Premature Gorkhaland

This is a translation from a Nepali-language article that originally appeared in the Kathmandu-based Himal Khabarpatrika, 15-29 June 2010.

For the last 103 years, the people of the Darjeeling Hills have been demanding self-rule, arguing that they are historically, ethnically, linguistically, culturally, socially, economically and socially distinct from the various other population groups of West Bengal. It was against this backdrop that Subhash Ghisingh launched the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) on 5 April 1980. Thereafter, from 1986 to 1988, Ghisingh led a violent movement for a separate Gorkhaland state, resulting in some 1200 deaths.

Inevitably, the idea of 'Gorkhaland' has made a strong impression on the people of the Hills. But in a 30 May speech, Bimal Gurung, the now-influential chairman of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJMM), who was responsible for Ghisingh falling into eclipse, gave the idea of Gorkhaland a new moniker, calling it the Gorkha Adivasi Pradesh. According to Gurung, the new name is an effort to include the indigenous population of the Siliguri plains as well as the Dooars.

Changes in territory and name are not new for Darjeeling, where politicians and political movements have repeatedly changed course, dragging the Hills along new paths at whim. At the moment, the GNLF is arguing that Darjeeling should come under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and be made an autonomous area of West Bengal. Similarly, the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), which had previously demanded autonomy for the Hills, is now calling for a separate state; the Gorkha National Congress, meanwhile, wants to form a Gorkhaland that includes Sikkim. For its part, the Congress party at times calls for an autonomous district and at other times becomes entangled in the idea of a union territory under the Centre. In all this, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is in a hurry to give the Hills some form of 'high-powered' zonal autonomy.

In 1905, when the nationalist wave was sweeping across India, Assam, Bihar and Orissa all fell within the 189,000 square miles of Bengal. Deeming a system of provincial rule impractical in a territory of this size, and eager to get the administration back on its feet quickly, the then-governor, General George Curzon, established various administrative departments. In 1906, the British placed Darjeeling in Bhagalpur District of Bihar, in a bid to ensure that the Swaraj ('home rule') movement being waged in Bengal did not affect the hills nearby. At that time, no 'tiger of Bengal' protested this attempt to separate Darjeeling from Bengal. On the other hand, the activists of Darjeeling did ask for a different administrative set-up. In 1912, the year the British moved their capital from Calcutta to New Delhi, Darjeeling was once again placed under the Bengal administrative department.

In 1917, a group called the Hillmen's Association raised the call for a separate administrative area covering Jalpaguri, the Dooars and Darjeeling. However, this demand disappeared into the drawers of the state secretary and the viceroy, then Frederic Thesiger (Viscount Chelmsford). In 1945, Roopnarayan Sinha, the stalwart historian of the Hillmen's Association, even suggested that Darjeeling be considered a chief commissioner's province, meaning that it would be ruled by the Centre. Around 1946, the Communist Party suggested the creation of a sovereign Gorkhaland state, comprised of Darjeeling, Sikkim, the Dooars and parts of eastern Nepal. As Independence was just around the corner, the ABGL politicians headed to Delhi with the slogan Assam chalo!, demanding that Darjeeling be incorporated into Assam. Along the same lines, in 1949, ABGL leader Ranadhir Subba and Roopnarayan Sinha jointly suggested forming an Uttarkhand Pradesh, including Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar.

Three decades later, in 1979, a group calling itself the Provincial Council again voiced the demand that Darjeeling be made into separate state. During the 1980s, Ghisingh's GNLF gave perhaps the clearest voice to the demand for Gorkhaland, and then-chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, who preferred to distance himself even from the term Gorkha, was compelled to seriously engage with the idea. As a consequence, the GNFL went on to become the ruling party of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) for decades.

Until just a few months ago, Bimal Gurung, who is now advocating the new name for Gorkhaland, was prepared to accept an interim formation within West Bengal, formed as per the provisions of the Sixth Schedule. Two names had been proposed for the unit: Gorkhaland Regional Authority and Darjeeling Dooars Regional Authority. It was while publicly protesting this proposed new unit that ABGL Chairman Madan Tamang was murdered by as yet unidentified individuals, on 21 May. Nine days after the murder, Gurung announced that the time to consider an interim authority was over, and called for a Gorkha Adivasi Pradesh.

Laxman Pradhan, chief secretary of the ABGL, argues that the concept of a Gorkha Adivasi Pradesh, which includes some areas from the Dooars, was in fact formulated by the slain Tamang. Pointing to the fact that Nepali speakers form a majority in the Darjeeling Hills, Tamang had argued consistently that any independent Gorkha state should be formed on the basis of language.

Irrespective of all else, it now appears that no hope for a Gorkhaland in India remains. Meanwhile, the state and the Centre, both of which claim to be in search of an alternative, are unlikely to allow the formation of a Gorkha Adivasi Pradesh, which would include parts of the Dooars. When all is said and done, after some dithering, the Gorkha Adivasi Pradesh that Bimal Gurung's GJMM demands is little different from the earlier Gorkhaland, and hence equally likely to be equally unwelcome in New Delhi and Kolkata.

~ Sanjay Pradhan is a Darjeeling-based senior correspondent for the Himalaya Darpan daily.

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