On the afternoon of 5 January, the simmering politics of Darjeeling were set aboil by the news that Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJMM, Gorkha People’s Liberation Front) President Bimal Gurung, accompanied by five supporters, had suddenly left the hills for New Delhi. This news was especially unexpected because a 17-member team, led by Front General-Secretary Roshan Giri, had returned to Darjeeling just three days earlier after holding a second round of trilateral talks with the Centre and the West Bengal government in New Delhi. Neither Gurung nor Giri had indicated that a third round was imminent. After holding informal discussions with senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in New Delhi, Gurung himself spoke to the media on 7 January, clearing up the mystery. “We have come to thank the BJP for their support for a separate Gorkhaland,” he said, “and to ask the other parties for their support.” No trilateral talks had taken place.
The Morcha, which has said it plans to establish a new state of Gorkhaland by March 2010, is proceeding with a two-pronged strategy of dialogue and agitation. In the current context, the party leadership understands the importance of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections – which must take place by this May – and the government that is formed thereafter, in deciding the future of Gorkhaland. In light of this reality, Giri’s statement that Gurung and his team travelled to New Delhi “to try and secure a two-thirds vote for Gorkhaland in the post-election Parliament” is quite believable. But considering the large number of Nepali speakers in the Darjeeling Hills and the Duars, some suggest that Gurung may have been negotiating with the national parties, promising to deliver a substantial Nepali-speaking vote in return for support for Gorkhaland.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the pressure remained high. From 7-27 January, as a part of its agitation strategy, the Morcha forced the closure of government offices in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong. On the other hand, in the Siliguri plains and the Duars, the agitation has been unable to achieve similar results. However, there have been clashes between Morcha supports and other communities, with police often called upon to control the situation. In fact, four people were killed in the Duars in early February during one such quarrel.
Under Subash Ghising’s leadership, the first Gorkhaland movement began in 1988, lasting for 28 months and claiming 1300 lives. That this agitation ended with the creation of the Ghising-headed Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), with its limited administrative powers, left not only the Nepali speakers of Siliguri and the Duars (who were not included in the DGHC) dissatisfied, but also those in Darjeeling itself. In his 21 years as the DGHC supremo, Ghising never once raised the demand for Gorkhaland, despite public promises to do so. Instead, he went so far as to accept the central and state governments’ offer to implement the Sixth Schedule, the controversial provision of the Indian Constitution that deals with devolution and autonomy. The Sixth Schedule had already been proven ineffectual in several states of the Northeast.
Ghising’s decline and the parallel rise of the Morcha and Bimal Gurung were the result of two factors. First, Ghising’s decision to accept Sixth Schedule status for the DGHC created an atmosphere of opposition in Darjeeling. Second, Ghising misjudged the public mood when Darjeeling united in its support for Prashant Tamang, the Indian citizen of Nepali origin who ultimately won the 2007 season of “Indian Idol”. Ghising not only ignored those supporting Tamang, but mocked the entire vote-by-SMS system, saying “A medal cannot be bought; it must be won.” In contrast, Gurung and his supporters worked tirelessly to ensure a win for Tamang.
Gurung had been a supporter of Ghising since 1986, in addition to being an elected councillor on the Hill Council. But after seeing the political climate turn against Ghising, he established his own party, the GJMM, in October 2007. Thereafter, the people’s belief in the Morcha and Gurung was heightened by two factors. First, just five months after the party was established, it was able to make the implementation of the Sixth Schedule – which the Lok Sabha was on the verge of accepting – into a pending matter through agitation at home and negotiation in New Delhi. And second, it was able to remove Ghising from his longtime post on the DGHC.
Gurung may come across as less than intellectual, but he remains the single most influential of the GJMM leaders. And for its part, the GJMM’s agitations have reawakened long-dormant hopes of a separate Gorkhaland state within the Republic of India. Under Gurung’s leadership, the ongoing agitation has been posited as different from that of 1986-88, particularly in its presentation as a democratic and Gandhi-esque non-violent endeavour. As a consequence, the adamantly anti-Gorkhaland Calcutta government has been unable to find sufficient reason to suppress the agitation.
In Siliguri and the Duars plains, where the Nepali-speaking population is a minority, the Morcha has also attempted to bring other communities into the Gorkhaland movement. According to Siliguri-based journalist Ashok Prashant, this effort has secured the agitation the silent support of resident Bengali intellectuals. (A notable exception, though, remains the refugees who entered the area after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.) In the Duars, Sadri speakers – the largest tribe in the area, originally from Jharkhand – have tossed their lot behind the Gorkhaland demand. Indeed, two such tribal leaders were part of the team that travelled to New Delhi for trilateral talks in late December.
At the same time, however, while the Morcha has tried to conduct a non-violent and non-communal agitation, some groups from the Bengali community have been accused of instigating communal activities in the bazaars of Siliguri and the Duars. This has dangerously increased the likelihood of ethnic clashes in the plains. These groups, which are said to have the blessings of the long-ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), have adopted a strategy of planning actions to coincide with the rallies and meets called by the Morcha. This alleged effort to instigate communal violence has, however, been unsuccessful. Whenever such a clash has seemed likely, the Morcha has called off its programmes.
This is a critical decision, says the vice-chancellor of Sikkim University, Mahendra P Lama. “The agitation for a separate Gorkhaland can reach fruition only if it be kept from becoming communal,” he said. “If the West Bengal government is successful in its attempt to excite the agitation into communalism, the movement will not receive any sympathy from the Centre.” Instead of using ethnicity and language to build broad-based support for Gorkhaland in the plains, Lama says, the movement should take up a slogan of social and economic progress. Indeed, the idea of a separate state where the local population can progress is likely to be attractive to the plains people, whose concerns have not seemed a priority for the Calcutta government.
In the Darjeeling Hills, Nepali speakers account for 90 percent of the one million-strong population. On the other hand, in Siliguri, which has a population of around 850,000, there are only 100,000 Nepali speakers. Similarly, in the adjacent Duars, there are 300,000 Nepali speakers in a total population of 800,000. Based on these figures, the Nepali-speaking population would not be an absolute majority in the area that is proposed for Gorkhaland. But this is nonetheless the area being demanded by the movement, because both Siliguri and the Duars have both been historically linked to the hills. Furthermore, in practical terms, Gorkhaland would start life economically crippled without a section in the plains.
In 1835, the seventh king of Sikkim gave Darjeeling and Kurseong to the British for purposes of ‘rest and relaxation’. A century later, when India gained Independence, there was confusion as to exactly who ruled the area. In this vein, Nepali-speakers subsequently argue that the area was not a part of West Bengal before 1947. Furthermore, according to resident Badrinarayan Pradhan, the British rented Kalimpong and the Duars from Bhutan. Indeed, it is said that India itself used to pay Bhutan a yearly fee for the area. Further south, the Siliguri area is said to have been cleared and resettled by Nepali-speakers. The Morcha has marshalled this history during negotiations with Calcutta and the Centre.
Local observers are optimistic about the creation of Gorkhaland for a number of other reasons, including geo-strategic positioning. First, they claim the new state would effectively prevent the entrance of Bangladeshi refugees into India, a good way to endear Gorkhaland to New Delhi policymakers. Second, with the demand for the creation of smaller states (for instance, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand) having been fulfilled in the last decade, there is less reason now to deny the creation of Gorkhaland than when Ghising was demanding it. Finally, the demand for Gorkhaland is based on the same principle – that of having an administrative area based on ethnic/tribal/linguistic lines – that New Delhi has long accepted for the Northeast. Mahendra Lama also believes that the fact that the Gorkhaland movement revived after 23 years only goes to show that the demand had never truly died. The Gorkhaland dream could also come true, he continues, as a result of the Centre’s desire to prevent disruption in the sensitive ‘chicken’s neck’ area linking the Indian mainland to the Northeast.
Still, many locals believe that the chances of either the state government or the Centre acceding to demands for Gorkhaland remain slim. This is because of the many undercurrents and demands that would come to the fore once it became clear that New Delhi was positive on the demand. Besides, Calcutta’s bickering politicians would likely unite on this one agenda. On the other hand, there are many who believe that parties such as the BJP, which seeks to weaken the understanding that has been held for a long time between the CPI (M) and New Delhi, will extend their support to Gorkhaland. If the CPI (M) remains an influential actor in New Delhi following the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for April-May, the Gorkhaland movement will have to bear with unfavourable opposition. But if the BJP were to score well, things would possibly be more congenial.
Those in the movement, meanwhile, maintain that regardless of what kind of government is formed in the power capital post-May, they will step up pressure to bring the agitation to its logical conclusion. One of the Morcha’s pressure tactics includes asking the state assemblies in the 22 states with significant Nepali-speaking populations to pass bills in support of Gorkhaland. As a less extreme alternative, these states could be asked to pass bills simply saying that the creation of Gorkhaland would not have any negative consequence.
Even if Gorkhaland is created, most believe that the new state will probably not encompass an area as large as the one demanded by the Morcha. They state that as the agitation reaches a decisive stage, the Morcha will have to make some compromises. The belief is that, of the 48 wards in the Siliguri municipality, the Morcha will have to be satisfied with getting some seven wards that lie north of the Mahananda River. In the Duars, the Morcha may have to be content with even less, getting only the Mal-mateli and Islampur areas. As the election fever builds countrywide, it remains to be seen whether the GJMM and its leader are able to maintain the kind of momentum needed to use the election outcome in the battle of mind and territory with Calcutta.
This article was prepared while on assignment for the Himal Khabarpatrika fortnightly.
~ Subash Devkota is web editor at the Nepali fortnightly Himal Khabarpatrika.