In mid-May, the Trinamool Congress won the Mirik Municipality, marking the first victory for a party from the Bengal plains in the Darjeeling hills in over four decades. “Special thanks to Mirik for reposing faith in us. We will work sincerely for you. After so many decades we begin a new era in the hills. The hills are smiling,” tweeted Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The promised new era meant bridging the gap between the plains of Bengal and hills of Darjeeling. On May 16, the process of mainstreaming the hills was initiated when Mamata said that Bengali would be made compulsory for all students up to Class 10 in government schools across the State.
The move backfired and the Darjeeling hills erupted in massive protests. The State government attempted solidarity by holding a Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling on June 8, the first such meeting in 45 years.
After the meeting, Mamata announced that a new secretariat will be set up in Darjeeling hills and work on it will begin in six months. Incidentally, Darjeeling also happens to be the summer capital of West Bengal.
But instead of pacifying tempers, the meeting only added fuel to the fire. Realising that things were fast spiralling out of control, the Chief Minister announced that the hills were exempted from making Bengali compulsory. By then, the latent demand for Gorkhaland had ignited all over again.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), led by Bimal Gurung, has spearheaded the protests demanding a separate State for the majority Nepali-speaking Gorkha community. ‘Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali,’ the war cry of the Gorkha soldiers in the Army is again reverberating in the hills. Rallies demanding Gorkhaland have become a norm.
Many of these rallies have resulted in mayhem. Police and government property have been set on fire and the khukris have come out. Six people have lost their lives and over hundred have been injured, according to reports.
In response, the West Bengal administration has repeatedly raided GJM offices and hideouts, including Gurung’s residence. Gurung has been accused of misusing funds in his capacity as chief of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). A special audit of GTA funds since its inception on July 18, 2011, has been ordered.
The Army has been called out and internet has been suspended. The indefinite shutdown of Darjeeling hills has continued for over ten days and all boarding schools are being evacuated. Stranded tourists are making desperate efforts to get out after Gurung clarified that their stay in the hills would be at their own risk.
On Friday, all elected members of the GTA, including Gurung, put in their papers so as to intensify their stir for Gorkhaland.
“I am not Kishenji (Maoist leader) who can be eliminated in a police encounter. I have not taken up arms against the country. I am fighting for the identity of the Gorkhas and in a democracy I have every right to do that. The agitation for Gorkhaland will continue. Our one point demand is Gorkhaland. I will fight till the end,” Gurung told the media after his resignation.
An Old Demand
The demand for Gorkhaland by the ethnic Nepali-Indian Gorkha origin people of the Darjeeling hills and areas of Dooars, based in the Northern part of West Bengal, on the basis of linguistic and cultural difference with Bengali culture, is one of the oldest statehood demands. Its origin can be traced to 1907, when the hill people under the leadership of Sonam Wangel Ladenla demanded a separate administrative unit for Darjeeling.
India’s infamous Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Nepal in 1950 added to the feeling of alienation. The treaty’s Article 7 reads: “The Government of India and Nepal agree to grant on a reciprocal basis to the national of one country in the territory of another the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of properties, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of similar nature.”
The Gorkhas claim that this treaty makes their Indian citizenship ambiguous and it has led to the loss of their Indian Identity. They stress that their Indian citizenship cannot be reciprocal under any circumstances. So, the demand for Gorkhaland is primarily a search for identity. Lack of development in the hills has fuelled this recurrent demand.
The Gorkhaland movement hit the headlines when it resorted to violent agitations under the leadership of Subhas Ghising and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in the 1980s. On March 13, 1986, the GNLF started its agitation for Gorkhaland, which included a 72-hour bandh demanding Gorkhaland, not observing Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti, and launching a movement to convince people not to pay their taxes and loans.
After nearly two years of fighting and the loss of over 200 lives, in September 1987, consequent to discussions between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government at the Centre, the State government led by West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and Subhas Ghising’s GNLF, it was decided to grant autonomous status to Darjeeling.
The GNLF agreed to drop the demand for a separate State in return for the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). The DGHC, which came into being in August 1998 with Ghising as its chairman, got control for the social, economic, educational, and cultural advancement of Gorkhas.
In 2007, Bimal Gurung developed differences with Ghising and this triggered the second round of protests for Gorkhaland. These protests resulted in a tripartite agreement signed by the GJM with the West Bengal and central governments on July 18, 2011, leading to the formation of the GTA, with much more powers than the DGHC.
The GTA succeeded the DGHC in August 2012 and administered Darjeeling, Kurseong, Mirik, some areas of Siliguri subdivision of Darjeeling district and Kalimpong district.
All the 45 elected members of the GTA, including its chief Gurung, resigned last Friday accusing the West Bengal government of turning the GTA into a ‘farce’. The resignation followed an all-party meeting in the hills on June 20, which decided to withdraw from the tripartite GTA accord and pursue the longstanding demand for a separate Gorkhaland State.
Bivek Tamang and Sangmu Thendup, Sikkim University, in Economic & Political Weekly, point out that “the East India Company took over Darjeeling in 1835. Before this takeover, Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim. Darjeeling became a part of Bengal only in 1954 under Schedule V of The Absorbed Areas (Laws) Act 1954 (Act No 20 of 1954).”
So strictly speaking, Darjeeling should have gone back to Sikkim in 1947. Incidentally, Pawan Kumar Chamling, Chief Minister of Sikkim, has supported the demand for a separate Gorkhaland.
“The past three uproarious decades of agitation for the statehood demand in the neighbouring hills has claimed more than 1,000 lives and caused incalculable loss of property and constant threat to security of life. The fulfilment of the constitutional demand of the people of the Darjeeling hills, which is deeply connected with the national identity of the Indian Gorkhas, will provide long-awaited justice to their patriotism. Creation of Gorkhaland State will also restore permanent peace and prosperity in the region,” Chamling wrote to Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Friday.
The consistent effort to assimilate the region completely with West Bengal by riding over the uniqueness of Gorkhas is accentuating the problem. Autonomy to DGHC and more autonomy to GTA have failed to bring lasting peace to the quaint hills.