeling had been too small to be constituted as a state. According to official records Darjeeling district has a geographical area of about 3,149 sq km with three Assembly seats and only a part of a Lok Sabha seat. It has a population of about 12 lakh, according to Roshan Giri, the GJM general secretary.
Bur Giri points to the “historical territory of Darjeeling” that he claimed used to stretch up to the plains of Doars and Terai, encompassing a population of not less than 32 lakh, including the Adivasis and other ethnic minorities. The geographical area of this proposed land would be around 6,500 sq km with a total of about 20-25 Assembly seats.
The ground realities, however, are far removed from what Giri and the GJM leaders visualised. After formation of the last Gorkha Territorial Administration, in February 2012, the GTA and the West Bengal government agreed to have a Commission to review the territorial jurisdiction of the GTA.
The Justice Shyamal Sen Commission after holding detailed hearings recommended the inclusion of only 5 mouzas to the existing GTA territory against 398 mouzas that had been demanded in Terai and the Dooars. The GJM outright rejected the recommendations.
Reason Two: Another Division of Bengal Would Amount to a Political Hara-Kiri
The politics in Darjeeling had little or no bearing on the national politics. But national politics had long been revolving around Darjeeling. For any major political party having its stakes in West Bengal, it would be a political hara-kiri to go for a division of Bengal and carve out a separate state of Gorkhaland.
Bengal had been divided twice earlier, in 1947 and in 1905 bringing in its wake large scale displacements, communal strife and bloodshed. A third partition of Bengal is impossible, say political leaders like Jayprakash Majumdar, vice president of the BJP in Bengal.
In the 60s and 70s, the Congress in West Bengal was spared the movement for a separate Gorkhaland. Instead, the hills were rocked by a language movement when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the chief minister. Subrata Mukherjee, a TMC minister who had earlier been in Ray’s cabinet in mid 70s recalled that the agitation for recognition of Nepali under the 8th schedule of Constitution had grown as intense as that of the current one for statehood with slogans of “Hamro Bhasa, Hamro Pran” (My language,My life) renting the air of Darjeeling.
Indira Gandhi finally conceded the demand.
The Communists in Bengal under Jyoti Basu in the 80s had worked out the autonomous council for the Gorkhas to avoid the statehood demand. More recently, the ruling Trinamool Congress party under Mamata Banerjee has strongly advocated assimilation between Gorkhas and Bengalis, as she repeatedly said:
Hills and Plains are like two sisters.
But from day one, she had made it clear to Gurung and his men that Darjeeling will never be separated from Bengal.
The BJP, the party in power at the Centre, had been a late entrant to Darjeeling politics and its first foray into the hills was in 2009 when it won the Lok Sabha seat with Jaswant Singh as its candidate. Singh happened to be one of the strongest proponents of a separate statehood for Darjeeling Gorkhas.
The BJP’s 2014 manifesto also acknowledged the aspirations of various small ethnic groups and promised to “sympathetically consider” the demands, giving a huge boost to the Gorkha hopes. Winning West Bengal was not within its agenda then.
But in the changed scenario in 2017, with the BJP rising in the state, the party can ill afford to soft-peddle with the Gorkha demands any more. The buzz therefore, is that it was working towards offering the Gorkhas more autonomy and grant tribal status to a number of hill communities.
Reason Three: Corruption and Betrayal of Leadership
Like the mainstream political parties, who are often viewed with distrust by the Gorkhas in the hills, there is a trust deficit about Gorkha leadership as well and its failure to guide the community in realising its dream.
Various segments of the Gorkha community talk about the two movements – one under Subash Ghisingh of the GNLF and another under Bimal Gurung of the GJM. When Ghisingh accepted the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a large section was not too happy about it. It was a viewed as a compromise.
The Gorkha people’s confidence eroded steadily as development funds were siphoned off, there was no visible improvements in basic amenities like education, health, water supply, sanitation and employment. It facilitated Ghisingh’s downfall.
There is talk of the second experiment having failed under Bimal Gurung, too. Acceptance of the GTA from Mamata Banerjee government and the BJP at the Centre was largely seen as a climbdown from statehood demand. But both Ghisingh and Gurung had one thing in common, both accused the political leadership of undue interference in governance and non compliance of the agreement.
We trusted but we were betrayed.GJM leaders
But at one level both Ghisingh and Gurung share the blame for incompetence and corruption.
Dr Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a hill leader from Kalimpong, who has floated an outfit called Jana Andolan Party after having severed links with the GJM, pointed out that the two autonomous bodies were actually “trials” for the hill leaders’ ability to run administrations.
But both failed. In both cases, we succumbed to lollypops offered.Harka Bahadur Chhetri
The geographical composition of Darjeeling has often been cited as a reason for it not being granted statehood. But this is an argument which is hard to substantiate, though the geo-political significance of Darjeeling can hardly be understated.
Often described as the ‘Chicken’s neck’ Darjeeling is hemmed in by four international borders – Nepal, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Who is at the helm in such a sensitive location would have far-reaching consequences for the country’s unity, integrity and sovereignty, it is argued. Any disruptions here would cut off the entire Northeast from the rest of the country, it was feared.
But the Gorkha leadership as well as many political leaders say that such arguments are unfounded. Gorkhas had been one of the most loyal communities and had made extreme sacrifices for the country’s defence.
The soil of Darjeeling had never been used for any terrorist activity till date. Gorkhas never sought secession from India but was a part of it with pride and glory. Jaswant Singh, the former BJP MP from Darjeeling, reportedly argued that the statehood for Gorkhas was needed all the more for the region’s strategic significance. A loyal and dedicated Gorkha community would have been in the county’s best interests, he said.
Reason Five: A Gorkhaland State Would Open a Pandora's Box
A senior most minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet, when asked about the state government’s perception about a separate Gorkha state, confided that any consideration of the demand would open up a pandora’s box with many ethnic and indigenous groups raising their demands for statehood in the region.
Historically, the Adivasi settlements in the Terai and Dooars region of North Bengal are almost as old as the Gorkha ones, who had originally migrated from Nepal. The Rajbanshis and the Kochs, comprising a sizeable section of the population, had their dreams of autonomy and separate governance.
Movements like “Greater Coochbehar,” comprising parts of Bengal and Assam would be revived, they feel. Besides, historically, Lepchas, Bhutias and some other communities are as old as the Gorkhas in the hills if not more.
( The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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