It was brought to my attention that a few weeks ago this blog turned up on the second page of Google searches for Gorkhaland. (It has since fallen lower in the Google search results.) Given the visibility, I’ll add a little more background on the history and current happenings. Here goes:
The district of Darjeeling in India is a boarder region in the foothills of the Himalayans with Bhutan, China (Tibet), Bangladesh, and Nepal as close neighbors. Darjeeling is the northernmost region of the state of West Bengal. Starting in the 1810’s, disputes over the district resulted in it changing hands between Nepal, Sikkim, and the British East India Company. Once the British East India Company had firm control of the area in the mid-nineteenth century, it began developing the tea industry and established a hill station. Laborers from Nepal were brought in for agricultural work, supplementing the existing Nepali, aka Gorkha, population, which had settled in the hills in the late 17th century. The Gorkhas formed an important part of the British army under colonialism. They were prized as skilled fighters, and the Gorkha regiments were highly revered. After Indian independence from Britain in 1947, British tea estate owners left, and Bengalis stepped in as the new economic ruling class. Gorkhas continued to serve proudly in the Indian Armed Forces.
The Darjeeling district is unique in the state of West Bengal as it is a hills region mostly populated by Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, whereas the rest of the state is a planes region of Bengali peoples. The political frictions resulting from the marginalization of the district in state politics and resource allocation led to several agitations for local political control throughout the 20th century. West Bengal’s discriminatory treatment of Gorkhas contrasted starkly with the nearly benevolent treatment from the British (at least compared to the plight of other agricultural workers thought India) and the honor associated with Gorkha contributions to national defense forces.
The 1985-88 agitation for statehood was the longest and most violent, involving the organization of local parties and clashes with West Bengal police. The agitation ended with Gorkha National Liberation Front leader Subash Ghising negotiating a compromise of partial local autonomy through the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. Ghising remained in power until the fall of 2007.
In the fall of 2007, two things happened. First, in September, Prashant Tamang, a Gorkha from Darjeeling, won Indian Idol (yes, in the style of American Idol). Tamang’s victory was aided by Bimal Gurung, a Darjeeling politician and protégé of Ghising. Gurung bottom-lined a publicity campaign encouraging Gorkhas to vote for Prashant via text message. Gorkhas all over India SMSed their votes, and celebrations for Prashant’s victory lasted late into the night. Organizing for Prashant quickly turned into political mobilization. Gurung formed the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha party in early October, confronting Ghising for his corrupt and lax leadership of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. After two decades in
power, the effectiveness of Ghising’s leadership was questioned in the face of dodgy financial dealings and failed promises of infrastructure development. Gurung rode the wave of resurgent Gorkha pride to draw attention to the weaknesses in Ghising’s leadership.
The second thing that happened: In November, Darjeeling grew discontent with Ghising’s support for a the federal provision that tribal Nepalis be included in the sixth tribal schedule, a system of welfare for tribal groups that suffer discrimination in India society (See my earlier post on the tribal and caste schedules). He, and he alone, had been invited to talks in Delhi over the matter. The provisions of the sixth schedule would exclude the 70% of non-tribal Nepalis in Darjeeling. Gorkha’s saw Ghising’s support for the sixth schedule as an abandonment of the dream for Gorkhaland and an attempt to divide the Gorkha population. The popular hero of the 1980’s agitation was suddenly seen as a traitor and an outcaste for collaborating with government interests at the expense of his community.
Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha party (GJM) gained increased support in Darjeeling with the allegiance of the Darjeeling Bar Association, Hill Transport Union and ex-members of the Indian Armed Forces. Subash Ghising finally had to resign in early March of this year. The federal government dropped the bill for including Nepali tribes in the sixth tribal schedule. The GJM took power and revived the campaign for statehood. The campaign involves marches, rallies, prayer services, meetings with state officials, and strikes to prevent timber export from the region and cripple the tea industry, which is largely Bengali owned. (See earlier posts for photos of the market during a strike, a candle lit vigil, and a student rally.) Their goal is to achieve Gorkhaland by March, 2010. These demands have been met with intense frustration in Kolkata and the formation of anti-Gorkhaland groups by Bengalis. Some of these groups are responsible for attacks on Gorkhas in late June.
And that’s where things are. Last I heard, all strike activities are on hold until August 7th while the party regroups. I hope this was helpful. Please post a comment if you’d like to add more information.
Times of India: Gorkhaland, a story of political bungling
Suite 101: Indian Idol and Gorkha
Darjeeling Times: Call for Gorkhaland Renewed
Live Mint WSJ: Indian Idol Reignites Demand for Gorkhaland
Unheard Voices: Racism on Both Sides of Boarder
The Himalayan Beacon: Gorkhas Campaign for New State in Darjeeling
(Ida C. Benedetto)