From Outlook India: West Bengal: Hill Crisis – “Seige Train”

Not all their demands are unjust. A studied resolution is a must. …

Jaideep Mazumdar

Separated We Will Stand

A few reasons why the Gorkhas are demanding a whole new state…

* They allege the Darjeeling Hills region, dominated by Gorkhas, has been neglected by the state government.
* The Hills Council set up 20 years ago under Subhas Ghising has failed to deliver.
* The Hills region is cash rich. But it’s not getting its due vis-a-vis development.
* Gorkha leaders say the promise of accelerated growth by the West Bengal CM is too little and too late.
* They want the centre to intervene, hold tripartite talks with the state government and Gorkha leaders.

When Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya announced at the end of an all-party meeting earlier this week that ‘Gorkhaland’ was beyond the pale of possibility, was he effectively closing all doors to an amicable resolution? Those demanding a separate state for the Gorkhas believe so.

“We’re for quick development, even reservations, but won’t ever allow the state’s division.” Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, West Bengal CM

The meet, convened to evolve a consensus among political parties on the Gorkhaland issue, resolved to preserve the state’s territorial integrity. This consensus against Gorkhaland led to the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) demanding the Centre’s intervention. “We want Gorkhaland and nothing short of that will do,” Bimal Gurung, president of GJM, which is spearheading the movement, told Outlook.

It is not as if the CM was unwilling to bring anything to the table. He offered more administrative and financial powers to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hills Council (DGHC). A senior aide to the CM told Outlook, “We are willing to discuss ways to accelerate development of the hills and give more powers to the DGHC. We’re looking at autonomous development council models of Tripura and Jammu & Kashmir. We can even provide reservation for the hills people in government service and educational institutions. But we won’t accept any bifurcation of our state. Gorkhaland is a subject that can’t be on the table.”

But even the best that the state government can offer is simply not good enough, say Gorkha leaders. “Gorkhas can never advance under Bengal,” says GJM general secretary Roshan Giri. “For so many decades since Independence, we’ve been discriminated against. We’ve lost faith in the Bengal government totally. If it was concerned about our development, it would have taken steps long ago. It’s too late now and whatever is being offered is too little.”

Anyone driving down National Highway 55 can be forgiven for assuming it leads to the back of beyond. In fact, it takes one to Darjeeling, West Bengal’s prime tourist destination and a top revenue earner. The narrow, potholed road in a state of perennial disrepair is illustrative of the neglect that Gorkha-dominated areas in the Shivalik Hills of the lower Himalayan range have been subjected to for the past six decades. Healthcare, even in Darjeeling, is at best rudimentary. Unemployment, at over twice of that in the rest of the state, is rife. Add to this the alleged discrimination, even hostility, that Gorkhas from the Darjeeling Hills face in the plains.

This neglect is at the core of the demand for a separate state. And unlike two decades ago, when a similar agitation culminated in the formation of a separate development body—the DGHC—for the hills, nothing short of a complete and clean break from West Bengal will do this time, say Gorkha leaders. But given the state government’s refusal to even discuss the Gorkhaland demand, they say they are bracing for a long struggle.

A major reason for the lack of trust in the state government is the failed DGHC experiment. The three-year Gorkhaland agitation from 1986, led by Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) chief Subhas Ghising, culminated in the formation of the DGHC in August 1988.The West Bengal government is now being blamed for Ghising’s failure to run the hills council. Says Giri: “We hoped the DGHC would lead to quick development. But the state government allowed Ghising to lord over the DGHC and keep a lid on the demand for a separate state. It overlooked the corruption, sloth and inefficiency in the GNLF-run DGHC. Ghising was whimsical; huge sums allocated were looted or unutilised. The Bengal government knew all this, but didn’t do a thing. It thus proved it wasn’t bothered at all about the development of the hills.”

The distrust deepened after the state government backed Ghising’s bid to bring the hills under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution—applicable only to the country’s tribal areas. Barely 20 per cent of the Gorkhas—the Limbus and Tamangs (Ghising’s community)—are tribals, and the non-tribals were suspicious of Ghising’s bid, which they viewed as an attempt to divide the Gorkhas.

Morcha leaders also justify the Gorkhaland demand on financial grounds. GJM leader Harka Bahadur Chettri says the proposed Gorkhaland state would be revenue-surplus. He offers figures: the tourism industry generates an estimated Rs 3,000 crore a year, while the 11 million kilos of Darjeeling tea produced annually fetch over Rs 700 crore. “Add to these the revenues from cinchona and other agricultural and forest produce, and the sum is huge. Only a small fraction of what the hills generate is ploughed back for the development of the hills and its people,” laments Giri.

A study by Sikkim University vice-chancellor Mahendra P. Lama proves that with tea, tourism and the yet-untapped hydel power potential, a separate state comprising the hills and adjoining areas in the plains and the Dooars would not only be self-sufficient, but would also contribute substantially to the nation’s coffers. And it is to enhance the viability of Gorkhaland that the GJM leadership has included areas in the plains and the Dooars in the map of the proposed state. Leaders say Nepali-speaking people were in a majority there till the mid-1960s, when large-scale and illegal migration from Bangladesh changed the area’s demographic profile.

The GJM claims it won’t back down from its Gorkhaland demand. “We’ll achieve our objective by 2010,” declares Bimal Gurung, a close lieutenant of Ghising during the 1986-88 stir. He predicts a prolonged struggle. One has to wait and see how the Centre can cool tempers down and find an amicable solution.

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