It’s simple: Darjeeling wants out





Mamata Banerjee will have none of it, even as the demand for Gorkhaland makes sense on cultural and political grounds

Trinamool supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee doesn’t like opposition. In the past six years, her party has not only won most elections, but has also ‘acquired’ winning candidates from the CPI(M) and Congress camps. And this summer, she wanted to free the estimated 12 lakh Nepali-speaking Gorkha majority population in the Darjeeling hills bordering Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan from the stranglehold of Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The Morcha has an alliance with the BJP which recently emerged as the key opposition in Bengal. Encouraged by her party’s win in a small hill municipality and after generously spending on 15 community development boards set up to divide the hill population, Banerjee went ahead to prove her supremacy, ahead of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) election later this year.

With financial and administrative control remaining in the hands of the State government, GTA was a lame-duck body that she sold to Gurung in 2012 during the last agitation. It replaced the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council formed after the first major agitation in 1988. Cornered, Gurung used an old State circular to make Bengali mandatory in schools, in order to revive the demand for Gorkhaland. The circular was later withdrawn but the bullet had been fired.

Darjeeling is now paying the price for its rebellion against Mamata Banerjee. At least seven persons have been killed, allegedly by security forces. Both mobile internet and broadband services have been banned since June 20. A Nepali TV channel was shut down. Efforts are on to close down Facebook pages promoting Gorkha aspirations. The chief minister has blamed the agitators for “resorting to violence”, necessitating the clampdown.

Fairly peaceful

No doubt there were incidents of sporadic violence in the hills. But the current Gorkhaland agitation is relatively peaceful compared to earlier movements in Darjeeling or the recent stirs in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and elsewhere. Many political rallies in Kolkata, including a few led by Banerjee during her days in the Opposition, were probably as violent. But an unrelenting Banerjee accused agitators of having links with North-East ultras, slapped criminal charges on top GJM leaders, saw the ‘hand’ of a foreign country, rebuked Sikkim for showing sympathy to the movement, and most importantly kept blasting at the BJP for all the trouble on a daily basis.

No one dared ask her why the BJP would disturb the peace at this strategic border location next to the all-important Chicken’s Neck (otherwise known as the Siliguri Corridor) at this juncture with an aggressive China in close proximity. Nor would she say what is so wrong about Darjeeling upholding its linguistic and cultural identity vis-a-vis the rest of Bengal; if the Statehood demands of Mizoram, Jharkhand or Telangana have been granted how is Gorkhaland any different?

It is hard to figure out why it should hurt Bengal to yield political control over a small economy dependent on a sick tea industry and mass tourism, contributing barely 3 out of 294 seats in the State assembly? Banerjee ruled out the demand for Gorkhaland. She is “open to discussion” with the hill parties — all united on Gorkhaland — but on her terms. This is as good as refusing to negotiate; however, no one evinced interest in her offer either.

Political football

Banerjee is no political novice. She knows how deep the sentiment for Gorkhaland runs in the hill population. She is merely looking to reap fresh political mileage from the agitation. In a country that had shown outstanding political maturity in resolving issues right from the North-East to the deep South over the last 30 years, Darjeeling remained an exception. Banerjee is drawing strength from this piece of history.

She is trying to put the BJP in a bind over Darjeeling on two fronts. First, the BJP promised to “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas, the Adivasis and other people of Darjeeling district and the Dooars region” in their election manifesto both in 2009 and 2014. This is well in line with their stance towards smaller States. But it directly confronts the fake Bengali sub-nationalism about Darjeeling. Banerjee expects any support by the BJP to the Gorkhaland movement to enhance her electoral prospects in Bengal.

Second, to support Gorkhaland, Delhi has to override the security myth created by its own agencies. This will bring into the scene an unstable Nepal with which it shares a complex relationship and which has a history of using China as a trump card against India. The Maoist uprising in Nepal has added to the apprehensions. That the Naxalite movement originated in the foothills of Darjeeling only bolsters such fears.

These concerns are not misplaced. But the fact is that every rebellion in Nepal had its roots in India. The Nepali Congress was headquartered in Patna and top Maoist leaders were more visible in Delhi than in Nepal. To add spice, some Gorkha folklore claims Darjeeling was once a part of Nepal. This is as misleading as the Bengali sentiments concerning Darjeeling, but enough to fuel the imagination both in Delhi and Kolkata.

What next?

Both the Modi government as well as the BJP have been silent on the Gorkhaland issue. Hopefully, they are aware that the problem is political in nature and keeping it alive is not in the best interests of the nation. There is merit in Darjeeling’s aspiration for self-rule, as the voice of a few lakh-strong electorate gets lost in the cacophony of nearly six crore voters in West Bengal.

It is natural that Gorkhas on both sides of the border will share a common link. But political instability and lack of opportunities in Nepal have weakened this link. Nepal too is looking forward to stability and this may be the right time to solve this puzzle.

It is wrong to see agitators in Darjeeling through the prism of separatism. They are merely seeking democratic resolution of a pending issue. Clamping down on free speech not only sets the wrong precedent, it paves the way for more unrest.

It is high time the country restored internet connectivity in Darjeeling and started the political dialogue for a lasting solution. What is the best option for Darjeeling? Should it be a State, a Union Territory or something else? Basically, Darjeeling wants freedom from Kolkata’s rule.

Published on July 31, 2017
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