Understanding the demand for Gorkhaland : An introductory note

Voices for a separate state of Gorkhaland are once again echoing in the hills of Darjeeling and the surrounding areas. These developments are certainly disturbing for the uninformed Bengalis – they fail to understand why such a picturesque and otherwise “peaceful” place would like to secede from their province. They also feel sad at the thought of losing something so beautiful, something to be proud of. Sometimes, there is the knee-jerk reaction among some of them – a refusal to part with the region. With the state government and the mainstream media purposely continuing to feed on this ignorance and pride, it becomes important to put together a historical account of the developments in Darjeeling and thereby address questions regarding the right to self-determination of the people staying in this region. The hope is that such an introductory account of the evolving situation in Darjeeling would help the democratic-minded people to come to a rational decision.

Inclusion of Darjeeling within Bengal province

To begin the story of Darjeeling, one needs to go back to the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-1816, in which the East India Company, with the help of the Sikkimese people, defeated the Gorkha kingdom of Nepal. At the time of war, Sikkim had been occupied by the Nepalese king. After their victory, the British returned the land of Sikkim to the Sikkemese Chogyal, with one of the conditions being that any territorial dispute between Nepal and Sikkim required the arbitration of the British and the Sikkimese king will have to abide by the decision of the British. It was during one such dispute that two officers of the East India Company spent some time at a hill station called Dorjeeling and were sufficiently impressed so as to consider it as a possible sanitarium. They urged the British government to acquire that tract. Negotiations began with the King of Sikkim and the tract was acquired by the East India Company in 1835. However, disputes continued with Sikkim regarding the terms of acquisition and, finally, using some other pretext, the British troops marched into Sikkim, were uncontested and thereafter claimed that all surrounding villages were part of British-held territory. The war with Bhutan in 1865 led to the acquisition of Kalimpong and territories to the East of Teesta. This is how the Darjeeling district, as we know it today, was formed.

With the introduction of tea-gardens, growth of trade with Nepal-Bhutan-Tibet and possible employment in the British army, people from the hills and the plains soon found their way to Darjeeling. Although different communities from the hills set up their homes here, the Gorkhas were the largest in number. Meanwhile, the British toyed with different administrative status for the region and finally, in 1935, Darjeeling was included within the province of Bengal.

Demand for self-rule

The emergence of an educated section among the local communities slowly gave birth to the articulation of the right to self-determination, viz., for the protection of the local language and cultural practices. In 1907, on behalf of the Bhutia, Lepcha, and Nepali communities of Darjeeling, a memorandum was placed before the British government requesting for a separate administrative unit for the region. Subsequently, in between 1917 and 1941, the Hill People’s Association made several such petitions to the British government . As noted by some historians, most of these petitions appealed to the goodwill of the British rulers to address the grievances of the Hill people – the British responses were not significant. It should also be mentioned, in this regard, that the local people were not happy at the decision of the British to include this region within the administrative domain of the British. In 1943, the All India Gorkha League (AIGL) was formed and it was also in the same year that the Darjeeling unit of the Communist Party of India was organised. Historical records show that during this period the AIGL started discussing with Congress leaders regarding the grievances of the Hill people of Darjeeling.

In April 1947, the Darjeeling district committee of the Communist Party of India submitted a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly. The memorandum stated that Darjeeling was the homeland of the Gorkhas and that the Gorkhas living in the combined territories of the district of Darjeeling, the state of Sikkim and the so-called independent state of Nepal, together constitute a distinct nation – they have the same language, the same culture and the same historical heredities since the days of Buddha and Ashoka. Giving numbers, the memorandum also stated that the people belonging to the Gorkha community constituted about 85% of the population in the combined territories. The memorandum also claimed that the British, after conquering India, had purposely divided the Gorkhas and in order to protect the interests of British imperialism, the socio-cultural development of the Gorkha community was being suppressed. Therefore, according to the memorandum, the interests of the Gorkha community must be protected during the formation of the new Indian constitution. The memorandum, finally, demanded the formation of the region of Gorkhastan by combing Darjeeling, southern Sikkim and Nepal and also stated that, according to the Communist Party of India, the Gorkha community in this region had the full democratic right to exercise their right to self-determination.

After independence of India, public meetings were held in Darjeeling to support the demands of autonomy and memorandums were also sent to the Central Government detailing the several attempts that have been taken earlier to seek a separate administrative setup for the district. With popular backing, evidently based on the question of autonomy, 4 MLA-s belonging to AIGL and 1 MLA of CPI were elected from Darjeeling to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, in the first elections of 1952. From then on, demands of regional autonomy, in different forms and versions, cropped up in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly but no headway occurred. Some noises were also made in the Parliament. In 1973, AIGL and CPI(M) circulated a document entitled “Programme and Demand of Autonomy” which, as an expression of autonomy, demanded the formation of Autonomous District Council. In 1976, the government of Siddhartha Shankar Ray announced the formation of the Darjeeling Hill Areas Development Council – it was supposed to advise the state government regarding matters related to developmental work in the Hill areas.

Nothing changed after the Left Front government came to power in 1977. Soon, in 1980, fed up with the apparent deafness of the ruling parties, ithe Prantiya Parishad and Gorkha National Liberation Front, separately, demanded the formation of a separate state of Gorkhaland. The demand by GNLF captured the imagination of the local people and led by Subhas Ghisingh it became a very popular movement. In 1986, the movement turned militant in nature and clashes started in the region. According to the local people, around 1200 Gorkhas were killed during this period. After two years of violence, the Centre, the state government and GNLF agreed to form the DGHC, with Ghisingh announcing that the demand for Gorkhaland had been dropped. In the years following this agreement, Ghisingh has tried to appease both Centre and State and have been alliance with one or the other during the elections. Over time, complaints started to emerge regarding the corruption and nepotism in the activities of DGHC and it is fairly accurate to state that Ghisingh has, by now, lost his popularity among his own people. Also, both Centre and State did whatever they could to keep Ghisingh happy to extract political advantage during elections. It is even alleged that the state government had a sinister plan to corrupt Ghisingh to the point that he lost credibility among the people. Whatever be the designs, the Left parties belonging to Left Front has increasingly lost foothold in this regions – in fact, a faction broke away from CPI(M) to form CPRM in order to continue the struggle for a separate state. Things changed dramatically in 2007 due to two events, which are narrated below, and the call for Gorkhaland again found momentum.

Prasant Tamang, hailing from Darjeeling, qualified for the finals of the 2007 edition of “Indian Idol”, a popular television programme, which is supposed to unearth singing talents based on nationwide votes conducted through mobile text-messages. Competing against him was Amit Pal, a resident of Meghalaya but having ancestral roots in Siliguri (which is within the district of Darjeeling). The success of Prasant brought joy to the local hill communities and he received huge public receptions in Darjeeling, before the finals. On the other hand, some local politicians, including an influential minister in the Left Front government, urged the people of Siliguri and surrounding areas to vote for Amit, since he was after all a “local boy”. Clearly, for these politicians, Bengali chauvinism was more important; even the local mainstream media tried to garner support for Amit. Reports in the media claimed that, in Siliguri, banners proclaiming support for Amit, were seen in large numbers and also several local support groups popped up. It seemed that the local Bengali sentiments were in favour of the Bengali from Meghalaya rather than the Gorkha from West Bengal – so overarching are the feelings of Bengali nationalism. However, after the final round and the counting of votes, Prasant was crowned the new Indian idol. This became a matter of pride for the Gorkha community and his victory was celebrated with lot of fanfare. There were no such reports of celebrations, in general, in other parts of the state of West Bengal. Just after Prasant’s victory, on 26th September 2007, a Delhi-based DJ, during a radio programme, made a remark, allegedly as a joke – “If Nepalis become Indian Idols, who will guard our mohallas?” This remark had an immediate effect – on 26th September, there was a spontaneous bandh in the district of Darjeeling. On 28th September, a silent procession was taken out in Siliguri to protest against the remark. During the procession, clashes began between the Gorkhas and the local Bengalis and soon it spread across the town with several reports of violence against the Gorkha community. Within a few days, a new platform called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha was launched with a fresh declaration for the formation of Gorkhaland. The incidents had definitely bruised the Gorkha sentiments and their dormant nationalism was awakened – the demand for a new state was the outcome. As a side remark to this incident, it would perhaps be worthwhile for the Bengali community to retrospect how people from the hills have been portrayed in the Bengali popular culture – whether there have been any attempts to characterise them in ways different from the usual stereotypes.

Meanwhile, another trouble had been brewing for quite some time. The last elections to the DGHC had been held in 1999 and the tenure of the council had ended in 2004. However, Ghisingh continued to postpone elections using one pretext or the another. The state government continued to appease him by granting him the status of care-taker administrator of the council till elections were held. In the meantime, Ghisingh announced that the status of the council can only be strengthened if DGHC is included within the Sixth Schedule, which is meant to protect and promote the socio-cultural and economic aspirations of tribals in the states of the Northeast. The central and the state government, bowing to Ghisingh’s demands, signed an acoord with him, in 2005, accepting that the next elections could only be held after the inclusion within the Sixth Schedule. As per the accord, a large number of seats (around one-third) in the new council would be reserved for representatives of the tribal communities. This infuriated a large section of the population in this region, since only 31% of the population is listed as tribal and the Gorkhas, who are actually the largest community in the hills, are not included in that list. The opposition (which included AIGL and CPRM) also alleged that the Centre and the state governments did not consult with anyone from this region, other than Ghisingh, before taking this decision. Worsening the situation was the fact that only in 2005, the Tamang community, to which Ghisingh belonged, had been included in the list of scheduled tribes. This only perpetuated the general feeling that the inclusion of DGHC within the Sixth Schedule was just a ploy by Ghisingh to continue his stranglehold on the council. The mood in the hills changed drastically after the announcement by the central government, in November 2007, that the DGHC will be included in the Sixth Schedule – the move was initiated in the Parliament as a follow-up to the tripartite agreement of 2005. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and other opposition parties completely rejected this decision claiming that only the granting of statehood would be in accordance with popular sentiments of the region. By trying to appease Ghisingh, the governments had only alienated themselves further from the agitating masses. As the unrest grew, Ghisingh was forced to resign from his position of caretaker chairman of DGHC. Also, in February 2008, bowing to the pressure of the Hill communities, the central government decided to postpone matters related to the Sixth Schedule. Today, we wait to see how events unfold in the coming days.

Nationalities and their right to self-determination

The movement in Darjeeling has once again brought, into discussion, the issues related to the right to self-determination. Let us now try to understand what this right implies and who are in a position to exercise this right. Using the words from a statement of the Cordillera People’s Alliance, a platform for protection of the democratic rights of the indigenous Cordillera nation in Philippines, – “In the most general terms, the right to self-determination means the right of every historically-constituted people to determine their destiny and development based on their own wishes, free from forcible interference by other peoples. It is the sovereign right of a people to freely choose and develop their own socio- economic, political, and cultural systems. In a specifically political sense, the right to self-determination is the right of a people to constitute itself as an independent state or as a separate political entity if it so decides, enjoying the same rights as all other nation-states, or otherwise, to freely determine its mode of association with an existing state wherein it enjoys the same rights as the other constituent peoples of that state. In this sense, the right to self-determination covers a wide range of options that a people can choose from.”

It is generally accepted that such a right is bestowed upon a collection of people forming a distinct nation. The obvious question, then, is what defines a nation ? Stalin has summarized it succinctly – “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” Such a definition implies that within the boundaries of a country, there can exist several nations with distinct identities. In such circumstances, national oppression consists of institutionalized or deeply ingrained set of oppressive policies and practices adopted by the dominant nation against other nationalities. This results in socio-economic discriminations which hinder the development or growth of the oppressed nations. As a result, these suppressed nations begin to assert their right to decide their future, in a bid to liberate themselves from the national oppression.

Ever since the birth of modern countries, the right of self-determination of oppressed nations have been enunciated in different corners of the world. With the growing anti-colonial struggles across the globe, such demands became more vociferous. After the end of World War II, the United Nations was forced to address this problem and it led, finally, to the proclamation of the right of self-determination as an universal right, enshrined in the two international covenants – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The first paragraph of common article 1 states: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” In the post-colonial period, debates have continued within the United Nations due to the innumerable conflicts between existing nation-states and the oppressed nationalities seeking to exercise the right to self-determination. Also, the famous Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples, signed in Algiers in 1976, upholds the right to political self-determination; Article 5, 6 and 7 of the declaration state “Every people has an imprescriptible and unalienable right to self-determination. It shall determine its political status freely and without any foreign interference. Every people has the right to break free from any colonial or foreign domination, whether direct or indirect, and from any racist regime.Every people has the right to have democratic government representing all the citizens without distinction as to race, sex, belief or colour, and capable of ensuring effective respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.”

While India recognizes the right to self-determination of nations under foreign occupation, it, however, does not acknowledge the right to self-determination of nations, within its national boundaries, which may lead to secession. From the very days of independence, therefore, it has been in conflict with various such nationalities, in the North as well as North East. However, within national boundaries, it accepts the formation of new provinces. The Indian constitution categorically states that the Indian Parliament may, by law, form a new State by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more States or parts of States or by uniting any territory to a part of any State; increase the area of any State; diminish the area of any State; alter the boundaries of any State; alter the name of any State. Therefore, the aspiration of the people of Darjeeling to form a separate state within the Indian union does not violate the constitution. Whether a new province is formed or not will now be completely dependent on how forceful the demands are for the separate state and how willing the political establishment is to accommodate such demands. Only in the recent past, the new states of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh were carved out from the existing states when the ruling class found that the new formations suited their purpose.

Stance of CPI(M) and its allies

During the days of Indian independence, we have seen how the CPI had strongly advocated for the right to self-determination of the Gorkha community. Also, during the same priod, the communist party had led the struggle for formation of states in south India based on languages. However, as years went by, the parliamentary communist parties, having become strongly entrenched in the Indian electoral politics, slowly became unsympathetic to the demands of right to self-determination of different nationalities within the Indian territory. In general, these parties oppose the formation of new states and also reject any demands for secession from the Indian Union (e.g., the Kashmiri struggle). Probably, in their attempt to become “responsible” parliamentary parties within the Indian setup , they have tried to be as nationalistic as possible and have thus been stating that the territorial integrity of India cannot be questioned. On a lighter note, it is also possible that being continuously ridiculed, by rightist elements, as Chinese allies and the proponents of Indian partition (due to the Adhikary thesis), these parties always fear that any support for right to self-determination might make them political outcasts in the electoral battles. Therefore, in general, they have tried to pander to the jingoistic sentiments.

What are the main objections of these parties regarding the formation of new states or the demands for exercising the right to self-determination ? There are basically two arguments – i) division of states (or a probable secession) will weaken the working class movement and make them easier targets of the ruling class oppression ii) imperialist forces will use this as an instrument for breaking down hostile states and form new imperialist bases (as an example, they cite the formation of Kosovo with the help of American intervention).

It is true that most of these movements for self-determination are led by the local bourgeoisie. Usually this class is in fight with the bourgeoisie of the oppressing nationality to gain monopoly over local commerce and this results in the call for right to self-determination. The demand can only gain strength if truly there is a suppression of cultural expressions and lack of socio-economic development of the people in that region – if this is indeed the case, people from all segments of society definitely unite to free themselves from the oppressors. In such circumstances, the struggle for liberty also becomes a struggle against the oppressive ruling class of the dominant nationality and therefore such struggles require the unequivocal support of defenders of democratic rights. However, it is also important that, in those movements, the leftist forces which represent the interests of the working class/the peasantry/the unemployed/the women/social minorities, continue to engage in debates or struggles within the nationality and try to influence the course of the movement. External left support, apart from supporting the struggle, must also try to help these leftist forces in whatever way possible; in case, these forces are weak in areas of struggle, efforts must be made to help them in building up the movement. Also, when self-rule is obtained in those areas, struggles against different forms of oppressions on different segments of society are bound to emerge and therefore, the working class movement will only be strengthened in such situations. It has also been argued that solidarity can only been expressed if the leadership is secular and progressive in nature. Firstly, it is completely undemocratic for people from outside to determine who should lead the struggle – the people of the region are the only ones who should decide the path and the mode of their own struggle. Further, it is also not desirable to wait till the moment such leadership emerges among the nationality when the current socio-economic conditions are unbearable. Therefore, when the primary aim is the fight against the suppression of national expressions, such preconditions can only hamper the progress of the struggle. Of course, imperialist forces will use whatever wedge it can find to divide nations, mold the leadership of the oppressed nationality to further its own economic/strategic interests and also suppress the struggle of the common people. In such situations, alertness of the leftist forces within the movement is necessary – history provides them with sufficient lessons to counter imperialist designs and, of course, external solidarity groups must help them in this.

In the Indian context, let us accept that the working class movement, despite showing sufficient promises, has not reached the level of desired potency where it can confront and resist the policies of the ruling class. The two large leftist workers’ unions, CITU and AITUC, have lost considerable ground and can no longer claim to be the only voice of the workers in India. Therefore, it does not make a strong argument that the unity of the Indian working class will be weakened by the movements for self-determination. In case the scenario was such that regional ruling classes were seeking to secede with the purpose of preventing the spread of a growing powerful movement of workers and peasants, these arguments may have been worthwhile. But this is certainly not the situation in India. On the other hand, because of the general socio-economic backwardness of the regions which seek self-determination, these places could be the embryos of stronger leftist movements in the country. It is also difficult to claim, at the current juncture, that there is imperialist interference in those regions which seek to continue within the Indian Union after obtaining the right to self-rule. One may, for the sake of argument, make such claims for regions which wish to secede. It is also a fact that the Left Front ruled state governments have themselves not shied away from implementing neo-liberal economic policies which hurt the common masses or stopped seeking funds from imperialist sources. Thus, it is sheer dishonesty on the part of these leftist parties to claim that, after gaining self-rule, the new governments will indulge in imperialist policies which are harmful to the struggling people. Of course, if such situations arise, it becomes imperative for the leftist forces within those regions to organise the people to resist such policies. In fact, such situations do exist in the newly formed states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh and it is sad that, there, these leftist parties have failed to organise or strengthen the people’s movements which can resist such policies. For the consumption of mainstream politics, the CPI(M) has claimed that lack of sufficient resources for generating revenues will force the new smaller states to be financially dependent on the central government and therefore it would weaken the federal spirit of the union. In this regard, it should be pointed out that if historically a region is economically backward or has faced social discriminations by the dominant nationalities, it is completely undemocratic to deny the people their right to self-determination on the pretext that the new state will be economically unviable. Those regions cannot wait for ever for the character of the state to change so that the oppressions cease to exist. Rather, the immediate formation of a new province along with implementation of a people’s program can alleviate their problems and perhaps chart a new course in governance.

Now, let us be more specific about the situation in Gorkhaland. The Left Front government, like most rulers, have never been sympathetic to the demands of right to self-determination within the boundaries of West Bengal. During the struggle for a separate state of Kamtapur by the Rajbangshis of North Bengal, the state brutally suppressed the nascent movement with several incidents of gross human rights violations. Unlike the case of Rajbangshis, CPI(M) and its intellectuals have not tried to delve into semantics to contest the Gorkha nationhood – in this case, it is an impossible task for them and would be a complete turnaround from their 1947 analysis. Rather they have adopted a more blunt approach : dubbing the demand for Gorkhaland as “separatist” in character and claiming that this demand is being incited by “foreign forces”. They have even tried to generate ghosts of possible future secessions from the Indian Union. Some CPI(M) leaders have also claimed that the present demands do not genuinely reflect the will of the people, rather it is the attempt of opportunistic and communal elements to claim state power. Statements such as “Bangla bhag hotey debo na” (We will not allow any division of Bengal) from these leaders have only exposed their Bengali chauvinistic nature and a rather crude attempt to stoke nationalistic feelings among Bengalis, specially the middle-class, to gain popular support for suppressing such movements. Often these leaders, through their public statements, have revealed their apparent feeling of superior understanding of state of affairs, as if they know better than the inhabitants of Darjeeling what is good or bad for the development of the region. It is incomprehensible, to any democratic-minded person, why a deprived section, for their well-being, should rely on the benevolence of the ruling establishment. There have also been reports of elements trying to divide communities by creating communal tensions. While miscreants are bound to take advantage of any crisis, let us also not forget that the ruling establishments can resort to such tactics to discredit the opposition and thereby suppress popular movements.

Whatever noise they might make, the Left Front cannot shrug off the lack of developmental work in the hills from 1977 onwards, although they will certainly point to Ghisingh for mismanagement of funds. Today, there is a genuine demand from the people for better civic facilities, schools, colleges, technical institutions, an university, industries and an end to unemployment. It is usually claimed by the mainstream Indian left that capitalistic development is uneven in nature and the genuine grievances of the backward areas need to be addressed to solve economic problems without requiring to partition provinces. Given the stewardship of a government for around three decades, it is amazing that the Left Front government has not been able to practice what it otherwise preaches. Rather than industrial development, the hilly regions have actually seen an industrial decline. The tea industry in Darjeeling and surrounding area is in state of crisis – several of them have closed down and the workers are suffering from chronic unemployment. Same is the state of affairs in the cinchona plantations. The state government, disregarding the fate of the workers, has allied with many of the business families to convert the tea-gardens into resorts. In some tea-gardens, leaders of CITU have been attacked by the unemployed workers when these leaders have indulged in middlemanship or corruption. With the Left Front government increasingly allying with neo-liberal forces, the protection of the capitalist interests are seemingly more important – therefore, these territories need to be retained for their abundant natural resources, tourism, markets and other capitalist exploitations.

In Conclusion

There is no doubt that the people in Darjeeling constitute a distinct nation and their socio-economic and cultural life has not been allowed to fully flourish in post-independent India. Their struggle for self-rule, which is not new but has a history of around 100 years, has also found support from later settlers of the region – everyone, it seems, is hoping that the formation of a new state will bring new fortunes and rejuvenate life in that area. On the other hand, the Left Front government seems to be in no mood to part with that region. Currently, other major parliamentary political parties are also not in favour of partitioning the state. Meanwhile, the adamant state government is bound try every possible tactics to deny the people their right to self-determination. For those of us, who wish to uphold the democratic rights of struggling people, it is our responsibility to not only remain alert to the possibilities of violations of the rights of the people of Darjeeling but also to actively express solidarity in their political struggle to decide their own destiny.


i) Silence under freedom, Subhash Ranjan Chakraborty, The Politics of Autonomy : Indian Experiences,
edited by Ranabir Samaddar, published by Calcutta Research Group.
ii) History of Darjeeling, Sonam B. Wangyal
iii) Never ending wait for homeland, Sonam B. Wangyal
iv) Gorkhaland Andolan : Jatisattwar Atmaniyontroner Adhikar Prasonge, Samik Chakraborty, Shramikshakti, August 2008.
v) Ek Abodomito Jatisattwar Swabhumi Andolan : Gorkhaland, Partha Sarathi Bandyopadhyay, Aneek, July 2008.

(The article is a compilation and commentary by Pinaki and Samik, members of Sanhati. Both of them are involved with the democratic-rights organisations in India)

Source: http://sanhati.com/front-page/966/

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