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Eastern turbulence

Demands for Gorkhaland and Bodoland are roiling the region anew. They must be handled with patience and wisdom

Updated: August 30, 2017 9:47:05 am
gorkhaland, darjeeling violence, gjm agitation, kolkata, west bengal, tmc govt, mamata bannerjee, north east blockade, bodoland, assam, indian express At the root of the Gorkhaland and Bodoland protests is the question of communal identity and its representation.

Just as the leaders of the Gorkhaland agitation left for Kolkata to negotiate with the West Bengal government, the Bodo areas in Assam turned restive. Protests, with an exceptionally large presence of women, blocked the national highway to Assam on Monday. Bodo groups, including the All Bodo Students Union, have renewed mobilisations around the demand for a Bodoland state.

The blockade will disrupt trade and transport links between the Northeast and the rest of India, already under stress due to the seasonal floods in the Brahmaputra basin. The economic costs of prolonged protests can be severe. Timely state intervention may help to prevent these agitations from spreading, and worse, becoming violent. The three-month-long Gorkhaland agitation has caused immense hardship to the local population. Tea and tourism, lifelines of the local economy, have almost collapsed. For a durable peace, the West Bengal government must make an offer the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) will find difficult to refuse, and not wait for the latter to exhaust itself.

At the root of the Gorkhaland and Bodoland protests is the question of communal identity and its representation. The Gorkhas in the Darjeeling hills and the Bodos in upper Assam believe that a separate state is necessary to protect their collective social, cultural and political identities. Language and ethnicity are upheld as identity markers.

To a large extent, the logic of the separatist politics now roiling the region is inscribed in the very process by which states like West Bengal and Assam came to be constituted. The state elites and governments reinforced linguistic pride and ethnic identity of the majority or dominant groups without giving much thought to the linguistic and ethnic minorities, who were then in the peripheries of the region’s politics. When the minorities began to assert themselves, their politics, too, followed the tried and tested templates.

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This cycle of identity politics needs to be broken. Going ahead, groups across the faultlines will need to re-imagine their politics in less exclusive terms. Autonomous bodies like the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration and Bodo Autonomous Council are useful instruments to deliver public goods and build physical and social infrastructure. However, they may not fully satisfy the identity aspirations of groups that seek assertion and parity. That is the unfinished work of politics in these states. West Bengal and Assam are, in reality, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic societies. If these states are reconfigured as such, it may become possible for the restive minorities — the Gorkhas, Kamtapuris, Bodos, Dimasas and so on — to negotiate their space within existing state boundaries.

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