In line with its commitment to chopping up the larger Indian states into bite-size pieces for reasons that range from respect for people with separate identities and recognition of their rights to administrative convenience, the BJP has nominated former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh to contest the Darjeeling seat in West Bengal.
By doing so, the BJP has packaged the dangerously fissiparous demand for a separate Gorkhaland as a demand with merit, legitimacy and right.
For the BJP it would appear that the price of a seat in the Marxist bastion of West Bengal would be, if won, a politically septic focus for the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM). This would be a low cost initiative with little risk.
Given that the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) was auctioning its support to whichever party agreed to advance its agenda of carving out a separate state of Gorkhaland in the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and in the Dooars including Siliguri city, the BJP can claim its bid was successful and that it had negotiated a bargain. Officially the BJP has not committed itself via its manifesto to pitching for a separate Gorkhaland state. Its candidate, Jaswant Singh has, albeit wrapping the bitter message in meaningless reassurances.
Encouraging ambitions of a separate Gorkhaland state, albeit technically within the framework of the Indian Constitution, may not seem to be dangerous. It could be dressed up to sound sympathetic to the quest for Gorkha identity and esteem that began with the movement launched by Subas Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front.
While the issue of whether the bid for a separate Gorkhaland is a simple demand of hill people for respect and identity can be discussed later, what does need to be fore-grounded is the link between the idea of a separate Gorkhaland and India’s security.
The tacit support to the bid for a separate Gorkhaland nails BJP’s blinkered, if not distorted vision, on how it would fulfil its campaign promises of meeting terrorism from across the border with a muscular capability to protect India and improve the security environment. Having declared that the rival Congress is weak and irresponsible about handling the threat to security posed by terrorism, it is bizarre to note that the BJP has taken a soft position on Gorkhaland.
There is no question that early Nepali settlers in the Darjeeling area deserve a separate identity to distinguish them from citizens of Nepal who later migrated to India in search of livelihood. That demand for a different identity was met through the Gorkha Hill Council accord that recognised Gorkhas as people who “belonged” to the hill areas of Darjeeling, distinct from the Nepalis who migrated there and to other corners of India in search of work.
The demand for a separate Gorkhaland is, however, not about lebensraum; it has to be juxtaposed against the issue of security, including defeating terrorism. The BJP ought to have known its geography of India rather better; the demand for Gorkhaland would jeopardise that slender land connection described as “Chicken’s Neck” between the rest of India and the Northeast of the country.
The area that GJM has claimed for Gorkhaland includes sensitive places like the Sukna forest where the 33 Corps of the Eastern Command is stationed, crucial for defending India’s borders in the Eastern Himalayas where China is a looming sometimes threatening presence.
Any blockages within the Chicken’s Neck would snap the link between the rest of the country and Sikkim, it would hamper movement in and out of Bhutan towards which India has treaty obligations and it would isolate an area where according to Indian intelligence ISI, Le-T, HuJI terror networks have been operational. It may be pointed out that it is in India’s security interest to remain alert as there are strong suspicions of a connect between terror networks and insurgents in the Northeast and links between Maoists and insurgents as well.
In other words, the foothills of Darjeeling are not peaceful, quaint places for “tea” tourists. That Siliguri has been a staging post for ISI operatives, who have used it to move in and out of India via Nepal should have alerted the BJP to the risk of irresponsibly encouraging GJM.
That there have always been small and vocal groups raising a demand for “Greater Nepal” where connection via the now deposed monarchy would serve as adhesive is known to BJP.To convert Darjeeling into an “innocent political fishing expedition” by lining up with the openly divisive Gorkha Janamukti Morcha is to refuse to acknowledge the rather more sinister and serious implications of promoting the idea of smaller states in a place where India’s borders are open to Nepal, China, Bangladesh and last but not least Bhutan through which terrorists, arms and information is trafficked.