• There is an indefinite bandh in Darjeeling and tourists have been stranded. What is happening there?
The three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling district—Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong—have been closed down for an indefinite period by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) as part of their agitation for the formation of a separate state of Gorkhaland. The GJM, formed late in 2007, has revived the demand for Gorkhaland and has been holding protests and rallies in support of a state that is to be carved out of West Bengal.
•What is the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and who is leading it?
The GJM was formed by Bimal Gurung, earlier a councillor of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. He was a close associate of Subhas Ghising, president of the Gorkha National Liberation Force (GNLF). The two fell out in 2007 over the attempt to extend 6th Schedule status to Darjeeling. Under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, certain tribal-majority areas are given autonomy in administration. While the GNLF wanted the 6th Schedule status with enhanced powers for the Hill Council, the GJM desired full statehood. The Centre introduced the 6th Schedule to the Constitution Amendment Bills in Parliament in December 2007 but it was shelved.
•So where is Subhas Ghising and what has happened to the GNLF?
While the GNLF exists as a political organisation, almost its entire support base has moved to the GJM. After a visit to Kolkata in March this year, Ghising was barred from entering Darjeeling by the GJM until he resigned as caretaker administrator of the Hill Council. The term of the last Hill Council expired in 2004, and no elections were held thereafter. The West Bengal Government appointed Ghising as caretaker administrator, extending his term every six months until his resignation in March. Thereafter, Ghising has remained confined to his home in Darjeeling.
•What is behind the demand for Gorkhaland?
The demand for a separate administrative set-up for Gorkhas of India was first voiced in 1907, when the premier civil-society body of the Gorkhas, the Hillmen’s Association, asked the British for an administrative set-up separate from Bengal. In 1946, the then undivided Communist Party of India demanded that the Darjeeling areas be constituted in an entity called Gorkhastan. The GNLF took up the issue in a big way from 1986. All these demands considered the ethnic, cultural and linguistic distinctions between the populations of Darjeeling and the rest of West Bengal. Under the West Bengal administration, feel the Gorkhas, Darjeeling has not developed despite being a world-renowned centre for tea, tourism and education.
•What is different from this current demand for Gorkhaland and the one led by the GNLF?
There are two major turns that the current demand for a separate state has taken that distinguishes it from the earlier demand.
First, the map for the current Gorkhaland envisages not only the three hills subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, but also Siliguri and parts of the Dooars that fall in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts in North Bengal, extending up to the River Sunkosh on the border with Bhutan. While the GNLF had included Dooars in its programme, it did not push for their inclusion in their map of Gorkhaland, a result of which was that when the DGHC formed only the hill subdivisions were included in it, leaving out chunks of the plains where large populations of Gorkhas reside. The GJM has managed not only to garner the support of Gorkhas in the plains, but also of the Adivasis, who form a substantial percentage of the population of the Dooars. This has created tensions between the Bengalis of Siliguri and the Gorkhas. The Bengali resistance to Siliguri’s inclusion in the agitation plans of GJM is lead by its local MLA and West Bengal Minister of Municipal Affairs Asok Bhattacharya. The Siliguri Municipality has already passed a resolution that it will fight all attempts to include Siliguri in the proposed state.
Second, unlike earlier, there is an intellectual push to the current demand for Gorkhaland. One of the impetus for a separate state of Gorkhas would be securing of their identity as Indians. Indian Gorkhas have long been misidentified as being citizens of Nepal and they feel that a state of their own will root them to India. The Gorkhaland of their imagination, therefore, does not only secure the economic development of the Darjeeling area but also the political identity of the over one crore Indian Gorkhas across the country.
• So are the Indian Gorkhas migrants from Nepal or where have they come from?
Indian Gorkhas have been residents of India for centuries. Under the Treaty of Sugauli in 1815, Nepal ceded an area of 18,000 sq km to the British. This territory constitutes what are today parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Darjeeling district. A treaty with Bhutan in 1860 brought the current Dooars areas in Bengal and Assam into British possession. The Gorkha population resident in these territories became part of British India then. The Gorkhas participated in the Freedom Movement with Gandhiji and also joined the Azad Hind Fauj in big numbers. The tune of India’s national anthem Jana Gana Mana was taken from an original composition by Captain Ram Singh Thakur, a Gorkha in the INA. Two Gorkhas, Damber Singh Gurung and Ari Bahadur Gurung were members of the Constituent Assembly. Ari Bahadur Gurung was a member of the drafting committee. He is a signatory to the first Constitution of India.
However, there are two groups of Gorkhas in India, the Indian Gorkhas and those who have come to India under the provisions of the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Friendship that allows Nepalese citizens to come and work, buy property and settle in India without permits. Their presence in India has led to confusion about the nationality of Indian Gorkhas and they are often misidentified as Nepalese citizens. A separate state of Gorkhaland, they feel, will help seal their identity as Indians.
•What happens now?
West Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has said that there will be no official talks with the GJM so long as they continue to demand Gorkhaland. On its part, the GJM says it’s a separate state or nothing. The 1980s agitation saw violence that took a toll of 1,200 lives. Dialogue between the political organisations and the state and Centre looks like the only way out.