Gorkhaland: A Complex issue
West Bengal’s Darjeeling district has been on the boil over a separate state demand and witnessed widespread clashes between Gorkha Janmukti Morcha activists and the police. The tourism sector has been hit hard.
- Sikkim gifted Darjeeling to the East India Company in 1835. Historically, until 1905, when the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, effected the partition of Bengal, Darjeeling was a part of the Rajshahi division, now in Bangladesh. From 1905 to 1912 Darjeeling formed a part of the Bhagalpur division now in Bihar. It was given back to Rajshahi in 1912 and remained with the Rajshahi division till Partition.
- The Gorkhaland region, comprising the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, is home to a large number of Nepali speakers, who resent being part of a state dominated by Bengali speakers. It remains among the earliest demands for statehood in India. Recognised as an official languageof Bengal in 1961, Nepali is the official language in the hills of West Bengal. In 1992, Nepali was recognised as one of the official languages of India.
Causes behind the Unrest?
- Although the Nepali-speaking segment makes up just 1.2 per cent of Bengal’s population, Darjeeling evokes more interest in Nepal than any other Indian region where Nepali-speaking persons are settled.
- The idea of a “Greater Nepal” still motivates a section of Nepal activists who want Darjeeling restored.
- The tactful and rigid segregation of workers from the British era to the line of ethnicity in the hills, where the Nepalese were brought in and the plains, where the Chottanagpur migrants worked, rendered one community hostile against the other.
- The few Bengalis present in the hills were and have always been the babus, working for the British and then the State. The marwaris have controlled most of the wealth, further isolating the Nepali population.
- The Nepalese find themselves reduced to second class citizens, at the hands of these otherwise miniscule inhabitants.
- The movement led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front, projected the CPM-led government in Bengal as anti-Nepali.
- The demand for Gorkhaland has always found its support among the tea plantation workers. Kipat (ownership of land by a community) and Maato (mud) remain central to the movement.
Gorkhaland demand has been there for more than 75-80 years. Between 1907 and 1987, demands for a separate Darjeeling were raised on “at least on 15 occasions. Ongoing for over decades, language is at the heart of the Gorkhaland crisis. Supporters of Gorkhaland want a separate Nepalese-speaking region.
However, the approximate cause of unrest is:
- The present crisis in Darjeeling was sparked by fears of Bengali being imposed in schools in the GJM-administered areas where a majority of the people are Nepali-speaking Gorkhas. The GJM and other separatist political forces saw this as a ploy to undermine the GTA’s authority.
- Gorkha Janmukti Morcha-led by Bimal Gurung intensified its demands for a separate state of Gorkhaland calling an indefinite bandh in the region. GJM is a political party which campaigns for the creation of a separate state Gorkhaland within India, out of districts in the north of West Bengal
- While the protests started with the suspicion that Bengali would be made mandatory in the hills. Later it spiralled into a broad-based ‘indefinite’ agitation with the GJM targeting symbols of the state and ordering closure of all government offices.
Tripartite agreement, 2011:
Long back, the Gorkhaland movement was called off following a tripartite agreement that led to creation of an autonomous hill council. In 2011, after the Trinamool Congress came to power in the State, the GJM, the State government and the Centre signed a tripartite agreement for the establishment of the GTA, a regional autonomous body aimed at giving significant administrative control over the region to the elected party in the hills.
- The State government must reach out to the GJM and work out a way to transfer powers to the GTA as was promised in 2011. A signal in this direction will go a long way in tamping down the violent agitation. It should also abandon its wishful thinking that short cuts can solve the intractable Gorkhaland issue, which is culturally root
- GTA should be given more powers and more autonomy within constitutional limits.
- Language has been a fraught issue in the Darjeeling hills for more than a century. Identity politics aside, there is something utilitarian about learning a language. Learning the language, formally, will only help expand the economic avenues of Nepali-speaking people in the Darjeeling hills in West Bengal.
- A dialogue must be initiated with those demanding a separate Gorkhaland state and the issue thoroughly examined, and that it should not be kept lingering for long.
The demand for carving out a separate state, Gorkhaland, from West Bengal is a decades old demand. The issue needs to be handled diplomatically. The cultural divide based on ethnicity and language must be bridged and this can be done only through discussion and engagement rather than violence. The GJM and the state government with the Centre as mediator must come together to bring this issue to a peaceful end.