STORM BREWING IN THE MOUNTAINS

The indifference of the state government towards the people of Darjeeling makes a separate state the obvious solution to their problems, writes Mahendra P. Lama
The inevitable has happened in Darjeeling district. The demand for Gorkhaland has erupted once again, and this time in a much more vocal, sweeping and determined manner than the last. There are four primary reasons for this. First, the setting up of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988 as a solution to the last round of Gorkhaland agitation of the Eighties failed to do Darjeeling any good. The DGHC had no power to speak of, as it remained under the control of the Writers’ Building. Its chairman, Subhas Ghisingh, ran it as a personal fief and with the tacit support of the Bengal administration, systematically demolished well-known institutions and created a deep sense of insecurity among the people. The West Bengal government obviously enjoyed this throttling of democratic rights and further consolidated its friendship with Ghisingh. Even nine months back, the Bengal government maintained that there are no opposition parties in Darjeeling.
Second, if Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh could happen without much fuss, why not Gorkhaland? An autonomous Gorkhaland would complete the geographical definition of the North-east. If Sikkim and Assam are parts of the North-east, then why not the contiguous Darjeeling district and the Dooars? The political history of the demand for Gorkhaland dates back to 1907. The memorandum submitted by the Hillmen’s Association to Sir Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for India, on October 25, 1930, states in detail why the hill people wanted to remain outside Bengal. Ghisingh and his party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, sold out the core issue of Gorkhaland just to remain in power. This movement, like that for the constitutional recognition of the Nepali language before it happened in 1992, has been linked to questions of Gorkha identity and of the need to acknowledge their contribution in the making of modern India.
Third, the last 20 years have shown clearly that the Bengal government’s interest in Darjeeling is only skin deep. It continues to treat most parts of Darjeeling and the Dooars as an ‘internal colony’. This attitude was reflected most clearly in the way the government tried to impose the Sixth Schedule status on Darjeeling. For the Gorkhaland agitators, this proved to be the last straw.
Last, the sharp decline in economic and other opportunities within Bengal and the steady rise of Sikkim as a political power have had a serious effect on the Darjeeling region. Every one there now feels that the only way to ensure development for the hill people is to let them have a constituent state of their own.
Unlike the Gorkhaland agitation of the Eighties, this time the movement has spread not only all over Darjeeling but has also covered the Dooars region of Jalpaiguri district. As the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha took up the cause of Gorkhaland, it received tremendous and spontaneous support from the people. It is necessary to understand the fundamental differences between the Eighties protests and the present campaign.
Twenty years after the DGHC was formed, the people have become acutely conscious of the negligence and deprivation they are being subjected to. It is an awareness they did not possess last time. After two decades of misrule, they have realized how hollow the political intentions of the ruling elites of Darjeeling are. As a consequence, the movement has become more widespread. It is almost entirely being carried forward by the younger generation from across various communities — Marwaris, Biharis, Bengalis, Koche-meches and Gorkhas. While the mainstream political parties are nowhere to be seen now, in the last phase there had been a strong opposition from the cadre of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) operating in the hills. The presence of local, national and international media is a major boost to the movement.
The protest movement has now included the Dooars on the ground that a state that includes the hills and a part of the plains will have a solid economic viability. With the major tea gardens falling within this area and given the huge hydel power potential, attractive tourist destinations, important educational institutions and roughly four international borders, Gorkhaland will be one of the most developed states in the country. The future state can generate millions of dollars by diplomatically managing the economic transactions in the border areas. Darjeeling, as a brand-name, is well known all over the world. If rightly repositioned, it would attract a large number of multi-national companies and both domestic and foreign investment.
The protests this time have been non-violent, unlike the Eighties, when a large number of people were killed and properties destroyed. Moreover, in contrast to the last phase of agitation, the current struggle is receiving positive signals from the Union government, which seems to be fairly disposed towards the idea of giving a durable solution to the problem. The West Bengal government had called the GNLF movement ‘anti-national’. It had then promised to undertake substantial projects for development in the district. But even after two decades, it has nothing to show for its efforts. The government had been warned many a time about the steadily deteriorating situation in the hills. But it chose political convenience in prolonging Ghisingh’s debilitating rule rather than lend a ear to the grievances of the people.
The emergence of a dangerously communal outfit like Amra Bangali, blatantly parochial statements made by the urban development minister, Asok Bhattacharya, and police violence at the peaceful demonstration by veteran armymen clearly show how the government is resorting to condemnable tactics to suppress the hill people. Their agitations, like those in Nandigram, are more against state oppression than anything else. Today, the people of the Darjeeling district are demanding answers to questions such as why the entire tea and cinchona industry is in the doldrums, what happened to the rich forest resources, why are there starvation deaths in the Dooars tea gardens, why are the three hill subdivisions still crying for drinking water and basic health facilities, and why Darjeeling has only two drinking water reservoirs in Sinchal, built in 1910 and 1931 by the British administration. There are various other signs of neglect by the state government. There are no panchayats in Darjeeling and hardly any Central government schemes are implemented here. Except in the state assembly, the people of Darjeeling figure nowhere in the decision-and policy-making process of West Bengal.
If West Bengal thinks of Darjeeling as its ‘crown’, then why has there never been a tableau on the Queen of the Hills in the Republic Day parades in New Delhi for the last 60 years ? The state government has not added a single good educational institution to the entire hill region after 1947. What do the people of the Dooars and Darjeeling gain out of hydel projects like those on the Teesta, Rammam or Jaldhaka ? And, had it not been for the local residents and admirers of Darjeeling from outside India, the toy train would not have been included in the Unesco’s world heritage list. These are some of the complaints of the hill people today. They take these as the indicators of a policy of discrimination followed by the state government in dealing with the hill region. It is striking that even after Ghisingh’s humiliating exit, the Bengal administration still has nothing more to offer other than the talk about a few more freebies in the already defunct basket of autonomy.
All eyes are now rained on the way the Morcha conducts itself in its forward march. It is up to the Morcha now to enlist the support of other local and national political parties to its cause and to convince the state and Union governments about the inevitability of a separate state for the hill people. In the process, it has to find solutions to such vexed issues as those over the alleged advantages enjoyed by the people of the plains over those of the hills, and the communal insinuations being delivered deliberately by the political leaders of the ruling party in Siliguri. The tasks are not easy, to say the least. However, there is one assurance. The public opinion, as expressed in the media, is clearly in favour of a separate Gorkhaland. After all, why not a 29th state in the grand, ever-expanding federal structure of the country ?
The author prepared the first Development Plan of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1989. The position he holds has no bearing on the views expressed in this article (The Telegraph)

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