Say NO to Gorkhaland

Darjeeling must remain with West Bengal
Kanchan Gupta
In the summer of 1966, Hope Cooke, the American socialite-turned-Gyalmo, or Queen Consort of the ill-fated 12th Chogyal of Sikkim, created a furore in New Delhi by contesting, in an article published in the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology’s bulletin, India’s possession of Darjeeling that was ‘gifted’ to East India Company by Tsugphud Namgyal. In his book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Pioneer columnist and former editor of The Statesman Sunanda K Datta-Ray recounts how she argued that “no Sikkimese monarch was empowered to alienate territory”. According to Hope Cooke, Tsugphud Namgyal’s gift to the Company was “in the traditional context of a grant for usufructage only; ultimate jurisdiction, authority and the right to resume the land being implicitly retained”. She claimed Darjeeling’s cession was the “gift of a certain tract for a certain purpose and does not imply the transfer of sovereign rights”.
The immediate context of the Gyalmo’s assertion of the Chogyal’s indivisible rights was the web of deceit that was being spun, with more than a little help from the Kazi and other local players, by New Delhi to bring Gangtok within the orbit of its absolute control, converting India’s suzerainty into sovereignty over Sikkim. What happened subsequently is well known: Sikkim was annexed and made a part of the Union of India; the Chogyal was stripped of all powers and died a broken man; and, Hope Cooke, after separating from the Chogyal, returned to the US where she now lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York. These details are inconsequential today. What, however, is relevant is the history of Darjeeling, which is once again in the news, this time because Gorkha settlers are asserting their right to set up a homeland in the three hill divisions — Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong — apart from Siliguri and the Dooars, which they want to re-christen Gorkhaland.
History tells us how Sikkim’s borders once stretched up to eastern Nepal; how Prithvi Narayan Shah, who welded feuding clans and warring regions into a sprawling kingdom, grabbed Darjeeling; and, how General Ochterlony’s campaign against the Gorkhas resulted in the Treaty of Sugauli (also spelt Segouli) in 1816 when Nepal ceded 10,000 sq km of territory, including Darjeeling, to the East India Company. That’s where history begins and ends for the Gokhas both in Nepal and in India who are clamouring for Gorkhaland: Darjeeling was Nepali territory ceded to the British and, therefore, must now revert back to the Gorkhas.
But history also tells us, much to the discomfort of the champions of Gorkhaland, that the Treaty of Sugauli was followed by the Treaty of Titlya in 1817, whereby the British restored the land between Mechi and Teesta rivers to Sikkim, to which it legitimately belonged. Eighteen years later, the then Chogyal leased Darjeeling to the British who wanted to set up a sanatorium in its soothing, sylvan climes. In the brief lease agreement signed on February 1, 1835, the Chogyal is referred to as the ‘Sikkimputtee Rajah’. The Bengal Gazeteer informs us that in 1841 the East India Company granted the Chogyal a compensation of Rs 3,000; it was later raised to Rs 6,000.
This is how Darjeeling, till then an uninhabited mountain region, came to be inhabited. The British administrators needed ‘natives’ to first build and then maintain the picture postcard town that came up in Darjeeling. Some Bhutias and Lepchas were already there, others came from Sikkim. The demand for labour increased after planters cleared forests for tea gardens and Darjeeling Tea became a source of enormous revenue. The Gorkhas came, as did tribals from what is now Jharkhand, to work as ‘coolies’ in the gardens, plucking leaves and working shifts in the tea-curing and packaging factories. Bengalis sought and found employment as babus (clerks) in the tea gardens, in the municipal administration and other establishments, for example schools set up by missionaries primarily for the children of Anglo-Indian families.
In 1907, the Hillmen’s Association petitioned the British for a separate administrative set-up free from Bengal; the petition was contemptuously ignored, and rightly so. After independence and the reorganisation of States, Darjeeling, along with the Dooars, became a part of West Bengal. Darjeeling has since been designated a separate district, Siliguri is part of Jalpaiguri district in the foothills, and the Dooars are part of Cooch Behar district. The Gorkhas who came and settled in Darjeeling, Siliguri and the Dooars became citizens of India in 1950; a separate Gazette notification was issued to settle this point and remove any doubts about their citizenship.
The status of Darjeeling may have been considered a settled issue by Kolkata and New Delhi, and after Sikkim’s annexation, Gangtok, but not by the Gorkha settlers. In 1986 Mr Subash Ghising launched a violent agitation to press the Gorkha National Liberation Front’s demand for a separate Gorkhaland, citing West Bengal’s “step-motherly” treatment of Darjeeling and “exploitation” of its residents. He was clearly motivated by dreams of helping re-establish ‘Greater Nepal’ by creating a bridge between Nepal and Sikkim. The agitation ended with the signing of an agreement, which resulted in the setting up of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, an elected and empowered body that would look after development-related issues. Mr Ghising failed to deliver and became a Sagina Mahato, putty in the hands of the West Bengal Government and happy to have his snout in the trough.
Cut to 2008: Mr Bimal Gurung, a former associate of Mr Ghising, has parted company with the GNLF and floated his own separatist organisation, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, and revived the demand for Gorkhaland. He has audaciously staked claim to the three hill divisions of Darjeeling as well as Siliguri and the Dooars. The revival of the agitation coincides with Maoists — who hope to re-establish the frontiers of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s ‘Greater Nepal’ — coming to power in Kathmandu. Mr Gurung’s agitation has little to do with “local aspirations” of Gorkhas; it is as insidious and dangerous as the assertion of ‘Kashmiriyat’ in Kashmir Valley.
Those who are “sympathetic” to the demand for Gorkhaland would do well to bear in mind that ‘Greater Nepal’ is not only about Nepal expanding its territory in the east up to Teesta, but also recovering the land ceded by Prithvi Narayan Shah which stretches up to Sutlej. If we concede the demand for Gorkhaland, we should be prepared to concede vast tracts of land in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. If the latter is not acceptable, then a third partition of Bengal is equally unacceptable.
(Sunday Pioneer, Coffee Break, June 29, 2008.)
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