Political leaders in the Darjeeling hills talk with conspiratorial relish about the Qinghai-Lhasa railway that China has recently finished constructing in Tibet, slated to open in July. The hushed tones do not necessarily reveal any immediate fear, as much as they underline a prevalent perception in this place tucked away in India’s eastern Himalaya: that far-away forces are at work here, forces that the people understand little, over which they have even less control. Why this fear over the faraway railway? Much of the prevalent paranoia in Darjeeling about issues and events near and far has to do with the waywardness of the ruling satrap, Subash Ghisingh. And also the fact that the authorities – of a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy – have declined to conduct major local elections here for over two years.
The plot thickens as hill politics remain outside of most locals’ comprehension – a confusion that is only compounded when local politics mesh with matters of culture and religion. During this year’s Buddha Jayanti celebrations, for instance, the hill people witnessed the introduction of a ‘Living Buddha’ from Malaysia. The event was organised by the cultural department of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) after the political leadership declared that the Buddhists of the region – a significant chunk of the population – had thus far been worshipping a “dead Buddha”.
Indeed, over the last two decades, political platforms have allowed for the promulgation of many unique theories pertaining to issues of religion, as well as those of science, art and culture. From discussions on the exact date of man’s ‘advent’ on earth, to replacing idols of Durga with rocks, significant ground has been covered in lofty, sometimes bizarre public discourse. Much of this has been recorded on cassette and distributed about the countryside, conveying the words of one voice in particular. Nearly two decades ago, it was that very same recorded voice that had brought people together, to listen with racing pulses about fighting for the freedom and dignity of Indian Nepalis. That voice belonged to an orator par excellence, who grasped the disaffection of his people and fired their imaginations with a desire for a separate state. They took up arms. It was 1986. The man was Subash Ghisingh, president of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).
In a strange way, this frontier province has subsequently taken up the character of a ‘no-man’s land’. In fact, that term was popularised by the GNLF, the area’s ruling party, when it spearheaded the movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland from 1986-88 to be carried out of West Bengal. Besides the suspension of elections, in November 2004 a blustering Ghisingh demanded that the hills be merged with Bangladesh. Six years earlier, he raised the question of the region’s “territorial integrity” vis-à-vis the Indian Constitution. Due to its sensitive border location, nearby and faraway events in these hills are habitually seen through a lens of larger geo-politics, adding to a peculiar cloak-and-dagger atmosphere.
This peculiarity also explains the reaction to the new Tibet train line. Darjeeling is located so close to the borders of China, Nepal and Bhutan, that policymakers in New Delhi have long wanted to quash any potential trouble – particularly a separatist movement. The view has subsequently become entrenched that this local strongman, Subash Ghisingh, is and needs to remain as a ‘safe bet’ for New Delhi and Calcutta. The building of the new railway across the border is seen in some Indian intelligence circles as a new threat, given that China would have a (marginally) stronger presence in the border regions. Without an amenable Ghisingh in Darjeeling, officials fear that separatist demands would resurface – and with the potential Chinese ‘build up’ at the borders, they cannot afford such a thing to happen. Emphasising the new train’s rumblings in Darjeeling can thus be seen as a shrewd political move on Ghisingh’s part.
Ghisingh was born into a tea workers’ family in 1936. He joined the Indian Army when he was 17, although, for a soldier, he was unusually fond of painting and literature. Not surprisingly, he was discharged after five years. During a prolific writing career that he gave up in 1976, he wrote nearly 21 books, including mediocre novels and poetry. On turning from writing, he is said to have explained that “the kukhri is mightier than the pen.”
Ghisingh was not the first to demand self-rule for Darjeeling’s hill people. The issue was formally raised with the British government in 1907. Since then, local organisations and political parties would from time to time send deputations to various governments, demanding separation from Bengal. Ghisingh, however, was the first to break the tradition of peacefully submitting memoranda, all of which had been stockpiling in New Delhi’s cupboards. The violent movement that he led for 28 months in the mid-1980s at long last forced Darjeeling into the post-Independence national consciousness of India. Nearly 1500 people were killed and thousands more displaced during those two years. While such numbers may not seem dramatic by the standards of modern insurgencies, for this small and formerly peaceful region it was cataclysmic.
As homemade guns cracked and bombs echoed across the valleys, the GNLF president was soon being flown about in helicopters to various governmental negotiating tables. Many feel that that was when he lost the plot – in a narrative that he himself may have set in motion, but which impacted the whole of the Darjeeling hills. When the rebellion was quelled and the accords signed, these restive areas again faded from the national scene. This would have been fine, if representation and good governance had at long last arrived in the Darjeeling hills. But that did not happen. At the end of the agitation, Ghisingh accepted on behalf of Darjeeling an autonomous politico-administrative body, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, with himself at its head. As often happens, the liberators became the oppressors, taking advantage of their raised stature among the locals, as well as the government’s blind spot towards ‘small areas’.
The people greeted the formation of the Council with great jubilation, until very quickly they discovered that the autonomy had been given only in spirit, not in practice. Calcutta, from whose clutches Darjeeling yearned to be free, retained tight control. The opposition alleged that Ghisingh had accepted several crore rupees to agree to a hill council that had no real power. That may or may not be the case, but the question that has been asked again and again is, ‘Was Ghisingh, at the time of signing, aware that DGHC was essentially a dud?’ Neither he nor his party, the GNLF, suffering from a militancy hangover, allow such questions to be raised. With the hill people’s inherent dislike for confrontations, it was easy for the party to create a vice-like grip over the region, as they have maintained ever since
Better than Gorkhaland
While the extreme general violence that marked the Gorkhaland movement is now a memory, political violence continues to dog and destabilise these hills. In February 2001, after 11 years of rule, an assassination attempt was made on Ghisingh. Heavily armed men ambushed his convoy on a deserted stretch of highway about 50 km from Darjeeling. Although two of his bodyguards were killed, Ghisingh himself survived with minor injuries. In the aftermath, around 13 people were arrested, including some opposition leaders. Five years later, it is not clear who were the masterminds behind the attack. Eight of them, including the head of the GNLF’s militant wing during the Gorkhaland agitation, Chattre Subba, still await their fate in prison.
In the last seven years, three DGHC councillors have been murdered, including C K Pradhan, Ghisingh’s closest lieutenant. Each of these has been attributed to intra-party rivalry. At the time of his murder, Pradhan had been on the verge of launching a new party, to revive the demand for Gorkhaland, whose goals he believed GNLF high command had abandoned. To this day, no one dare tell who killed Pradhan.
Although Ghisingh maintains that he has not forgotten Gorkhaland, he also does not hesitate to announce the difficulty of achieving such a goal. On 6 December 2005, another tripartite agreement between Ghisingh, New Delhi and West Bengal was signed to include DGHC in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This section originally provided for self-rule in tribal areas of India’s northeastern states – although in the Darjeeling hills, tribals are a minority. As tensions rise anew in Darjeeling amidst the simmering demands for statehood, Ghisingh has stressed that the impending dispensation is better than Gorkhaland – suggesting that there would be no difference between the ruler and the ruled, a situation that would not hold in a separate state.
The latest tripartite agreement – described as the “full and final settlement” for the Darjeeling hill area – is seen as a major achievement for New Delhi and West Bengal, at a time when the opposition in the hills is once again trying to whip up passion for separate statehood. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an amenable Ghisingh is indulged by state and national officials. Starting in 1988, when Ghisingh agreed to drop the demand for Gorkhaland, he has been given free rein to run the council.
Besides now-routine irregularities in the functioning of the DGHC, extreme arbitrariness has marked the way that Ghisingh has spent a large volume of government funds – for instance, in building temples throughout the hills. After the first couple of years in power, DGHC’s budget – if indeed one was prepared – has never been made public. Development, meanwhile, has been limited to the building of community halls and roads. No new employment avenues have been created. Joblessness in the Darjeeling hills is sky high. The area’s three hill towns are a mess, and basic amenities like water are in constant short supply.
Ghisingh has always been averse to good counsel, and after the 2001 assassination attempt, he has retreated further into his autocratic cocoon. He runs the Council single-handedly, illegally refusing to convene a session to bring the members together. This serious violation of the DGHC Act continued for more than four years, until the state government appointed him as the council’s ‘sole administrator’ last year, legitimising his illegal tenure.
The most grievous action, however, has been the suspension of elections to the council for the past two years, which Ghisingh has refused to allow until the Sixth Schedule proposal is implemented. There is still no talk of elections. The state government was finally forced to come up with the lame excuse of Maoist troubles across the border in Nepal to explain their capitulation with the GNLF leader’s wishes. Even the election to hill panchayats has now been kept on hold for over a year.
Matters have only been made worse by the opposition’s failure to show a united and cogent plan of action. Most opposition politicians become active only with the approach of elections. The rest of the time they are not to be seen, leading the electorate to doubt their commitment. The opposition’s excuses for being so insufficient, meanwhile, remain a lack of resources and biased state and central governments that ‘sponsor’ Ghisingh. It is difficult, they say, to dislodge a man who enjoys the blessings of both Delhi and Calcutta for so long.
Under these surreal circumstances, feelings of helplessness have crept in, giving rise to these perceptions of unknown forces at work, mysteriously influencing almost every aspect of life in these majestic hills. It has always taken a long time for political change to occur here. In the tradition of hill politics, a ruling party reigns for about two decades, uninterrupted. Ghisingh has now enjoyed his spoils for 18 years. Some would hope that a culmination is near, particularly with the building frustration among the citizens. With the continued interference by Delhi and Calcutta in this border region, however, including that of suspending elections to preserve their man, the ‘natural’ course may not be followed. In Ghisingh, you have a populist who has become a wayward autocrat, but the people’s frustration with him is no challenge for someone who is protected by the state and the Centre. For Calcutta and New Delhi, as long as Subash Ghisingh keeps the hills subdued, they are satisfied.
But what is the price that the people pay for this indulgence? Prophets and demigods have to be created, and ghost trains must be set on their tracks. There is no telling what will happen when the illusion breaks.