The hills in Darjeeling in West Bengal state have been reverberating again with calls for a separate state of “Gorkhaland”. Nearly 20 years after a high pitched demand was raised by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) under the leadership of Subhas Ghisingh, his one-time protege Bimal Gurung is leading a series of agitations with the same demand but with a significant difference. Under Gurung’s leadership, the Gorkha Janamukthi Morcha (GJM) has asked for a “Gorkhaland” which would incorporate areas within the plains in Siliguri and Doars as well. An indefinite strike call was called earlier this month by Gurung and his party, who have refused overtures for talks with the state government, which, in turn, has refused to acknowledge the demand for a separate state. The agitation in the Darjeeling district has created bottlenecks for transport of goods to the landlocked Sikkim. After the central government received a delegation of the GJM and assured them of tripartite talks if required, the bandh has been lifted until early July.
The rise of the GJM has coincided with the isolation of the GNLF and Subhas Ghisingh, the long-time chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). Elections to the council have not been held since 2004 and the performance of the council has been questioned. There are allegations of corruption even as there has been no significant improvement in the region’s development or in governance under the GNLF’s rule. The GJM shot into prominence after its opposition to a memorandum of understanding signed by Ghisingh with the state and the central governments to recognise Darjeeling as a tribal territory under the purview of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The proposal, which was in principle accepted by the state government, has been rejected by the GJM which is loath to consider Darjeeling as a tribal territory because of the varied ethnic composition in the region. Since then the Sixth Schedule bill has been dropped.
The move to bring Darjeeling under the Sixth Schedule would have provided an assurance on paper that these areas would be self-governed with local laws and with local control over substantive financial and legislative powers. Less than 35 per cent of the hill dwellers are currently recognised as scheduled tribe (ST) members and the move to incorporate Darjeeling as a tribal territory is seen as divisive by the other sections of the hills region.
The GJM had used the “Gorkha” identity sentiment through agitations against non-Nepali speakers and outsiders, which rocked the Darjeeling district in September last year, to consolidate its support base even as the GNLF was gradually sidelined. By claiming that the Sixth Schedule status was meant to divide the “Gorkha” community in the hills, the GJM has been able to pitchfork the Gorkhaland demand into the limelight again. The politics of identity has been further complicated with groups representing the Bengali-speaking population in the Siliguri area rioting on this issue. Other identity based and separatist parties such as the Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) have also entered the fray by supporting the agitation launched by the GJM. In essence, the issue threatens to snowball into an ethnic quagmire pitting hill dwellers against those living in the the plains as well as giving a fillip to other separatist tendencies in the region.
The incidents in Darjeeling suggest that the logic of development through the means of providing special treatment on the basis of identity, representation and difference has its limits. The state and central governments have underestimated the fissiparous tendencies of using the logic of special treatment methods based on the concept of ethnic difference rather than “disadvantage” in a region that is characterised by multiplicity of identities. At the same time, it is obvious that there must be talks between the hills based groups such as the GJM and the political leadership of the state to prevent the deterioration of the situation into a violent confrontation between the hills dwelling and the plains dwelling people of the district. The GJM has accepted tripartite political talks with the state and central governments. Considering the dangerous portents that the agitation has taken, adopting maximalist positions will not result in any tangible improvement in the situation.
Editorial written for the Economic & Political Weekly