The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland (West-Bengal) has been simmering for the past few decades now and its cause lies in the fight for distinct identity between the Nepali speaking population and the Bengali speaking population of West Bengal.
Gorkhaland- Origin, Geography and Demography
- Gorkhaland is mainly composed of the Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and other hilly districts of West-Bengal. The people belonging to these areas have ethical, cultural and language differences with the Bengali community of West-Bengal.
- The demand of Darjeeling as a separate administrative region is as old as 1907. However, the agitation by Subhash Ghising led Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), further brought this issue in focus and the term “Gorkhaland” was coined in 1980.
- The Gorkhaland Movement is chiefly concerned with the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland which falls under the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal.
- The area covers Duars and Terai region of West Bengal and is known for its popular tea cultivation.
Who are the Gorkhas?
- They are a mixture of castes and tribal-ethnic clans.
- The caste groups include the KhasParbatiyasincluding Bahun (Brahmins), Chhetri,Kami, Damai, Sarki, etc.
- The ethnic group (mostly falling under Schedule Tribes or Other Backward Class groups) include Gurung,Magar,Tamang,Thami,Shrerpa etc
- Although each of them has their own language (belonging to the Tibeto-Burman or Indo-Aryan languages), the lingua franca among the Gorkhas is the Nepali language with its script in Devnagari.
- The Nepali language, which is one of the official languages of India, is the common binding thread of all Gorkha castes and clans.
Reasons for demanding a separate state
- Differences in ethnicity, culture and language.
- Nepali-Indian Gorkha ethnic culture is different from the Bengali culture.
- Poverty, skewed development policies and politicisation of the issue.
- According to some scholars, it was a failure of governance combined with politicisation that bred the Gorkhaland issue.
- Due to the historical trend, especially post-independence, where the issue erupts only when it’s pampered by political aspirations, the demand has got even more leverage
Brief history of the Gorkhaland area
Prior to 1780s the area was ruled by Chogyalof Sikkim.
- Gorkhas invaded Sikkim and captured most part of it which including Darjeeling and Siliguri.
- They administered it for 35 years.
- Nepal ceded its territory to the British in the treaty of Segoulee(1816), after the Anglo-Gorkha war
- The ceded territory includes Darjeeling, Siliguri, the entire terai, Simla, Nainital, Garwhal hills, Kumaon upto the Sutlej., i.e., the entire region from Teestato
- In 1817, British handed over the territories back to Chogyals of Sikkim(Treaty of Titalia) but was later taken back by the former for political reasons in 1835.
- British and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchula through which Bengal Duars and Kalimpong became a part of the Darjeeling hills in 1864.
- Thus the present district of Darjeeling came into existence in 1866.
- British started tea cultivation in 1865 and the narrow gauge railway line in Darjeeling, a lot of people came here and started residing permanently.
- These people did not have the modern concept of international borders
- They understood that the land was under the possession of their king and when they came to work under British enterprise as labourers ,they thought they were actually following the orders of the Gorkha King
- They always understood that they were in their own land.
- When these events were happening, India, as we know today, was still not formed and all these people were British subjects, be it a Gorkha or a Bengali.
- The demand for a separate administrative unit in Darjeeling was raised for the first time by the Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling.
- In 1941, it demanded exclusion of Darjeeling from Bengal and to make it a chief commissioners province.
Post – Independence Developments
- 1952-The All India Gorkha League submits a memorandum to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru demanding separation from the state of Bengal.
- 1955-Daulat Das Bokhim, the President of District Shamik Sangh submits a memorandum to the chairman, State Reorganisation Committee demanding the creation of separate state consisting of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar district.
- 1977- 81:The West Bengal government passes a unanimous resolution supporting the creation of an autonomous district council consisting Darjeeling and related areas. The bill is forwarded to Central Government for consideration of this matter. In 1981, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi receives a memorandum from Pranta Parishad, demanding a separate state.
- In 1980,Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) was created under the leadership of Subhash Ghising
- 1988 – Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council accord is signed by GNLF, the state of Bengal and the Centre. Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council came into action. GNLF drops the demand for the separate state.
- The demand for Gorkhaland was intensified in the 1980s under the leadership of Gorkha National Liberation Front supremo Subhas Ghising.
- The movement turns violent during the period of 1986-88, and around 1,200 people are killed.
- After a two-year long protest, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) is finally formed in 1988.
- 2007-At the last phase of left front’s regime, the mass movement for Gorkhaland takes place under the leadership of Gorkha Janmurti Morcha (GJM) supremo Bimal Gurung.
- The 2007 Gorkha uprising intensifies, following the 2005 Centre and state government initiative for a permanent solution of this region by bringing it to the sixth schedule of the constitution giving some degree of autonomy to a predominantly tribal area.
- But the Gorkhas opposed this sixth schedule and demand statehood gains pace.
- The four-year long movement comes to an end after the State Government in 2011 declared the formation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous administrative body for the Darjeeling, and Gurung is made its leader.
- With the formation of Telangana on July 20, 2013, the movement for Gorkhaland state again intensifies.
Why did the recent protests for Gorkhaland happen?
- The West Bengal government announced recently that, Bengali should be a compulsory subject from Class 1 to 10 in the state.
- The statement was enough to provoke GJM, which rules the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), that interpreted it as an imposition.
- Nepali is the official language in the hills of Bengal, recognised as an official language of Bengal in 1961.
- In 1992, Nepali was recognised as one of the official languages of India.
Why protests despite autonomy given through GTA(Gorkhaland Territorial Agreement 2011)?
- Only six years ago GJM signed a peace deal of sorts with this same government, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee—which in turn led to the establishment of the GTA, the empowered avatar of the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, in 2012.
- The idea was to give more autonomy to the locals. However, this has met with limited success.
- There appears to be a trust deficit between GTA and the State government, as GTA claims to be relatively weaker compared to its other counterparts in various states.
- The historical ethnic and linguistic factors that had given impetus to the Gorkhaland movement were still visible. Therefore, it was an obvious reaction when the State Government made Bengali language compulsory in all schools in the State.
- The perception is that it is this language imposition that was the immediate spark for the protests. But the Government rolled back the language requirement almost a week ago.
- Therefore, analysts opine that it is, perhaps, the result of a political turf war between the political parties- Trinamool Congress (TMC) party on the one hand, and the GJM and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other.
- On 17 May, the TMC won the civic elections held in the hill districts. The GJM still came out on top in the region—winning Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong—but the TMC win was not very well recieved.
- The hill parties and the plains parties had an infromal arrangement over the years that except in assembly and parliamentary polls, the latter would for all practical purposes keep out of the former’s electoral space. With the Mirik (civic polls) win, the TMC has effectively breached that old arrangement.
- To leverage greater political representation, TMC has also made an attempt to break the Gorkha strangehold . For example, earlier this year her government carved out Kalimpong district from Darjeeling, clearly with an eye on the 2019 poll.
- Government has made a socio-political outreach to the region’s ethnic minorities, such as the Lepchas, the Tamangs and the Bhutias, with the establishment of “development boards”, which has ruflled some feathers in the GJM.
- For the BJP, which is allied to the GJM and aggressively building its presence in Bengal, this is a positive development. Though the Centre has been quiet on Gorkhaland demands at this time, the BJP, which has an MP in Darjeeling, supports the cause, as it will give them an opportunity to have a political space in the region.
- In short, Darjeeling will be the theatre of Bengal politics. For the TMC, Darjeeling is the last frontier—the only part of Bengal that is not fully under its control. For the BJP, it is one of its early stepping stones. And for the GJM, this is a battle for survival.
Is under-development a reason for the perceived deprivation of the hill people?
- The districts of Darjeeling (and Kalimpong, which was carved out of Darjeeling earlier this year) and Jalpaiguri have been considered as Gorkhaland.
- The demand for Gorkhaland encompasses almost the entirety of the old Darjeeling district as well as significant parts of the adjoining district of Jalpaiguri.
- The population weights used for combining district-level data are based on the last decennial census conducted in 2011.
- Data from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2015-16, shows that while Gorkhaland districts rank ahead of the rest of the state in certain parameters (such as access to clean fuel), the rest of the state fares better in others (such as access to an improved source of drinking water).
- Overall, there does not seem to be significant differences between the two regions.
- On most health indicators, such as immunisation, antenatal care and institutional births, Gorkhaland districts compare well to the rest of the state.
- After Kolkata, Darjeeling district has the highest rate of institutional births (94.5%). The district also recorded the third-highest share of mothers who received full antenatal care (33.6%). The share of under-nourished children is lower in Gorkhaland than in the rest of the state
- Between 2001 and 2011, household access to amenities grew at a similar pace across both regions.
- On some parameters, such as access to cooking gas, Gorkhaland districts overtook the rest of West Bengal, while on some others, such as access to toilets, the region fell behind. Overall though, there was not much difference between the two regions either in 2001 or in 2011.
So, are only political developments responsible for this resentment?
- The aspiration for self-rule of the hill people in Darjeeling is more than a century old.
- This complexity of this narrative is further compounded by the diverse ethnic identity of the hill people. For instance, the Nepali-speaking hill dwellers of Darjeeling who travel to ‘mainland’ India, are often regarded as ‘Nepalese from Nepal’, putting a question mark on their identity.
- Such exogenous factors, in addition to a host of other parameters, has often consolidated the aspiration for identity within a community of people. In this case, the hill people in Darjeeling want to be recognised as Gorkhas belonging to ‘Gorkhaland’ – the state they aspire to form.
- The geography of this region too has been in flux.
- As given above, this region, initially belonged to Sikkim which went through a series of annexations and has been ruled by different rulers from time to time.
- This convoluted geographical history often aggravates the feeling of exclusion, which manifests itself in the form of protests from time to time, when the hill residents percieve a sense of domination by state or non-state actors from the plains.
- The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), was instituted in 2011 to provide for autonomy in administering the hill areas.
- This provided official recognition to ‘Gorkhaland’. But the GTA too, like its predecessor, lacked sufficient autonomy.
- It is worth noting that neither successive state governments (until the recent threat surfaced) nor the administrative set-ups in the hills ever felt the need to furnish accounts of public funds disbursed to them. This mutually acceptable lack of accountability was gainful for both the state government and the GTA, until they collided with each other.
- According to some scholars, census has been used as an administrative tool to project Nepali speakers in minority although they happen to be in a majority. Thus, language has been a contentious issue in the hills of Darjeeling
- The Nepali language movement of the 1960s in the hills has been a manifestation of this cultural trend.
- Moreover, the perceived cultural dominance of the majority population of West Bengal in the hills widened the gulf between these two communities. (For Example- For the last two years, the government of West Bengal has celebrated the birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose in Darjeeling by organising concerts of Baul songs, which is traditional Bengali folk music. This was percieved as cultural domination).
- It should also be noted that that most of the premier educational institutions in West Bengal do not offer Nepali as a subject of study.
- When the schools in Darjeeling were already offering Bengali as an optional subject, what was the need for the state government to make such a declaration? Some scholars then, point out to the political mobilisation to be done in the hill districts in the back drop of the victory in the recent civic polls.
Other critical factors
- There is a demand for the inclusion of the hill areas of Darjeeling district, Kalimpong district and parts of Siliguri, Terai and Dooars of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts in the proposed Gorkhaland state.
- But, a brief analysis of the demographic profile of these areas gives rise to certain contradictions. Gorkhas constitute only 35% of the population, while the rest comprise Adivasis (20%), Bengalis (15%), Rajbangsis (25%) and Totos, Mech and others (5%). So , this makes the issue more contentious as the consensus of the other groups is questionable.
- Moreover, the Sherpas, Bhutias, Lepchas and other ethnic communities do not share the Gorkhas’ vision of self-rule. Perhaps these fissures drove the state government to promote 15 different development boards in the hills.
- Role of Sikkim Democratic Front and the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha in extending their support for the creation of Gorkhaland and the merger of Darjeeling with Sikkim is a lateral critical factor, since darjeeling was originally a part of sikkim and hence both have a shared history.
Significance of Gorkhaland Movement
- It is one of the oldest movement in India, which is yet to completely resolved.
- It has a geopolitical impact on the India-Nepal relations. The treatment meted out to the Nepali people of the hills, will decide the consequence of Indian origin people in Nepal(Madesis in Terai belt)
- Further, Nepal being important for India to be able to seek a regional balance in the context of growing Chinese presence in Nepal, this issue becomes a rallying point for a positive geostrategic and geopolitical foreign policy in the region.
- Gorkhaland has a strategic location. It is the connecting link for the chicken neck that connects rest of India with North East. Therefore, its stability is vital for India.
- Darjeeling has provided positive spin off effects to the region due to tea and tourism. For this economic model to sustain, it is imperative that this region is socio-politically stable.
- Effective and meaningful dialogue and co-engagement can be the first step.
- Political scientists opine that, the State Government needs to have a political outreach to all the stakeholders to reclaim its legitimacy.
- The scholars opine that, to return to peace, the emphasis on the police, administrative methods and rule by fiat should be stopped.
- Any hasty decision like dividing the state and granting immediate statehood should also be avoided as it may start a domino effect and other statehood movements may again start the protests.
- Further, any new state requires prerequisite infrastructure, administrative resources and political capital and adequate and detailed agreements, failing which it may foment fissiparous tendencies. Thus, a more negotiated arrangement through peaceful dialogue and political mobilisation is envisaged.
History is proof that development is not the panacea for identity movements. For instance, in Tibet where large scale development by the Chinese could not undermine the peoples’ aspiration for self respect and self esteem. Similarly, the Indian Independence movement too was not due to lack of development, rather, it was for a distinct unified Indian identity. Thus, a little more empathy, sensitivity rather than political vested interest would open more doors for a just and amicable solution.
However, directly creating a new state may cause some stability issues. Creation of a new state requires a prerequisite physical, economic, and strategic infrastructure. Further, the stability of a new State like Gorkhaland needs to be viewed in the context of growing chinese presence in the neighbourhood so that it doesn’t threaten the unity and integrity of Indian Union in any manner in the future. Thus a collective decision with co-engagement and consensus of all stakeholders is the pragmatic way forward.
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