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Toy train to statehood

How far has Jaswant Singh energised separatists in Darjeeling?

Written by Antara Das |
May 5, 2009 12:12:45 am

“Will you see the players well bestowed? Let them be well used,for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time”— Hamlet,II,2

The clamour for Gorkhaland is,once again,part of our present. Not that the territorial demand of the Gorkhas,which had bloodied the pristine charm of Darjeeling during the ’80s,had ever petered out. But the belligerence of the Gorkha National Liberation Front and its leader Subash Ghising,the original “players”,had largely been tamed over time,the latter’s growing pusillanimity proportionate to his declining popularity. Ghising eventually resigned as administrator of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in May 2008,in time for new players to enter the stage,revive the enfeebled cause and rally people around issues of deprivation and neglect — both real and perceived.

In Bimal Gurung,once a Ghising strongman but now the inheritor of his mantle as messiah of the Gorkha cause,the aspiration for a separate state regained its voice. As leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha,he has delineated the territorial limits of his vision of Gorkhaland to include not just the Darjeeling hills,but also the Dooars,the Terai and Siliguri (a Bengali dominated town in north Bengal) — thereby inflaming non-Gorkha passions and garnering greater attention. His most masterful manoeuvring,however,has been his successful lobbying to get the BJP’s Jaswant Singh to contest the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat,with locals regarding it as nothing short of a coup that a national leader can echo their demand for a separate state,convinced that Singh’s presence will deliver their beautiful land from political obscurity.

Singh,obviously,has the unenviable task of walking a tightrope over the torrent of conflicting emotions that demand statehood,and those that would resist attempts to divide the mother-state,West Bengal. Having earlier endorsed Gorkhaland,his party’s manifesto nevertheless steered clear of an explicit promise,pledging instead a “special status” for the region. Semantics doesn’t dampen excitement; the hills’ people are convinced that their demands have reached a different level,that their aspirations can no longer be dismissed as just more of the routine disruptions that plague the area,and that they have managed to move closer to the national consciousness. That is why,notwithstanding the scepticism of the “thinking people” of Darjeeling,the town’s people are energised. As one resident and social activist,Niraj Lama,says,they feel “uplifted” that a national leader is camping out amidst them,drawing the media glare.

Indeed,an alliance with a national party might indeed make aspirations for a state sound more credible and real,feels B.B. Gooroong,an advisor to Sikkim’s chief minister. In particular,Singh could better articulate the need for a Gorkha state,given his party’s commitment to creating smaller states for better governance. Nobody expects the West Bengal legislature to ever pass a bill sanctioning a Gorkha state,Gooroong asserts,and hence,Singh’s candidature becomes the best and most alluring bet on the table.

The renewed calls for Gorkhaland is the bogey that has come back to haunt the CPM,but this time more sinister than ever thanks to its association with similar secessionist movements. Both the Kamtapur Progressive Party and the Greater Cooch Behar Democratic Party — demanding statehood for Kamtapur and Greater Cooch Behar respectively — have supported the Morcha’s demands,having managed to somehow arrive at an understanding regarding the areas that overlap in their respective charters of demands. At the height of the Morcha’s agitations in the summer of 2008,the tribal leadership of Lalgarh (in West Midnapore district) — themselves protesting at underdevelopment and alleged government apathy — had pledged their solidarity with the Gorkha cause.

The web being spun by these divisive threads has understandably unnerved local CPM leaders,who detect a malevolent conspiracy by the combined strength of the BJP,the Congress,and sundry “imperialist” forces to shatter centuries-old cultural ties and unleash ethnic violence that would cause the eventual break-up of West Bengal. For them,formal statehood is a chimera: it will not improve the Gorkhas’ lot,as the state will for ever remain dependent on a Central economic policy that precludes any participation by the locals. And,of course,a state based on Gorkha identity along the Nepalese border will always lend credence to the demands for a Greater Nepal that keep resurfacing every now and then.

A balance tilted in favour of negotiations as against violence,in favour of diplomacy instead of radicalism,is what most people,once scarred by violence,pin their hopes on. The fresh voicing of conflicting demands,however,raises the possibility that trouble may seek the hills out yet again.

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