For a country mired in inflation woes, a sinking Sensex and a tottering Centre it is reasonable that the demand for Gorkhaland would be dismissed as yet another local problem of law and order in a far flung corner. If we are to go beyond the five minutes of prime time and are actually able to persuade the nation, there is a crying need for us to provide more sharp and cogent arguments for the cause. Opinion has to be built at least in Delhi and Kolkata for Gorkhaland, especially when we have begun hearing sympathetic voices from certain quarters over there.
When we talk about identity, it is hard to imagine that it would echo in the national consciousness like in the way it resounds in our parts. The struggle for ethno-political identity within the framework of the Constitution is something that an average Indian would find difficult to comprehend. On the other hand the country’s elite dubs it as “identity politics”, a fashionable parlance to describe the struggle of dalits, feminists, forest dwellers, ST seekers, homosexuals and such other kinds – all of these are devoid of the self-determination quality that the struggle for identity has in the hills. The casual description of the Gorkhaland movement as identity politics undermines the urgency and the poignancy of the issue.
At the heart of the matter lies the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. This treaty, which has greatly benefited India, has been a curse for the Indian Gurkhas. The Treaty allows citizens of both countries to freely reside, buy property, own businesses and work in each other’s land. Obviously a lot of Nepali citizens migrated to India after the agreement, and continue to do so, seeking better opportunities here. Likewise, taking advantage of the same opportunity, there has been a significant influx of Indians into Nepal, where they now largely control the commerce.
At the time the Treaty was signed, it was an important strategic advantage India had secured vis-à-vis China. In a rather impatient display of excitement (of India), the Treaty after making a token reference to “everlasting peace and friendship”, goes on immediately to declare in its second article: “The two governments hereby undertake to inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any other State likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two Governments.” As a result of this provision, Nepal was required to consult India on matters of regional security, while India was obligated to ensure the national defense and military preparedness of Nepal. Instead of just being a buffer nation, Nepal became an active ally of India.
Most Indians have not been able to appreciate the significance of this Treaty and the huge strategic advantage that the country enjoys due to it. Not to forget that all Indian citizens living in Nepal have personally benefited from the relations of the two countries. It is no surprise that they have little understanding of the Indian Gorkhas who have become the unintended victims of the agreement. It is because of this open border policy that those opposed to Gorkhaland have used the Treaty – which actually benefits India – as a stick to beat the Indian Gorkhas with. Because of the large number of Nepali Gorkhas residing in India, it has been easy for the detractors of Gorkhaland to club the Indian Gorkhas with them. The separate state demand is described as “illegitimate” because “all Nepalis are foreigners.” Their ignorance is underlined by their call to abrogate the Indo-Nepal Treaty.
Ironically, the Indian Gorkhas have themselves been crying hoarse for a long time demanding that the Treaty be scrapped, or at least the provision that allows for the open border. Arising out of this Treaty is a political nightmare for an average Indian Gorkha, who has to almost daily distinguish himself as being from India and not Nepal. For the rest of time-pressed India, Gorkhas exist in some sort of twilight zone.
This is where the demand for Gorkhaland is different from the other demands for separate states. While other demands are based mainly on grounds of discrimination and underdevelopment, the issue of identity is paramount in the case of the former. Because of an unintended fallout of an international agreement, the nationality of Indian Gorkhas has been compromised. By creating Gorkhaland, not only a serious problem of its nearly one crore citizens would be resolved, but a Treaty that serves national interests could be kept happily without demands being raised for its annulment.
Further, the issue of identity for the Indian Gorkhas is poignant not just because of the foreigner tag. Recent history of state-sponsored evictions of Gorkhas in Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya has scarred their psyche. Although in some instances the Gorkhas were clubbed together with other “outsiders” like Bengalis and displaced from the North East, there was active cooperation from Indian authorities including the West Bengal government to drive the refugees to the Indo-Nepal border. This, the other evicted communities did not have to experience.
During the most recent displacement of Gorkhas that happened from Southern Bhutan, the West Bengal government again actively supported the movement of the refugees to the border. Once across the line, they were disallowed to return again. While the question of the refugees’ nationality might be debated over, it would be absurd to expect the marginalized Indian Gorkhas not to reflect negatively on the treatment meted out to their cultural brethren by the Indian authorities.
The displacements experienced by Gorkhas in post-Independent India add urgency to their demand for a separate state. Such experience fortunately has not been the lot of others demanding their own separate states in India.
Behind the persecution of the Gorkhas there has always been an insidious hint that the community harbours a divided loyalty. On the question of Gorkhaland, critics claim the Gorkhas cannot be trusted to have their own state at the nation’s border. In today’s context the geopolitical concerns that are aired regarding Darjeeling, are nothing more than a bogey. It might have made sense during the British Raj to consider the region “sensitive”. Those were the days of the Great Game, when the British were trying to counter the influence of the Russians and the Germans over Central Asia.
The argument that the Gorkhas cannot be trusted at the borders is hilarious. Sikkim where the “sensitive” border actually lies is populated by over 70 percent of Gorkhas. One has never heard of the Gorkhas in Sikkim compromising the nation’s security. Rather the Chinese have after a long standoff finally recognized Sikkim as part of India.
Those raising questions about Gorkha’s trustworthiness, should be reminded that Sikkim would not have been merged with India had it not been for the Gorkha politicians who gave Indira Gandhi a foothold in the then Himalayan kingdom. Such is the irony of history that revered journalist like Sunanda Dutta Ray would see the role of the Gorkhas in Sikkim as “Indian agents” who had been disloyal to the monarch.
The argument for Gorkhaland also needs to be couched in contemporary reality. That reality informs that there is room for new smaller states in India. It is a fact one of the primary reasons for India lagging behind is its sheer size. A study conducted by India Today showed that smaller states like Puducherry(earlier known as Pondicherry), Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand were better governed than say Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. To the success stories of smaller states may be added Goa and Sikkim. Mind you Puducherry is smaller in size than even just the three hill sub-divisions, which is part of the proposed state of Gorkhaland. Like Sikkim it also has less population than ours. Chandigarh, a Union Territory, is only 114 sq km, and has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country.
With three seats in the West Bengal State Assembly and “half” a seat in the Parliament, the Indian Gorkhas have scarcely a chance to determine their destiny. Call this a fault of democracy – where numbers matter. For the minorities, India as the world’s largest democracy is indeed a challenge. However, the Constitution of India safeguards the rights of minorities, and the nation’s federal structure is premised on linguistic and cultural basis. Therefore to disregard the claim of Gorkhas, who have a distinct culture and language, for a separate state on the grounds of that they have marginal representation in the Assembly and the Parliament is to selectively interpret the Indian Constitution.
In the end it seems like the opposition to the creation of new states in more a mind block than anything. The demands for new states are seen as separatist movements, even secessionists. Both of these are exaggerations of a mind that refuses to move forward with changing times. It is a mind the shies away from creatively engaging with challenges. It is a mind of a loser.
Having said that it is also important for the hill people to move away from hysterical declamations and be able to provide convincing arguments for Gorkhaland. We have greater expectations from the current movement which has been claiming the higher ground of political standards.
(Source: Darjeeling times)