Darjeeling’s New Eruption

The demand for statehood for “Gorkhaland” threatens to snowball into a confrontation between various identities.

The hills in Darjeeling in West Bengal state have been reverberating again with calls for a separate state of “Gorkhaland”. Nearly 20 years after a high pitched demand was raised by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) under the leadership of Subhas Ghisingh, his one-time protege Bimal Gurung is leading a series of agitations with the same demand but with a significant difference. Under Gurung’s leadership, the Gorkha Janamukthi Morcha (GJM) has asked for a “Gorkhaland” which would incorporate areas within the plains in Siliguri and Doars as well. An indefinite strike call was called earlier this month by Gurung and his party, who have refused overtures for talks with the state government, which, in turn, has refused to acknowledge the demand for a separate state. The agitation in the Darjeeling district has created bottlenecks for transport of goods to the landlocked Sikkim. After the central government received a delegation of the GJM and assured them of tripartite talks if required, the bandh has been lifted until early July.
The rise of the GJM has coincided with the isolation of the GNLF and Subhas Ghisingh, the long-time chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). Elections to the council have not been held since 2004 and the performance of the council has been questioned. There are allegations of corruption even as there has been no significant improvement in the region’s development or in governance under the GNLF’s rule. The GJM shot into prominence after its opposition to a memorandum of understanding signed by Ghisingh with the state and the central governments to recognise Darjeeling as a tribal territory under the purview of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The proposal, which was in principle accepted by the state government, has been rejected by the GJM which is loath to consider Darjeeling as a tribal territory because of the varied ethnic composition in the region. Since then the Sixth Schedule bill has been dropped.

The move to bring Darjeeling under the Sixth Schedule would have provided an assurance on paper that these areas would be self-governed with local laws and with local control over substantive financial and legislative powers. Less than 35 per cent of the hill dwellers are currently recognised as scheduled tribe (ST) members and the move to incorporate Darjeeling as a tribal territory is seen as divisive by the other sections of the hills region.

The GJM had used the “Gorkha” identity sentiment through agitations against non-Nepali speakers and outsiders, which rocked the Darjeeling district in September last year, to consolidate its support base even as the GNLF was gradually sidelined. By claiming that the Sixth Schedule status was meant to divide the “Gorkha” community in the hills, the GJM has been able to pitchfork the Gorkhaland demand into the limelight again. The politics of identity has been further complicated with groups representing the Bengali-speaking population in the Siliguri area rioting on this issue. Other identity based and separatist parties such as the Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) have also entered the fray by supporting the agitation launched by the GJM. In essence, the issue threatens to snowball into an ethnic quagmire pitting hill dwellers against those living in the the plains as well as giving a fillip to other separatist tendencies in the region.

The incidents in Darjeeling suggest that the logic of development through the means of providing special treatment on the basis of identity, representation and difference has its limits. The state and central governments have underestimated the fissiparous tendencies of using the logic of special treatment methods based on the concept of ethnic difference rather than “disadvantage” in a region that is characterised by multiplicity of identities. At the same time, it is obvious that there must be talks between the hills based groups such as the GJM and the political leadership of the state to prevent the deterioration of the situation into a violent confrontation between the hills dwelling and the plains dwelling people of the district. The GJM has accepted tripartite political talks with the state and central governments. Considering the dangerous portents that the agitation has taken, adopting maximalist positions will not result in any tangible improvement in the situation.
Editorial written for the Economic & Political Weekly


A New Gorkhaland State: How Justified is the Demand?

The famed and famous honeymoon haunt of Darjeeling is again in the news, this time for a wrong reason. The Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) almost barred the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police from entering Darjeeling recently thereby forcing both the DM and SP to cool their heels in Siliguri for almost five days before they were finally allowed in. GJMM’s decision followed skirmishes between the police and its supporters in Siliguri where the latter were demonstrating to press their demand for a new Gorkhaland state.

During the said skirmish, many policemen and GJMM supporters including ex-servicemen were badly injured. The government wisely decided against advising DM and SP to force their way into the district so as not to precipitate things further. The wisdom somewhere also emanated from the way things turned out in recent past in such far flung places as Singur, Nandigram, Cochbehar and Dinhata in West Bengal.


However, GJMM’s decision to bar DM and SP from entering the district has been roundly denounced by all and sundry. One of their key allies in the ongoing movement, CPI (ML) has castigated the GJMM’s barring of DM and SP out of the district. Referring to GJMM’s recent ban on the entry of DM and SP to Darjeeling, Mr. Kanu Sanyal, the General Secretary of CPI (ML) said, ‘This is an entirely irresponsible act’, further adding that such irresponsible moves can actually spoil the statehood movement.

GJMM as a political organisation rose to prominence since its success with an agitation launched in the wake of a Radio Jockey’s indiscretion against Prashant Tamang, the Indian Idol winner. Since then, it has been trying hard to find some issues for its political survival. Another shot in its arm was the dissolution of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) following its successful movement for the same, forcing the redoubtable Subhash Ghishing to step down as head of the Council.

Encouraged by these successes, GJMM led by Bimal Gurung has decided to keep its flock mobilised on one cause or the other to press the Government into accepting its demand for a separate Gorkhaland state. Bimal Gurung, a trusted confidant of Subhash Ghishing at one time fell out with him when the latter demanded and almost succeeded in getting the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling.

Bimal Gurung, reading the mood of the people correctly, not only led a successful coup against Ghishing thereby getting the leadership mantle for Darjeeling, but also decided to rake up the long pigeon-holed issue of a separate Gorkhaland state instead of settling just for the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling, something which was strongly advocated by Ghishing. In its bid to do so, GJMM has found support from such other disparate outfits as Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP) and Greater Cochbehar Democratic Party (GCDP). They together have found a convenient ground to hog media attention for their long-forgotten causes, more so in an election year. Be it noted that West Bengal is supposed to have its panchayat election in the month of May to be followed by parliamentary election very soon.

But many feel that the present bonhomie among GJMM, KPP and GCDP is not likely to last long because of their conflicting interests. After all, the proposed Gorkhaland, Kamtapur and Greater Cochbehar states for which these parties have been agitating have overlapping areas and in case of the last two, almost the same area. So, the friends today may turn foes tomorrow and may not share the same platform in future as things stand on date unless they agree to redefine and restructure their respective movements.

The electoral factors coupled with incidents in Nandigram, Singur and Cochbehar over the last one year have restrained the government to go for the ‘Big Bang’ approach while tackling the instant Darjeeling crisis. Because of the turbulence and disturbances seen in the last few days owing to the ongoing GJMM agitation in Darjeeling, the developmental work in the DGHC area has been negatively affected, resulting in great loss to the local people for whom the said movement has been launched. The experiment of DGHC would have been better able to provide all that the local people wanted, but if it failed the reasons therefor can be attributed simply to those who had been at the helm of its affairs all these past years.

The fact that Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha has raised a new demand by asking for inclusion of Siliguri and Dooars in the proposed Gorkhaland state has also raised many hackles. Referring to this demand of GJMM, Mr. Kanu Sanyal said that ‘a demand must be based on logic and not merely on emotions’. The CPI (ML) hence supports the inclusion of only adjacent and contiguous areas in the proposed Gorkhaland state. Many believe that such a demand is meant to create a divide between the hills and the plains on ethnic lines which is a dangerous trend. Many observers believe that the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state comprising the three sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong may have some justification, but that of inclusion of Dooars and Siliguri is not supported by history.

The fact remains that Darjeeling Hills did not have notable Nepalese population until 1865. The Lepchas, a distinct ethnic tribe, dominated the hills in terms of population. In 1865, when the tea estates came into being, ethnic Nepalese began pouring in in large numbers from Nepal in search of jobs in the upcoming tea estates. The number further grew with the introduction of Darjeeling Himalayan Railways in 1880. As far as Siliguri and Dooars are concerned, ethnic Nepalese were negligible in numbers until 1950 when Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty was signed between the two countries. Even now the ethnic Nepali population is not more than 60,000 in Siliguri out of the total estimated population of 70 million.

One does not know as to how much merit is there in such demands for statehood from different quarters, but one thing can be definitely said that there does exist a case for a second State Reorganisation Commission.

Instead of a populist and political approach to such demands for statehood, it is advisable that the entire issue of state reorganisation be considered afresh on such grounds as to ensure a holistic economic development and a compact, self-contained geographical entity. The merit of such demands for statehood as Telangana, Vidharbha, Mithilanchal, Purvanchal, Harit Prades, Gorkhaland and Kamtapur should all be considered on objective criteria rather than being subject to such demands pressed through the media of militant movements.

Also, the experiments in our own country with regards to formation of such new states tell a mixed story. While many big states are quite better governed, there are many small ones who continue to languish despite becoming a separate state. One believes that the issue here definitely is not the formation of a separate state, often the desire of the local elite than being rooted in popular demand.

What should be important is the fact as to how well the state is administered and how viable can such a new entity be, economically and geographically. In West Bengal, the successful panchayat system did guarrantee the popular participation in the process of governance, still DGHC was created. 

But as DGHC remained a one-man show devoid of any real popular participation, the experiment naturally failed. So, one has to really tread very cautiously before even toying with the idea of a separate state. (My news.in)

  by Saumitra Mohan















The inevitable has happened in Darjeeling district. The demand for Gorkhaland has erupted once again, and this time in a much more vocal, sweeping and determined manner than the last. There are four primary reasons for this. First, the setting up of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988 as a solution to the last round of Gorkhaland agitation of the Eighties failed to do Darjeeling any good. The DGHC had no power to speak of, as it remained under the control of the Writers’ Building. Its chairman, Subhas Ghisingh, ran it as a personal fief and with the tacit support of the Bengal administration, systematically demolished well-known institutions and created a deep sense of insecurity among the people. The West Bengal government obviously enjoyed this throttling of democratic rights and further consolidated its friendship with Ghisingh. Even nine months back, the Bengal government maintained that there are no opposition parties in Darjeeling.

Second, if Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh could happen without much fuss, why not Gorkhaland? An autonomous Gorkhaland would complete the geographical definition of the North-east. If Sikkim and Assam are parts of the North-east, then why not the contiguous Darjeeling district and the Dooars? The political history of the demand for Gorkhaland dates back to 1907. The memorandum submitted by the Hillmen’s Association to Sir Samuel Hoare, the Secretary of State for India, on October 25, 1930, states in detail why the hill people wanted to remain outside Bengal. Ghisingh and his party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, sold out the core issue of Gorkhaland just to remain in power. This movement, like that for the constitutional recognition of the Nepali language before it happened in 1992, has been linked to questions of Gorkha identity and of the need to acknowledge their contribution in the making of modern India.

Third, the last 20 years have shown clearly that the Bengal government’s interest in Darjeeling is only skin deep. It continues to treat most parts of Darjeeling and the Dooars as an ‘internal colony’. This attitude was reflected most clearly in the way the government tried to impose the Sixth Schedule status on Darjeeling. For the Gorkhaland agitators, this proved to be the last straw.

Last, the sharp decline in economic and other opportunities within Bengal and the steady rise of Sikkim as a political power have had a serious effect on the Darjeeling region. Every one there now feels that the only way to ensure development for the hill people is to let them have a constituent state of their own.

Unlike the Gorkhaland agitation of the Eighties, this time the movement has spread not only all over Darjeeling but has also covered the Dooars region of Jalpaiguri district. As the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha took up the cause of Gorkhaland, it received tremendous and spontaneous support from the people. It is necessary to understand the fundamental differences between the Eighties protests and the present campaign.

Twenty years after the DGHC was formed, the people have become acutely conscious of the negligence and deprivation they are being subjected to. It is an awareness they did not possess last time. After two decades of misrule, they have realized how hollow the political intentions of the ruling elites of Darjeeling are. As a consequence, the movement has become more widespread. It is almost entirely being carried forward by the younger generation from across various communities — Marwaris, Biharis, Bengalis, Koche-meches and Gorkhas. While the mainstream political parties are nowhere to be seen now, in the last phase there had been a strong opposition from the cadre of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) operating in the hills. The presence of local, national and international media is a major boost to the movement.

The protest movement has now included the Dooars on the ground that a state that includes the hills and a part of the plains will have a solid economic viability. With the major tea gardens falling within this area and given the huge hydel power potential, attractive tourist destinations, important educational institutions and roughly four international borders, Gorkhaland will be one of the most developed states in the country. The future state can generate millions of dollars by diplomatically managing the economic transactions in the border areas. Darjeeling, as a brand-name, is well known all over the world. If rightly repositioned, it would attract a large number of multi-national companies and both domestic and foreign investment.

The protests this time have been non-violent, unlike the Eighties, when a large number of people were killed and properties destroyed. Moreover, in contrast to the last phase of agitation, the current struggle is receiving positive signals from the Union government, which seems to be fairly disposed towards the idea of giving a durable solution to the problem. The West Bengal government had called the GNLF movement ‘anti-national’. It had then promised to undertake substantial projects for development in the district. But even after two decades, it has nothing to show for its efforts. The government had been warned many a time about the steadily deteriorating situation in the hills. But it chose political convenience in prolonging Ghisingh’s debilitating rule rather than lend a ear to the grievances of the people.

The emergence of a dangerously communal outfit like Amra Bangali, blatantly parochial statements made by the urban development minister, Asok Bhattacharya, and police violence at the peaceful demonstration by veteran armymen clearly show how the government is resorting to condemnable tactics to suppress the hill people. Their agitations, like those in Nandigram, are more against state oppression than anything else. Today, the people of the Darjeeling district are demanding answers to questions such as why the entire tea and cinchona industry is in the doldrums, what happened to the rich forest resources, why are there starvation deaths in the Dooars tea gardens, why are the three hill subdivisions still crying for drinking water and basic health facilities, and why Darjeeling has only two drinking water reservoirs in Sinchal, built in 1910 and 1931 by the British administration. There are various other signs of neglect by the state government. There are no panchayats in Darjeeling and hardly any Central government schemes are implemented here. Except in the state assembly, the people of Darjeeling figure nowhere in the decision-and policy-making process of West Bengal.

If West Bengal thinks of Darjeeling as its ‘crown’, then why has there never been a tableau on the Queen of the Hills in the Republic Day parades in New Delhi for the last 60 years ? The state government has not added a single good educational institution to the entire hill region after 1947. What do the people of the Dooars and Darjeeling gain out of hydel projects like those on the Teesta, Rammam or Jaldhaka ? And, had it not been for the local residents and admirers of Darjeeling from outside India, the toy train would not have been included in the Unesco’s world heritage list. These are some of the complaints of the hill people today. They take these as the indicators of a policy of discrimination followed by the state government in dealing with the hill region. It is striking that even after Ghisingh’s humiliating exit, the Bengal administration still has nothing more to offer other than the talk about a few more freebies in the already defunct basket of autonomy.

All eyes are now rained on the way the Morcha conducts itself in its forward march. It is up to the Morcha now to enlist the support of other local and national political parties to its cause and to convince the state and Union governments about the inevitability of a separate state for the hill people. In the process, it has to find solutions to such vexed issues as those over the alleged advantages enjoyed by the people of the plains over those of the hills, and the communal insinuations being delivered deliberately by the political leaders of the ruling party in Siliguri. The tasks are not easy, to say the least. However, there is one assurance. The public opinion, as expressed in the media, is clearly in favour of a separate Gorkhaland. After all, why not a 29th state in the grand, ever-expanding federal structure of the country ?