By: Bishal Rai
Gorkhaland is the name given to the area around Darjeeling and the Doars in northern part of West Bengal in India. Residents of the area, mostly Gorkhas have long demanded a separate state for themselves to preserve their identity and to improve their socio-economic conditions.
Historically, Darjeeling belonged to the kingdom of Sikkim, which had lost it several times since the eighteenth century to British India.
Until 1780, Darjeeling had been ruled by the kings of Sikkim. After Indian independence, the Gorkhas became the main political force in Darjeeling.
In 1907 the Hillmen’s Association came into being and petitioned for the administrative separation of Darjeeling in 1917 and again in 1928 and1942. In 1928 the Akhil Bharitya Gorkha League (All India Gorkha League) was formed. It gained additional support after World War II with the influx of ex-soldiers from the Gorkha regiments who had been exposed to nationalist movements in South East Asia during service there.
During the 1940s, the Communist Party of India (CPI) organized Gorkha Tea Workers Association. In presentations to the States Reorganization Commission in 1954, the CPI favored regional autonomy for Darjeeling within West Bengal. The All India Gorkha League preferred making the area a Union Territory under the Central government.
Fighting for Gorkha rights, the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state was raised by a new Gorkha Leader on 22 April 1979. The new leader raised the demand for a separate state for the people of the Darjeeling hills.
The name of the new leader was Subash Ghising.
Subash Gishing was born on 22 June 1936 at Manju Tea Estate (Mirik) in Darjeeling. While a student of class IX in St. Robert’s High School, Darjeeling, his father died. As a result, he left school and joined the Gorkha Rifles of Indian Army as a soldier in 1954. He completed his matriculation in 1959, while working but quit the army in 1960 and returned to Darjeeling.
He started working as a teacher in Tindharia Bangla Primary School for about a year, then he enrolled in Kalimpong Junior BT College in 1961. As result of an altercation with the college principal he left the college. He joined Darjeeling Government College and passed Pre-University Arts in 1963.
While a second year B.A. student he was arrested for participating in a political agitation against the poor condition of the hills. He had to quit studies. He was then general secretary of Tarun Sangha, it was the beginning of a long political career.
In 1968, Ghisingh was vocal on issues concerning the hills and formed a political outfit, Nilo Jhanda, to further the cause.
On April 05, 1980 he demanded the formation of Gorkhaland. He formed the Gorkha National Liberation Front to achieve statehood.
Over the next few years, a debonair Ghising led the protests for a separate state for the Gorkhas, which alarmed New Delhi because the region is a sensitive border with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and is dangerously close to China. A key reason for Ghising’s success with that movement lay in uniting all Gorkhas.
“Ghising ensured his movement never had communal, religious or linguistic divisions,” recalls sociologist Roddur Dey who teaches at the city’s St. Joseph’s College.
The movement reached its peak around 1985-1986.
The Gorkhaland movement distinguished Darjeeling Gorkhas from nationals of Nepal legally residing in India, from Nepali-speaking Indian citizens from other parts of the country, and even from the majority in neighboring Sikkim, where Nepali is the official language. The movement was emphatic that it had no desire to separate from India, only from the state of West Bengal. Gorkhaland supporters therefore preferred to call the Gorkhas’ language Gorkhali rather than Nepali, although they did not attempt to claim there is any linguistic difference from what other people call Nepali. The 1981 census of India, whether in deference to this sentiment or for some other reason, called the language Gorkhali. However, when the Eighth Schedule of the constitution was amended in 1992 to make it a Scheduled Language, the term Nepali alone was used as Central Government had getting support from Sikkim Sangram Parishad which had always preffered Nepali than Gorkhali.
After two years of fighting and the loss of at least 1200 lives, the government of West Bengal and the central government finally agreed on an autonomous hill district.
In July 1988, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front gave up the demand for a separate state, and in August the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council came into being with Ghising as chairman. The council had authority over economic development programs, education, and culture.
On the 22 August 1988 Ghising sat down with top national and state bureaucrats to sign a historic deal blessed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to allow for the creation of the Gorkha Hill Council, giving the Gorkhas unprecedented autonomy. Subsah Ghising signed the Darjeeling Hill Accord. The treaty meant the creation of a Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, whilst GNLF would give up the demand for Gorkhaland.
The contentious areas of and around Darjeeling, long claimed by the Gorkhas for a separate state, are only 300 sq km. The region is home to 800,000 people, 80 percent of them Gorkhas. The Gorkhas made their first demand for autonomy to the British exactly 100 years ago, but their push for greater self-rule turned to shove only during the time India was gaining Independence. Gorkha leaders also made representations before India’s Constituent Assembly, but the region was nonetheless clubbed with West Bengal after Independence, to the chagrin of local Gorkhas.
After the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, difficulites soon arose over the panchayat elections. Ghising wanted the hill council excluded from the national law on panchayat elections. Rajiv Gandhi’s government was initially favorable to his request and introduced a constitutional amendment in 1989 to exclude the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, but it did not pass.
However, in 1992 Parliament passed the Seventy – third amendment, which seemed to show a newly serious commitment to the idea of local self-government by panchayats. The amendment excluded all the hill areas just mentioned except Darjeeling.
Ghising insisted this omission was a machination of West Bengal and threatened to revive militant agitation for a Gorkhaland state. Mounting pressure on Centre, GNLF chief Subash Ghising demanded return of Darjeeling hills to Bangladesh if his original request for ‘Gorkhaland’, a separate statehood for Gorkhas, was not met. “If the state and the Centre cannot give us autonomy, we will be better off in Bangladesh,” he said.
Ghising, told reporters “Darjeeling hill belonged to erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh) during British rule for quite sometime”.
Subash Ghising asked – if Jharkhand and Chhatishgarh could be made separate states. Why not Darjeeling? He asked and alleged that people of Darjeeling had become “victims of injustice which cannot be allowed any more”.
He also said the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front would boycott the village panchayat elections mandated by the amendment. A large portion of his party, however, refused to accept the boycott and split off under the leadership of Chiten Sherpa to form the All India Gorkha League, which won a sizable number of panchayat seats.
In 1995 it was unclear whether the region would remain content with autonomy rather than statehood. In August 1995, Sherpa complained to the state government that Ghising’s government had misused hill council funds, and West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu promised to investigate. Both Gorkha parties showed willingness to use general shutdowns to forward their ends. The fact that so many people were willing to follow Sherpa instead of the hitherto unchallenged Ghising may indicate that they will be satisfied with regional autonomy.
Gorkha National Liberation Front, failed to obtain a separate regional administrative identity from Parliament, again demanded a separate state of Gorkhaland.
The party’s leader, Subhash Ghising, highly believed to be an agent of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), headed a demonstration that turned violent and was severely repressed by the state government.
The disturbances almost totally shut down the districts’ economic mainstays of tea, tourism, and timber. The Left Front government of West Bengal, which earlier had supported some form of autonomy, now opposed it as “antinational.” The state government claimed that Darjeeling was no worse off than the state in general and was richer than many districts.
In the year 2000 GNLF revived the demand for Gorkhaland in their political agitation.
In the state assembly elections in West Bengal in 2001 GNLF had put up five candidates, out of whom three got elected. In total the party received 190 057 votes.
GNLF boycotted the Lok Shaba elections 1996, 1998 and1999. Ahead of the 2004 Lok Shaba elections GNLF supported Congress candidate Dawa Narbula, who won with large margin in the Darjeeling constituency.
However, over the next two decades, Ghising gave up the demand for a separate state. When in 2005 Ghising agreed to a Central bid to bring the Darjeeling region under a Constitutional provision, called the Sixth Schedule in officialdom, guaranteeing some more rights to the tribal people of the northeast — but still not full statehood — the opposition parties erupted against Ghising, beginning a strong though peaceful protest. Ghising’s aid Bimal Gurung said the Ghising was now backing out of its agreement to implement the Sixth Schedule: “The government has delayed its implementation and now everyone is once again sentimental about Gorkhaland.”
IRONICALLY, GHISING has been undone by, among others, a social group that once was his bedrock: the ex-servicemen.
Unhappy over a general lack of development in the region and Ghising’s failure to provide employment to younger people, these ex-servicemen went en masse — in their uniforms complete with their medallions — to join street campaigns of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) newly launched morcha to oust Ghising.
“Ghising was a dictator who played with our sentiments for his personal gain,” says retired Lt Col DP Subba. “The ex-soldiers have pledged a month’s pension to the fight for Gorkhaland.”
The new hero of the Gorkhas is GJM’S Bimal Gurung, the 44-year-old one-time GNLF supporter who turned against Ghising after the Hill Council was created in 1988. Gurung is among the few opponents to stand his ground against Ghising, and even served the Hill Council as an elected independent councillor.
Gurung first shot into prominence during 1986-88 Gorkhaland stir. He was the president of Gorkha Volunteer’s Cell (GVC) in his native Tukvar Valley. Soon after the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was formed, he departed with Ghising as he had always fought for Gorkhaland and not for Hill Council. After parting with Subash Ghising and GNLF, Bimal Gurung floated the Parbatiya Bekari Sangathan (Hills Unemployed Association) and started working for the interest of unemployed youth and unemployment in Hills.
After several request from Subash Ghising telling that the demand of Gorkhaland would be revived. He finally re-joined GNLF in the interest of Gorkhaland. He then supported GNLF councillor candidate win the Council election.
Later on the demand of Gorkhaland was not raised and Bimal Gurung resigned from GNLF and he won the election as independent candidate against the ruling GNLF.
He was so much popular for his Robin Hood attitude in his constituency that he never had any opposition.
At a public rally in Darjeeling on October 7, 2008 Bimal Gurung, once considered a close associate of GNLF supremo Subash Ghising, announced the formation of the GJM, a new political outfit, and gave a fresh call for a separate State of Gorkhaland, seeking the united support of people cutting across party lines. The huge turnout at the rally gave a clear indication that Ghising’s supremacy in the hills was finally facing a challenge. On the dais, Gurung was joined by representatives of the All Gorkha Students’ Union, GNLF rebels and leaders of the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist, a breakaway faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Since, the formation of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, Bimal Gurung intensified the Gorkhaland movement across the Darjeeling Hills and Dooars. He led the march from Darjeeling Hills to Sunkosh river, to demarcate the map of Gorkhaland. Finally the map of Gorkhaland was ready.
Since the formation of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, on October 07, 2008 – Bimal Gurung has so far followed Gandhian methods like fasts-unto-death, non-cooperation, civil disobedience and unarmed processions.
Bimal Gurung feels that Darjeeling Hills and Dooars Terai is one of the most gifted of the regions in the north east. It has tremendous potential in tourism, tea, agriculture including cash crops. It has rivers for large Hydel Power Projects. It has mineral resources yet to be exploited including coal, manganese, mica, gypsum etc. In tourism it can offer the entire kaleidoscope of Himalayan and Gangetic Geology, including trekking, mountain climbing, rafting, paragliding, river camping, wildlife sanctuaries etc.
He also feels that the most hyped spiritual tourism, village tourism, eco tourism, yoga tourism etc can all be experienced here. The revenue that could be generated from these if carefully and professionally managed could maintain a small state Gorkhaland.
Bimal Gurung marks that Darjeeling Hills have been neglected by State and the Central. The tea industry is surviving but can be said to be at the intensive care unit presently. The cinchona plantations are going through even worse phases.
He recollects that most of the Sarva Sikhsha Kendra run by DGHC is being conducted through a cowshed. There are no benches, no blackboards, no chalks and the teachers and the students interacted squatting down on the bare ground with goats tied up munching merrily over their grasses in the same room.
However, Bimal Gurung is visiting most of the schools and renting a better place for the school. Now, why would the people not want their children to go to a better place for their education and even when there was some one willing to help them?
Bimal Gurung feels that Darjeeling Hills needs dedicated leaders, resource people who would frame new visions and ultimately, diligent, strong and able hands to give shape to Gorkhaland.
DGHC blundered and misappropriated because it became a vehicle of one man’s arrogance. Gorkhaland must become everyone’s collective enterprise; it must be the instrument of the people working for the good of the people and the people themselves at the same time responsible to it.