A ‘dictator’ deposed

Having reigned as the 'Dictator of Darjeeling' for two decades, Subash Ghisingh surely could not have imagined a more ignominious ouster: a popular uprising that would no longer allow him even to enter the hills. During the end of February, activists of the fledgling Gorkha Janmukti Morcha searched vehicles day and night coming into the hills to prevent the erstwhile administrator of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council from 'sneaking in'. Ghisingh had gone to New Delhi to lobby, unsuccessfully, for the passage of a parliamentary bill to include the Darjeeling Hills in the Constitution's Sixth Schedule for greater autonomy – a demand far short of statehood that an increasing number of people in Darjeeling was finding untenable.

It was an incredible chain of events, which occurred so fast that even Ghisingh's detractors could hardly believe what was unfolding. The people of the Darjeeling Hills, who for so long had been afraid to speak out against the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader, were suddenly taking to the streets on a daily basis, burning effigies and engaging in mock funerals for the self-styled 'rajah of the hills'. As they saw the tide turning, his deputies began resigning en masse; those who chose to remain were faced with a social boycott. An indefinite bandh was called in Darjeeling, and people began public fasts. Their demands were straightforward, if far-reaching: the scrapping of the Sixth Schedule bill, Ghisingh's resignation and the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland. Ghisingh ran between Calcutta and Delhi, asking his longtime 'sponsors' in the faraway power centres for succour. But this time, the game seemed well and truly up. Following Parliament's decision against the bill's passage on 1 March, and a ten-day ultimatum from West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya calling for Ghisingh's resignation, the longtime leader did just that on 10 March.

This was high-octane political drama, replete with the requisite ironies of subcontinental politics. In less than six months, a regional satrap, renowned for his political acumen and charisma, had been overthrown by a junior party colleague known more for his brawn than brains. Bimal Gurung was a most unlikely rebel, and only gained the upper hand by being, quite unexpectedly, catapulted into the limelight due to his connection with Darjeeling boy Prashant Tamang in the much-hyped Indian Idol reality show. Seizing the moment, in October 2007 he had floated the Morcha, and transformed himself into a Gandhian before storming the fort. Strident cries for a Gorkhaland state – a demand with which Ghisingh's name had long been synonymous – was subsequently taken up by the Morcha, even as it worked to prise Ghisingh from the scene.

Although the people of the Darjeeling Hills are currently enjoying a feeling of great unburdening, the future remains unclear. For the first time since its inception in 1988 – the result of an agreement between New Delhi, Calcutta and the Ghisingh-headed GNLF – the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) has been put under the charge of a senior government bureaucrat. This should have been the proverbial last nail in the DGHC's much-touted 'model autonomy', a formulation that can be seen as having been an egregious failure. Worse still, between a pandering Calcutta and the petulant politician that Ghisingh was, the DGHC ended up becoming a political tool rather than an instrument of development.

Now, the Morcha's reputation will likewise make it difficult for any furtherance of the Hill Council. Having come to centre stage by riding on the issue of Gorkhaland, after all, it would be rather difficult for the Morcha to contest DGHC elections, at least in the immediate future. State minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist) pointsman for the hills, Ashok Bhattacharya, says, "For the moment, the emphasis will not be on Sixth Schedule status but development and democracy." As such, for now both Calcutta and the Morcha seem to be in for a political timeout.

GJMM idol
Bimal Gurung is 44 years old and a school dropout. Before his recent capture of the popular imagination, the town of Darjeeling, especially the business community, lived in fear of him and his men from the 'Valley', as his Singamari-Takvar seat is called. Among his constituents, he is seen as a kind of Robin Hood. The GNLF, including Ghisingh, never hesitated to call on Gurung's muscle power when required. The strategic location of his seat, situated very near to the power centre of Darjeeling, was also helpful.

It was only in 1999 that Gurung was elevated to a councillor, winning the Singamari-Takvar seat that had fallen vacant following the daylight murder of sitting-councillor Rudrakumar Pradhan. Gurung won the seat as an independent, later aligning himself with the GNLF and becoming an indispensable tool of Ghisingh's to intimidate the opposition and his many critics. It was in early 2007 that Gurung first tested the political waters at the highest echelon, and there were rumours that he would leave the GNLF. At that time, Ghisingh reportedly managed to placate the would-be rebel by sanctioning INR 20 million for his constituency. But the real opportunity to break out was soon to come, and from a most unexpected quarter.

Due to his reputation of being an effective fundraiser, Gurung was appointed as the chief advisor to the Prashant Tamang Fan Club. Tamang, a Darjeeling boy working for the Kolkata Police, may have been an unlikely contender in the Indian Idol contest; but by late September 2007, he had won the coveted title. In the background of the momentous event, the multi-racial Nepali community had united like never before to vote for Tamang, with the marginalised Indian Nepali community seeing an opportunity to 'prove' to the rest of the country that it did count. It is about our identity, was the common refrain. Nepalis from Nepal and around the world likewise joined in, seeking to redeem, through Tamang, their own perceived peripheral existence. Even the government of Sikkim jumped on the Prashant bandwagon.

A significant force behind the young man's win was the Prashant Tamang Fan Club. Indeed, after the triumph the Fan Club was feted almost as much as the Idol himself. Gurung began thanking supporters in public meetings. Then, seemingly without any warning, he also began to lace his speeches with politics – serious politics. He began to speak out against the Sixth Schedule proposal, and that too at a critical time, as the draft was in line to be considered by the Union cabinet. The latter approved the proposal on 30 November 2007, at which point it appeared that Gurung was set to become one of a long line of failed challengers to Ghisingh's supremacy. It was sheer determination and intense lobbying in Delhi on the part of his party colleagues that ultimately enabled Gurung to undo what seemed like a fait accompli.

Sixth Schedule machinations
Bimal Gurung does not like to admit that he used the Prashant Tamang Fan Club as a springboard to challenge the might of Ghisingh. He says he wanted to leave the GNLF in early 2007, after Ghisingh and Buddhadev Bhattacharya had a "secret inner meeting" in Calcutta during what were supposed to be open talks between GNLF leaders and the state government. "I, along with other party leaders, was present at the meeting venue," Gurung recalls. "However, Ghisingh and Bhattacharya went into a room alone and later came out telling us that the DGHC would be included in the Sixth Schedule. I was upset that we were not included in the talks. Instead of explaining to us what had transpired, Ghisingh told us to distribute sweets in our respective constituencies."

The Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution provides for autonomous administration in certain parts of the Northeast. A measure dating back to British rule, the idea was to allow remote Adivasi-dominated areas to self-govern while still being part of the Union. Local laws therefore govern Sixth Schedule districts, and a local council reports directly to the governor of a state. Technically, these areas are also supposed to enjoy substantial financial and executive powers, though the fact that Sixth Schedule districts have hardly been able to take advantage of these powers is another story.

The main sponsors of the Sixth Schedule proposal were the state government, the central government and Ghisingh himself. Gurung decided that the proposal was designed to divide the Nepali community along ethnic lines – between those which are considered Scheduled Tribes in India (Tamang, Limbu) and those that are not (Rai, Magar). This view subsequently came to be shared by the Darjeeling intelligentsia, which eventually threw their lot behind the rebel leader.

By cleaving the community, went the thinking, New Delhi and Calcutta were hoping to cap, once and for all, the demand for a separate state. The suspicion of Sixth Schedule detractors was strengthened by the fact that both the state and central governments were trying to circumvent normal procedure to get the bill passed as quickly as possible. This attempt, however, ultimately proved to be its undoing: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raised the red flag from the opposition benches, and later a BJP-headed parliamentary committee advised against implementing the Sixth Schedule in Darjeeling. Even the Congress Lok Sabha member from Darjeeling, Dawa Narbula, was finally forced to speak against the bill.

The most significant problem with the proposal to include the Darjeeling Hills in the Sixth Schedule was that those groups considered Scheduled Tribes make up less than a third of the total population. Even among the Nepali-speakers, these groups (including the Lepcha, Sherpa, Limbu and Tamang) are in a minority. What was more confounding was that the Sixth Schedule proposal included in it more reservations for non-Scheduled Tribes than for Scheduled Tribes in the proposed governing council under the Sixth Schedule. In addition, there was an absence of quotas for Scheduled Castes, a significant minority among the Hindu Nepalis, whose reservation is guaranteed by the Constitution. The existing DGHC had no such reservations, and one reason that Darjeeling politics have always remained free of caste and ethnic overtones – dominant forces in most parts of India, including in neighbouring Sikkim, with the same mix of population as Darjeeling.

Ghisingh, typically, thought he would get away with his plan to ram through the Sixth Schedule proposal. But as doubts began to be aired, he equivocated. "Once the bill is approved, the whole land, including its cabbages and rats, will become tribal," he declared. "So, there is nothing to worry about." Although Ghisingh was speaking in riddles, his suggestion was not to panic. But even while he tried to suggest that everyone would somehow get reservations under the proposal, this was not in sync with how the reservations were actually being allotted: with more seats being reserved for Scheduled Tribes than non-Scheduled Tribes. Ghisingh also tried to portray the Sixth Schedule as helping to achieve some sort of an egalitarian utopia: "Under a Sixth Schedule dispensation there will be no ruler and no ruled. The ruler will have to sit on the same floor and share the food with the people." Disregarding the break-up of seats between Scheduled Tribes and non-Scheduled Tribes, almost all the Nepali-speaking groups subsequently vied to be included in the former list, so as to qualify for the benefits of reservation.

There were times when even Ghisingh could not hold up the pretence. "Even I have not understood the Sixth Schedule," he said a few times in public meetings, before making long digressions into his favoured subject, religious mysticism. The other problem with the 6 December 2005 agreement to include Darjeeling hills in the Sixth Schedule – and perhaps even more serious – was that it declared to be the "full and final settlement of the Darjeeling Hill areas issue and that no further demands in this regard would be entertained". For many, this harkened uncomfortably back to the 1988 DGHC Accord, at which time Ghisingh had agreed to drop the demand for the creation of a Gorkhaland state.

Ambiguity and confusion grew in the hills, as the Centre took an unusually long time to begin the process of including Darjeeling in the Sixth Schedule. The fact that neither the West Bengal government nor New Delhi publicised the draft bill to amend the Constitution, in order to accommodate the inclusion, did little to help quell growing public frustration. Ironically, the state government blamed Ghisingh for failing to explain to the people the Sixth Schedule proposal. The opposition parties, meanwhile, were voicing varying degrees of concern against the proposal, while the All India Gorkha League condemned it outright. But not until Gurung broke out of the GNLF and spoke against the proposal did the dominoes really begin to fall.

Gurung's impact
Although Gurung remains unwilling to emphasise the boost given to his challenge by the Prashant Tamang phenomenon, political observers readily point to Ghisingh's indecision regarding his own support for Tamang as precipitating his downfall. Ghisingh's half-hearted support for Tamang seemed little more than an innocuous mistake in the beginning, but it allowed Gurung to launch a full-scale campaign against the Sixth Schedule. Thanks to Indian Idol, the people were uniting as never before, and the news of New Delhi and Calcutta purportedly trying to divide them made a significant impression. In the fervour of the Darjeeling people's newfound unity (intensified by Prashant Tamang's victory), the cry for Gorkhaland seemed more appropriate than the complex, seemingly wishy-washy legalities that the discussions for the Sixth Schedule had become.

Within two weeks of the Indian Idol victory, Gurung launched the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, and various GNLF affiliates from throughout the hills began making a beeline to his side. As the Morcha brought out rally after rally in different parts of the hills, the state government began to investigate Gurung's 'sponsors'. "We tried to look into the Morcha's financial aspects, but it was hard to track down the sources," admitted a senior government official. The first suspects were the lottery baron and Assam Congress MP, Mani Kumar Subba, and Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, though both deny this. But Gurung had already become a force to be reckoned with before the West Bengal government could nail him down. In November, he even succeeded in keeping Chief Minister Bhattacharya from visiting the hills by calling an indefinite bandh.

In the meantime, the Morcha won endorsements from various influential quarters, including the Darjeeling Bar Association, ex-servicemen of the Indian Army, and the Hill Transport Association. By including luminaries such as lawyers Anmol Prasad, Amar Lama and Kaman Singh Ramudamu in the inner mix, the Morcha was also able to send out strong signals about its proximity to intellectuals, a section that had long been marginalised during Ghisingh's time. The opposition parties also coalesced around the Morcha, strengthening the tide against the GNLF. Before long, the state government was forced to invite the Morcha for talks, and doors began to open in New Delhi as well.

Toppled king
Only days before Ghisingh received the boot from Chief Minister Bhattacharya, he declared to the Calcutta media, when asked about the Morcha's blockade, that he was still the "king of the hills". This defiance exemplified hubris and a disconnect with reality, both longstanding characteristics of Ghisingh's. Calcutta had long contributed to his delusions of power, by suspending elections and appointing his as the "sole administrator" of the Hill Council. Between 2004 and March 2008, when Sixth Schedule negotiations and pre-legislation processes took place, Calcutta approved nearly six extensions to Ghisingh's term as administrator.

In the end, after nearly 20 years of existence, Ghisingh's Hill Council had only a few miles of rural roads and community halls to show for itself. It failed to create industry or jobs to speak of, while corruption galloped and decline began in all aspects of life in the Darjeeling Hills. This is not just an urban complaint. Praful Rao, an environmental activist in Darjeeling, notes: "I have talked to hundreds of people from rural areas, and there was absolute unanimity in what they said: that development work and social forestry stopped almost 15 years ago – in other words, after the DGHC came into being."

Somewhere along the line, Ghisingh had clearly given up hope of actually administering Darjeeling. Indeed, the council long ago stopped holding meetings with either its general or executive bodies, in direct contravention of its governing rules. Likewise, there was no annual budget nor development plans. Instead, everything literally moved on Ghisingh's whims. The state government in Calcutta, meanwhile, was happy to allocate paltry yearly sums to the council, with little oversight, so long as the demand for Gorkhaland was kept under wraps. Meanwhile, following a 2001 assassination attempt, Ghisingh became even more eccentric, withdrawing even further from public view, including even from his own councillors.

In time, Ghisingh managed to offend almost everybody, except for the handful of contractors and councillors that depended on him for its livelihood. There also remains a small group who considers Ghisingh an astute politician, capable of delivering Gorkhaland. It was this constituency that Ghisingh was addressing when he recently stated – while holed up in the plains city of Siliguri, unable to get back to Darjeeling – that the "real Ghisingh was yet to emerge", indicating that he would not go down without a fight. Even the GNLF has now passed a resolution to revive its long-dormant Gorkhaland demand. Having alienated so much of his constituency over his two decades' of unchecked, unlimited power, it will be a nearly impossible battle for the 72-year-old Ghisingh to reclaim lost ground.

Meanwhile, although still obdurate, Ghisingh has conceded that the Morcha is here to stay. He has suggested that the governments now talk to both the Morcha and the GNLF on the renewed demand for Gorkhaland. As far as the Sixth Schedule bill is concerned, the state government has said that it will not be pursuing it any further. Morcha representatives have been meeting various national leaders in New Delhi, including the Congress party chieftain Sonia Gandhi, to press their demand for Gorkhaland. But with the West Bengal government yet to disclose its plans, the road ahead is uncertain. The Morcha has asked for local panchayat elections to be held, which, along with the DGHC elections, are long overdue. But even if these polls take place, the larger question in the Darjeeling Hills will continue to loom: Will the DGHC continue, or could a new state of Gorkhaland now be on the horizon?

Whatever the answer to that question, it is not enough that Ghisingh has resigned. The Morcha will have to win the people's mandate, and soon. Things will need to move ahead relatively quickly – after two decades of stagnation, there is a lot of catching-up to do.

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