A crucial turning point in the history of West Bengal and Darjeeling came on 13 May, with the collapse of the 34-year-old communist regime and the emergence of the new Trinamool Congress government. The day also saw a clear mandate for the push for Gorkhaland, with a record victory margin for the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which has been spearheading the agitation for a separate state since October 2007. The Morcha candidates for the three constituencies of Darjeeling district – Trilok Dewan, Harka Bahadur Chettri and Rohit Sharma from Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, respectively – together secured the highest margin of votes ever recorded in the state, thus clearly indicating the people’s aspirations for a separate state. Indeed, the results even showed similar support in the plains, where Wilson Chompromary, an independent MLA from Kalchini backed by the Morcha, won handily. Yet within days, the Morcha’s own leadership had all but given up on the push for Gorkhaland.
On the day the results were announced, Morcha President Bimal Gurung triumphantly stated, ‘This is a victory for Gorkhaland!’ While the GJM victory had been expected, none had been forecasting such a large margin – particularly after the sudden early-April return of Subash Ghisingh, who had ruled over the Darjeeling Hills for the two decades leading up to mid-2008. Even after the surprise end to his hibernation, however, Ghisingh’s party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), suffered an embarrassing defeat, with all three of the party’s candidates losing. On 16 May, GNLF supporters were accused of violently attacking their Morcha counterparts, including stabbing one in the neck, and within hours Ghisingh had again left the Hills under cover of darkness.
The biggest loser in the recent elections was probably the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL). The party, which has long supported a settlement with Kolkata on the Gorkhaland issue, is currently headed by Bharati Tamang, wife of the late Madan Tamang, the former ABGL president who was stabbed to death by Morcha supporters in May 2010. Standing for election from Darjeeling, Bharati Tamang was able to record little more than 11,000 votes – compared to 120,532 votes secured by Trilok Dewan, the Morcha victor. Meanwhile, the other major political force in the Hills, the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM), presumed to be the second-largest outfit in the area, boycotted the elections after its failure to reach a consensus with the rest of the Hills’ political parties over the Gorkhaland issue. With the opposition in disarray, the polls were the Morcha’s to lose – and the party’s eventual victory to do with what it will.
The new Ghisingh
Morcha President Gurung initiated the second phase of the Gorkhaland agitation – the 26th attempt in 104 years with the object of separation from Bengal – in October 2007, after capitalising on Indian Idol phenomenon Prashant Tamang. (Gurung had been the chief adviser to the Prashant Tamang Fan Club.) Although a former lieutenant to Subash Ghisingh, Gurung was adamantly opposed to the formation of a tribal council under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – a move Ghisingh supported – arguing that this would mean that statehood was permanently off the table. According to knowledgeable observers, however, Gurung’s mission was likely the brainchild of Ashok Bhattacharya, the CPI (M) minister for urban planning, in an attempt to counter Ghisingh. Although West Bengal’s Left Front government was also opposed to the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland, Bhattacharya’s strategy seemed to be to set the two Gorkhali leaders against one another – ultimately hoping to foil Ghisingh’s attempts to implement a Sixth Schedule tribal council in the Darjeeling Hills.
Gurung garnered immense public support by promising to successfully achieve a new state of Gorkhaland by a specific date – 10 March 2010 – or shoot himself if he failed. Two months after the formation of the GJM, all Morcha leaders took a public oath not to participate in any election until Gorkhaland was created. The fact that they did contest elections demands a transition. With the recent electoral victories, the Morcha has indeed been able to project the Gorkhaland issue at the national level. Moreover, the Morcha leaders have tried to rectify the mistakes made by Subash Ghisingh during the first phase of the Gorkhaland agitation, during the 1980s. Ghisingh was able to get the government to set up the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) after 26 months of violent agitation; as it turns out, Gurung was able to reach agreement on a new autonomous set-up after 40 months of relatively non-violent movement – and, more importantly, just days after the new Trinamool government took over in Kolkata. This was a truly dizzying speed, and it took a few days before the people of the Hills started to realise what had happened.
Winds of change had indeed been expected to sweep in from the Bay of Bengal coast to the Himalayan foothills. With strong support from the New Delhi government, Mamata Banerjee had already shaken the CPI (M). Yet her rise to power did not seem to bode well for the Gorkhaland movement. During her visit to Darjeeling as railway minister in September 2010, Mamata had categorically rejected the possibility of a new state for the Gorkhalis: ‘Banga bhanga hobena’ (Bengal will not be separated), she said. So, after the establishment of Mamata’s new government, the Morcha, under the looming presence of a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the death of Madan Tamang, found itself in a dilemma. Raising the issue of statehood for Gorkhaland could create direct conflict with the new government in Kolkata, which in turn could prove to be more disastrous than the GJM relationship with the previous Left Front government. If the agreement is signed as per the government’s wishes, which seems to be the hope, this could influence the CBI probe and give the Morcha a clean chit.
On 30 May, then, with no opposition on the horizon, the Morcha delegation, headed by Bimal Gurung, went for an introductory visit with the new Trinamool government with a clear mandate to represent the people of the Hills. After 50 minutes of conversation at Writers’ Building, the Morcha delegation yielded to Mamata’s pleas and withdrew a demand for a CBI probe into the Sibchu police firing that had killed three party activists on 8 February. A week later, after five and a half hours of talks on 6-7 June, the second day of the Morcha’s first secretarial meeting concluded with a historic agreement, which a euphoric Mamata was quick to sum up: ‘The 15-year-old Darjeeling issue [is] settled!’ In fact, what had happened appears to bear a stark resemblance to what took place a quarter century earlier, when the Calcutta government of CPI (M) convinced Subash Ghisingh to accept a new autonomous council – the DGHC – in exchange for dropping the demand for a state of Gorkhaland.
The formal agreement was based on a seven-point agenda offered on 6 June by the Morcha’s seven-member delegation, led by GJM General-Secretary Roshan Giri. This agenda included several demands to which the Left Front government had never agreed, but which formed the basis of the agreement with the Trinamool: that a high-powered committee be formed within two weeks in order to examine the geopolitical situation and related ‘regional issues’ in the Dooars, Tarai plains and Siliguri. Within six months – hence, by around the end of the year – the panel should submit recommendations, which in turn would form the basis on which the territorial reach of the new administrative set-up will be decided. The new authority would have the ability to frame rules but not acts or laws. The authority of the Tauzi department, which deals with government land leased to tea gardens, would be transferred to the new administrative set-up.
Also under the Morcha’s demands, elections would be held to the new administrative body, until which point an administrator, principal secretary and three newly elected MLAs will run the existing DGHC. Workers with the DGHC who have completed 10 years of service would be regularised immediately, involving some 1300 individuals; the rest would be regularised after completing a decade of service, until which time casual employees would receive a pay increase. Finally, the issue of tribal status would be referred to the National Commission for Backward Classes, while the West Bengal government would pursue the demand for granting tribal status to those communities that have already applied to the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes (NCST).
Nowhere in these demands did the Morcha bring up the issue of Gorkhaland or add the word interim to the new set-up. Indeed, the new administrative set-up is yet to be named. The crux of the agreement is that the Morcha will assume power in Darjeeling, with its three MLAs being inducted into the Board of Administrators that will run local affairs until a new hill council is formed through elections. However, make no mistake: the Morcha does see the recent agreement as a step towards the formation of Gorkhaland.
Remodelling the DGHC
The Morcha has understood the impossibility of creating a new state of Gorkhaland, particularly with the Congress at the Centre and the Trinamool in Kolkata. As such, its leaders seem to feel that their next best alternative is to expand the territory under their influence, in order to gain momentum for what they expect to be an ongoing agitation. The Morcha clearly knows that Gorkhaland is not possible in the current context, but the territory under the control of the DGHC, and whatever council is subsequently created, can be extended up to Siliguri, the Dooars and into the Tarai – if the Kolkata government can be convinced that, historically, these areas were one.
In fact, this strategy does not seem viable at present, due simply to a few facts on the ground. There are currently 315 mouzas (administrative district) in the hilly Dooars and 250 in the Tarai plains included under the Integrated Tribal Development Project, meaning that without the concurrence of the NCST these areas cannot be touched for any administrative or boundary related matters. Further, all the areas said to be ‘Nepali-oriented’ are parts of the Assembly constituencies and parliamentary seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes. This would again make it extremely difficult to alter their administrative status.
Moreover, the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (the ABAVP, an Adivasi group long backed by the Left Front government) had been demanding autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution for the Tarai and the Dooars. The ABAVP leadership has now made clear that it will vehemently oppose the inclusion of the Dooars or Tarai under the auspices of the new committee. The CPI (M) government clearly understood this situation and refrained from stirring the pot in this way, and this was why the Left Front refused to negotiate on the territory issue with the GJM. But Mamata’s new government will take a while to understand the situation. These simmering tensions now appear more likely to create further unrest in the Hills, rather than solving the problems.
The leading opposition parties in the Hills, including the CPRM, ABGL and GNLF, have also categorically rejected the new agreement. They not only accuse the GJM of betraying the people, but also of making Darjeeling unsafe for the political opposition. ‘It is now clear that the Morcha used Gorkhaland as a platform to win the Assembly elections,’ said CPRM General-Secretary Taramoni Rai. ‘With the polls over, they have abandoned the issue. The mandate was for Gorkhaland, not for this new set-up.’ Another ABGL leader, S B Zimba said: ‘This bipartite agreement is just eyewash – nothing but a remodelling of the old DGHC, which was earlier formed to tame Ghisingh. And now it is [Bimal] Gurung’s turn.’
Indeed, the disgruntled voices of Gorkhalis are reverberating all over India, from the Northeast to Delhi. After all, the accord concentrates solely on the Darjeeling Hills, whereas the agitation for statehood was supported by all Nepali-speaking citizens of India as a representative entity for themselves as well. ‘We have been labelled as foreigners in Meghalaya and we are insecure,’ says one Gorkhali in Meghalaya, Motilal Timilsina. ‘We supported Gorkhaland agitation because we need our chief minister to speak for us. I am well off, but where is my identity? We are disappointed with the Morcha.’
It does appear that the Morcha has accepted the new administrative set-up mainly as a means to maintain its lead position in the Hills. While this will not help define a national identity for the Gorkhalis, it will partially meet the expectations of the citizens of Darjeeling. However, such an autonomous set-up has proved to be a failure in the past, during the time of the GNLF regime and elsewhere in the Northeast (such as Mizoram and Manipur), tending to benefit only a few elites close to the political leaders. To back the trend, the Morcha will have to become more open and politically transparent and reach out to the opposition. However, the signs are not propitious. Ghisingh took the people of the Hills for a ride for two decades; if the Morcha uses the agreement with Mamata merely as a means to consolidate its grip, it will only take a few years before unrest comes to hound Bimal Gurung.
The push for identity has reverberated in the psyche of the Darjeeling Hills since at least 1907, when the Hillmen’s Association first officially demanded a separate administrative unit from the British rulers. To date, development bonanzas and other governmental sops have done little to erase this sentiment. The dream of Gorkhaland has, once again, been relegated to the background – but it will surely resurface again.
~ Udhyan Chamling Rai is editor of the Darjeeling Times.