Darjeeling, a small city in the rolling hills of the northern half of the Bengal bottleneck, is limping back to normalcy in the wake of a 104 day almost total shut down that had left it crippled. 104 days—one of the longest ever strike India has seen-- of tumult and agitation, protests and processions, gunfire and torching, etc., has landed a massive blow to this otherwise non -descript and relatively quiet tourist getaway. It all began when West Bengal CM- Mamta Bannerjee declared that Bengali is to be made a compulsory “choice’’ that students make as one of the three languages taught to them in schools across the state. This was perceived as a subversion of the culture of the hills where Nepali is the language most commonly used to communicate.
The rejection of the formation of a separate state of Gorkhaland as early as 1907 during the Morley- Minto reforms had created public dissatisfaction that periodically erupted during the period that followed. Post-independence too, tensions in the northern hills of Bengal have been brewing across decades, ever since the riots in the 1980’s, led by Subhash Ghisingh, leader of a local body- Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), that concluded with a death toll upwards of 1200 and the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). Over a span of 23 years, this body governed the region with some degree of autonomy. However, the dormant existence of locals still largely intent on the creation of a separate state, could not be avoided. A failed election and sole responsibility of the DGHC given to GNLF’s Subhash Ghisingh created an atmosphere of bitterness and discontent which sowed the seeds for the formation of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the main stakeholder in the current Gorkha turmoil.
In 2011 when West Bengal CM- Mamta Banerjee tried to end the Gorkha movement by highlighting Darjeeling as an ‘’integrated part of Bengal’’, GJM leader- Bimal Gurung reiterated that the journey towards statehood was not yet over. A bill was passed in the Bengal legislative assembly for the formation of Gorkha Territorial Administration, an elected body of representatives of the various local parties in the region, where the majority of seats were won by the GJM. Soon after Telangana achieved statehood and independence from the parent Andhra Pradesh, cries for a separate Gorkhaland were once again heard in the hills. During this mostly peaceful movement in 2013, the pro- Gorkhaland protesters introduced a highly effective tactic of “Janta-bandh’’ wherein people were requested to not leave their houses as a sign of protest. Unfortunately, four years later, in 2017, the ‘’Janta-bandh’’ escalated to a violent struggle.
This year the GJM ordered a region-wide bandh on June 1st and 2nd as a mark of protest against making the Bengali language compulsory. The protest took a violent turn soon after, and the official beginning of an indefinite strike started on June 15th which went on for 104 days.
Instances of violence between law enforcement officials and civilians escalated. The police resorted to violent ‘’lathi charge’’ and were responded to by hundreds of people pelting stones from the higher ground. The burning, upturned vehicles coupled with the hiss of tear gas shells used to quell the agitation, had transformed the streets to nothing less than the remnants of a war zone. The strike claimed two lives in just 20 days. A CBI probe was sought by GJM president Bimal Gurung into these deaths as well as that of Tashi Bhutia, a Gorkhaland supporter who was allegedly shot for no apparent reason as he was walking back home one day. The internet services to the entirety of the hill-station too were abruptly cut off as the protests and rallies persevered.
On the political front of the entire debacle, Mamta claimed that this agitation was a ‘’ deep-rooted conspiracy’’ since weapons and cash of this amount cannot be collected overnight. The weapons included knives, baseball bats, firecrackers and other such objects. CM Banerjee said that she would die before allowing Bengal to be broken again. GJM chief Bimal Gurung responded by claiming Banerjee’s speculation a ‘’white lie’’ meant to mislead the people into thinking this is a terrorist movement. Gurung recapitulated his stance, which the protests and agitation, contrary to Mamta’s claims is a fight for the identity of the Gorkha people. He assures that they would ‘’ not stop until Gorkhaland is created. The struggle will be intensified in the hills.’’ GJM general secretary demanded a political dialogue on Gorkhaland. He said, “The Mamta Banerjee government is dealing with it as a law and order problem. But it is not a law and order problem. It is a political problem and should be solved politically.”
In the midst of this turmoil, the BJP government, who had in its 2014 manifesto, promised to “sympathetically examine’’ the pleas of the Gorkha people for the creation of a separate state, have been increasingly non-committal. The Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh has on a few occasions communicated with Mamta Bannerjee to handling the unrest, but no substantial progress or decisions have been made. The state BJP representative, S.S. Ahluwalia too has been vague and reiterated that the state party could not do anything and the decision to take a final call lies solely with the centre. The agitation in Darjeeling had spread to Delhi where rallies and morchas by the Gorkha population in the capital state were held. The Gorkha’s raised the Indian tricolour to show their love for the country and their need for the country to give them their own cultural identity in the form of Gorkhaland.
On September 28th, a hundred and four long days of the total bandh was called off after an appeal from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The bandh caused a substantial economic loss to the hill station in its peak tourist season, and the region is limping back to normalcy after the loss of lives and the destructive effects of the strife. Since then, talks have been underway, and the concerned parties have engaged in political dialogue to achieve their respective ends.
The longstanding Gorkha demand for breaking away from an existing state to establish a new and distinct state is one with many precedents. For decades together, smaller regions of larger Indian states have shown a much stronger regional affinity than the subnational identity, intensified primarily by uneven economic conditions that result in easily discernable developmental disparities. With Telangana separating from Andhra Pradesh, Vidharba wanting to exit Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh requiring a restructuring, and even the northern Tamil Nadu provinces asking for a split, it is clear that within the general linguistic conformity of states, a vast diversity of distinct regions with characteristic dialects, culture and historical traditions also exist. Thus it is only fair that distant administrative governments in capital cities are brought closer to the people of the state. India was, at one point divided on a linguistic basis, this, however, was done for the administrative convenience of a foreign ruler. When the British left, the demarcated states stayed, leaving us with the responsibility to gauge our growth requirements and accept that good governance and ideal administration trump obsolete, and now irrelevant, decisions.
From the 1970’s, the population of the country has doubled to (1.2 billion) with the annual budget of the country also multiplying to 50 times its value in the 80’s. Over the course of 1975 to the present day, the number of official states has also increased from 21 to 29, which highlights the fact that the burden on administrative governments can be reduced greatly whilst simultaneously enabling more efficient governance. The only possible criticism to the idea of a larger number of smaller autonomous states is that it jeopardizes the unity of the nation. But as Rasheedudin Khan wrote in an edition of The Seminar, 1973, “the process of the infra-structuring of the Indian federation is not yet over. Therefore, political demands of viable sub-regions for new administrative arrangements are not necessarily antithetical to the territorial integrity of the country.’’ He explains, quite simply that the urge for identifiable autonomy is complementary rather than divisive and ‘’ it is not a fissiparous but a normal centrifugal tendency in a federation.’’ Thus, secession within a political state, especially one like India, will not ‘balkanize’ the country. Therefore it should not be written off as a mechanism to disintegrate national unity but to bring a national restructuring that aids the integrity of the country by protecting its very diversity.
On the other hand, the opposing view is that they want for a homeland is legitimate; however, the demand for a separate state has many political and administrative consequences. Succumbing to the demand of a separate state for the Gorkha’s would undermine too many things for West Bengal and the Mamta Banerjee government. Bengal has already been victim to a brutal split during the creation of Bangladesh. Therefore the people hesitation to let Darjeeling go is understandable. However should the insecurity of the mostly unaffected Bengali populace coupled with party politics and a pseudo ‘win’ for the TMC be the rival forces that seal the fate of the Gorkhas?
The separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh and the carving out of Chattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh, among others; was considered a viable option despite the lack of glaring dissimilarities. The topography of the land was consistent; the agro-climatic conditions not extremely different; the dialects had similarities, and traditions percolated down from similar cultures, yet statehood was bestowed upon the two. The Gorkha's, however, could not be more different than their Bengali counterparts. Their lifestyle is adapted to the mountainous landscape, while their cultures and traditions depend heavily on their history. Darjeeling was for a very long time, part of Sikkim before it was given to Bengal as a ‘’gift’’ during the British colonial era. Thus, its cultures and traditions are vastly different from that of the larger demographic of locals living on the plains of Bengal. The most superficial trait, i.e., their physical appearance too, is distinct. When the circumstances are such, is it fair to ask the Gorkhas to derive their feeling of belonging from a state whose culture has barely any room for another?
In conclusion, it is clear that the health and well-being of the sub-continent lies in its good governance; and if smaller states are the need of the hour, we must not let selfish, power hungry politicians use ‘’national unity’’ as a smokescreen to criticise secessionism. Perhaps the demand for Gorkhaland too is not a hindrance to national integrity but to that of the Gorkha people unhappily wedded to a state that does not understand them. A holistic, unbiased and serious consideration of their demands is the best way forward.
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