Demand for Gorkhaland based on historical arguments, people’s voice should be dispassionately heard

By Sadhan Mukherjee*
Thousands of tourists are stuck in Darjeeling as all routes to that tourist spot including the Toy Train are closed. Special flights are being arranged but how to reach the nearest airport at Bagdogra when all roads are closed? From today (12 June) an indefinite bandh of government offices has been called. Quite a big number of forces have been deployed by the state government. But violence has already begun in some places like in Bijonbari and Sukna.
The present flare up was occasioned by the introduction of Bengali as compulsory language by the state government. To this has now been added the old demand for Gorkhaland. After the Gorkha National National Liberation Front (GNLF) carried on its agitation for an independent Gorkhaland (1986-1988), a settlement in 1988 was arrived at with the Indian authorities. 
The GNLF was split after the settlement and after the death of GNLF chief Subhas Ghising in 2015, it became weak. The demand for separate Gorkhaland was resurrected by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung in 2007 and is continuing.
Obviously, the 1988 agreement did not work and the development work to be undertaken in the hilly areas was not satisfactory. But actually behind the slogan of lack of development work is the old demand for a distinct state, not just an adjunct administration under West Bengal.
It is British imperialism that is essentially responsible for creating all sorts of divisions in the subcontinent as it was convenient for them to divide and rule. The Indian government initially followed the British style of administration but the movements in states forced them to redraw the maps of existing states. There is a long history behind the reorganisation of states in the Indian Union.
The history of this subcontinent is a history of twisted developments. The Gorkhas had invaded Sikkim dominion of Chogyal around 1780 when they captured most part of Sikkim state including Darjeeling and Siliguri. For 35 years they ruled but lost these areas after the British-Nepal war. Nepal was forced to cede its territory from Teesta region to Sutlej in 1816. In 1817 the British East India Company reinstated the Chogyal and restored most of the land he previously ruled.
The British gave Darjeeling to Sikkim but in 1835 took it back since it was to start tea plantation in that area on a large scale. No one today really talks about 1780 but only from 1835. Similar things were also done with Bhutan which was given the Bengal Dooars area, previously under the Raja of Cooch Behar, while in return Bhutan gave Kalimpong to British. Like British arrangement, the external relations of Bhutan are now guided on the advice of India.
The British made Darjeeling a “Non-Regulated Area” which meant that rules and regulations of British Raj did not automatically apply to the district. It was then changed to a “Scheduled District” and again to “Backward Tracts” and finally to “Partially Excluded Area” until the independence of India. A lot of mess thus was left over by the British.
The Lepchas actually were the original inhabitants of the area and they were engaged in zhoom (shifting) cultivation. But they were small in number. This is the pretext that is put forward to say that Gorkhas were outsiders. In 1865 the British started tea cultivation and soon built a narrow gauge railway to Darjeeling. Many people came to work in the plantations and settled down and among them were many Gorkha labourers. They were then all British subjects.
But after independence in 1947 India entered into a treaty with Nepal in 1950 offering reciprocal privileges of residence, ownership of properties, participation in trade and commerce, as well as movement. It also made a Gorkha’s Indian citizenship a reciprocal one, and thereby they lost their Indian identity.
The Gorkhaland demand is based on the linguistic difference of the people of Darjeeling hill areas as well as the people of Indian Gorkha origin. Historically, Darjeeling was not a part of Bengal and when states were reorganised, this demand for a Gorkhaland was not taken into account. But the demand existed from 1907 when a memorandum was submitted to the Minto-Morley reforms committee for a separate administrative set up. It was raised before the Simon Commission in 1930 again, and reiterated in 1941.
Even the undivided Communist Party of India submitted a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly demanding the formation of a Gorkhastan comprising Darjeeling district, Sikkim and Nepal. This was raised again in 1952 by Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League and in 1980 by Pranta Parishad demanding separation from Bengal.
In 1986, Gorkha National Liberation Front took over the demand of separate Gorkhaland and the movement became violent. In 1988 an agreement was arrived at for a semi-autonomous body called Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) to govern certain areas of Darjeeling district. This was not very satisfying to the Gorkha people and the agitation was revived for a separate state in 2007 led by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and in 2011 a new agreement was arrived at on Gorkhaland Territorial Administration replacing the DGHC.
Some fuel to the demand for Gorkhaland was added by the BJP which before the 2009 elections announced its policy to have smaller states and supported the formation of Telangana and Gorkhaland. BJP candidate Jaswant Singh won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat backed by GJM. The same year top BJP leaders Rajiv Prasad Rudy, Sushma Swaraj and Jaswant Singh pleaded for a Gorkhaland in Parliament during 2009 budget session. In the next general election, S S Aluwalia of BJP won with GJM support.
Meanwhile in 2010 leader of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League Madan Tamang was murdered and the West Bengakl Government threatened to take strong action against GJM. In 2011, three GJM activists were shot dead. There was a spontaneous shutdown of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong distrocts. 
The GJM undertook a padayatra which led to violence in Darjeeling district and an indefinite strike was called by GJM which lasted for 9 days. In the 2011 state elections, three GJM candidates won from Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseaong distrct and a fourth one, an independent supported by GJM won from Kalchini in Dooars.
In July 2011 another Memorandum of Agreement was signed for a Gorkhaland Territorial Administration GTA). During the election campaign that year, Mamata Banerjee had implied that this would end the Gorkhaland agitation while Bimal Gurung felt it was another step towards statehood. A bill for creation of GTA was passed in the West Bengal state Assembly. 
In the July 2012 elections for GTA, GJM candidates won from 17 constituencies and the rest 28 seats were won unopposed. But in July 2013 Bimal Gurung complained of too much interference by West Bengal government and resigned. Gorkhaland agitation was renewed. The same year Congress recommended formation of separate Telengana state. This further intensified the demand for Gorkhaland and a separate Bodoland in Assam.
To press for its demand, GJM called for a 3-day bandh followed by an indefinite bandh from 3 August. Meanwhile the Calcutta High Court declared the bandh illegal. West Bengal government then sent paramilitary forces to Darjeeling and arrested prominent GJM leaders. 
In reply GJM went for a unique form of protest in which people voluntarily stayed at home and did not come out. This was a great success. After an all-party meeting, it was resolved to continue the movement and exercise bandh under different names.
It is clear that this demand for a Gorkhaland is based on some historical arguments and does not seem directed against West Bengal or the Bengalis as such. The fact is that more than 80% people in Darjeeling district speak Nepali. 
So its distinct character is not under dispute. Telengana is now a separate state from Andhra Pradesh where another form of Telegu and Urdu are spoken than that of Andhra Pradesh. The demand for separate states of Vidarbh, Bundelkahand and similar areas are also simmering. The moot point is should the people’s voice be heard dispassionately or not.
This also raises another allied important question if there should be another ‘states reorganisation’ based on more rational principles. Bihar has been reorganised with some areas going to West Bengal and the southern part to Jharkhand. Uttarakhand has also been formed. So is Telangana. 
The Uttar Pradesh State Assembly has already passed a unanimous resolution in 2011 recommending division of Uttar Pradesh into four states, The central government has not agreed to it and its resolution continues to hang fire. Meanwhile, Darjeeling areas are sitting on top of a volcano.
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*Veteran journalist

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