Sunday, June 22, 2008

‘Gorkhaland’: Then And Now

It would require a leap of the head to try to link the upsurge in the Gorkhaland movement in India with the eclipse of our own House of Gorkha. Jumping to other conclusions might not be so far-fetched.
When Subhas Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) spearheaded a bloody campaign for Gorkhaland in the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government saw some benefit in letting the movement continue. The communist front ruling West Bengal, from which Ghisingh’s state was to be carved out, was growing annoyingly smug.
As Ghisingh subsequently settled for the autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988, there was palpable resentment over the betrayal of the cause. Yet labeling Ghisingh as part of the problem required much more than the allegations of corruption swirling around him.
Decades later, New Delhi provided the justification. Last November, it sought to turn Darjeeling into a tribal region by putting the DGHC in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The federal government initiated the move as a follow-up to a tripartite agreement it had signed with Kolkata and Ghisingh.
Non-tribal Nepalis, some 70 percent of the hill population, were outraged by what they saw as an attempt to divide them along the lines of ethnicity and caste. Adding insult to injury, the federal and state governments treated Ghisingh as the sole representative of the region.
Amid the indignation, New Delhi decided to put the Sixth Schedule Bill on hold. By then, Ghisingh had already lost influence to a former protégé, Bimal Gurung, who had formed the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) pressing for full statehood.
As in the original movement, deprivation and discrimination continue to be blamed for the unrest gripping Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and surrounding areas. Opponents are using many of the same arguments to rebuff the statehood demand.
The fractures in the Indian polity since the last agitation have cluttered its response. The Congress Party remains opposed in principle to the creation of smaller states. But, then, many within the party support the demand for separating Telangana from Andhra Pradesh. The political gains there are simply too attractive to ignore.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supports splitting states to ensure better governance. In 2000, the BJP-led federal government oversaw the creation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand out of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, respectively. Political expediency played the principal part. Thus, the BJP can be expected to oppose any demand to divide Gujarat – where it holds full sway – no matter how certain the efficiency factor.
The GJM has recognized the change in realities. The current map for 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 border with Bhutan.
Moreover, the GJM has benefited from a growing intellectual impetus. A separate state, it is argued, would give Nepalis of India a distinctly Indian identity. To be sure, outbursts of anti-Indianism in Nepal have invariably put them in a tight spot. Conversely, accomplishment has been obscured. Prashant Tamang, who won the last Indian Idol singing contest, is known generally as a generic Nepali. Worse – for India – he was embraced by Nepal’s Nepalis.
The apprehension that Nepal might seek to reclaim the region it lost through the Sugauli Treaty hovers above the Gorkhaland debate. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), which heads the West Bengal government, attributes the revival of the agitation to Ghisingh’s failure to run DGHC as well as to the involvement of “foreign powers”.
The fact that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, and not Home Minister Shiv Raj Patil, came out with the first stinging rejection of the statehood demand was no less telling.