From deaths to Award wapsi – it is happening all in Darjeeling for Gorkhaland

The ongoing indefinite strike in Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills, launched by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, demanding a separate statehood for Gorkhaland has completed a month. The demand for Gorkhaland is not a new one. But this time around, it is really turning into a people’s movement.

The renewed demand for Gorkhaland was triggered by the Trinamool Congress government’s decision to make Bengali language compulsory for schools in the hills, where people predominantly speak Nepali. The Mamata Banerjee government is facing the allegations of ruthlessly crushing the movement by unleashing an undeclared Emergency in the Hills.

Even as media reports claim that three protesters have been killed, Prof Parjanya Sen, a researcher and commentator on Gorkhaland affairs in a facebook video claimed that as many as 11 protesters have been killed by the West Bengal Police and most of them were gunned down straight in their face. If true, this is an extreme form of human rights violation. But the human rights activists are conspicuous by their absence.

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However, the use of force by the Mamata Banerjee government is drawing protests from some corners. For Gorkhas, it is now a do or die revolution to save their honour and pride. The chorus of ‘Jai Gorkha, Jai Gorkhaland’ is felt far and wide. There is palpable anger in the Hills and the demand for Gorkhaland is only getting louder amid vociferous support of common people.

On 13 July, Police and Paramilitary forces patrolled on the streets Darjeeling as hundreds of protesters, carrying placards demanding Gorkhaland, joined the rallies to commemorate the 203rd birth anniversary of revered Nepali poet Bhanubhakta Acharya. It could be noted that it was Acharya who translated the Sanskrit Ramayana into Nepali language. His birth anniversary is also being observed as Gorkha Ekta Dibas.

At a huge public gathering at Chowrasta in Darjeeling to mark the Bhanu Jayanti, three noted personalities from the Darjeeling hills – writer and former Inspector General of Police (IGP) of Darjeeling Krishna Singh Moktan, musician Karma Younzon and academic Prakash Pradhan have returned their awards conferred on them by the West Bengal government.

“I am a musician. But above all, I am a supporter of Gorkhaland. We do not need any awards from this Bengal government. I am sure I would get many such awards from Gorkhaland when the separate state is formed,” said noted singer Younzon while returning his Sangeet Samman, 2016 award.

Meanwhile, intellectuals from diverse fields in West Bengal – including Sahitya Academi award winning authors Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Dibyendu Palit, Nabanita Deb Sen, classical vocalist Pandit Ajay Chakraborty, painters Ganesh Halui and Wasim Kapoor and actor Ranjit Mallick – have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to take steps to “undermine” the agitation and “restore normalcy” in Darjeeling hills.

In the letter to the Prime Minister, the so-called intellectuals argue that the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state has “no historical locus standi” and “the state can’t and should not accept such a demand.”

But the fact of the matter is that Darjeeling is culturally, linguistically and geographically different from the rest of West Bengal. It is entirely wrong to claim that the demands are illegitimate or illogical.

A brief history of Darjeeling

Historically, Darjeeling was a part of the Kingdom of Sikkim in the 17th and 18th Century. In the year 1777, Nepal had appropriated the Kingdom of Sikkim. Following the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-1816, Nepal had agreed to cede most of the Terai region – the territories between Mechi River and Teesta River – to British which the Gorkhas had annexed from the Monarch of Sikkim through the Treaty of Sugauli signed on 4 March 1816. The territories include the Darjeeling Hills.

In 1817, the British reinstated the Monach of Sikkim through the Treaty of Titalia and the territories between Mechi River and Teesta River came under Monach of Sikkim. In 1835, the Darjeeling Hill was given to the British by Sikkim. After the Anglo-British war of 1865, the British appropriated the lands that are today known as Kalimpong and Dooars. The present Darjeeling district assumed its present shape and size in 1866.

After the partition of Bengal in 1905, the administration of Darjeeling Hill was handed over to the Bihar and Orissa Province and came under its Bhagalpur division. In 1935, the British brought Darjeeling under Bengal Presidency for administrative ease as it was easy to govern the region from Calcutta (now Kolkata) than from Bhagalpur. Since then Darjeeling Hills continued to be a part of Bengal.

Gorkhaland – A longstanding demand

The demand for a separate administrative unit for Darjeeling region had started in 1907 when Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum to Minto-Morley Reforms. In 1917, Hillmen’s Association submitted a memorandum to the then Viceroy for the creation of a separate administrative unit comprising of Darjeeling district and adjoining Jalpaiguri district. In 1929, Hillmen’s Association raised the issue before the Simon Commission. In 1930, Hillmen’s Association, Gorkha Officers Association and the Kurseong Gorkha Library submitted a joint petition for separation of Darjeeling region from the rest of Bengal presidency to the then Secretary of the State of India Samuel Hoare. In 1941, Hillmen’s Association repeated the demand for separation of Darjeeling region from the rest of Bengal Presidency before the then Secretary of State of India Lord Pethick Lawrence and urged him to make it a Chief Commissioner’s Province.

After India attained Independence, Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) – the first political party of the region – was floated. In 1952, the ABGL led by NB Gurung submitted a memorandum to the first Prime Minister of India demanding economic freedom for Gorkha ethnic group and separation of Darjeeling from West Bengal.

In 1980, the Pranta Parishad of Darjeeling, led by Indra Bahadur Rai, wrote to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi demanding a separate state for Darjeeling. In 1986, Subhash Ghising – a poet and a former Indian Army soldier – revived the demand for a separate state under the banner of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). It was Ghising who coined the term Gorkhaland. Agitation demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland was followed in which at least 1200 people were killed. In 2007, a political party called Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) – under the leadership of Bimal Gurung – was formed to revive the Gorkhaland demand. For the last one decade GJM has been at the forefront of the Gorkhaland agitation.

Is the demand for Gorkhaland statehood illegal?

The Gorkhas are demanding a separate state under the Indian Union. This is a legitimate demand. As Indian citizens, this is well within their democratic rights to demand for a separate state as the provision for formation of new states has been enshrined in Article 3 of Indian Constitution which reads:

Formation of new States and alteration of areas, boundaries or names of existing States:- 

Parliament may by law.

(a) form a new State by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more States or parts of States or by uniting any territory to a part of any State;

(b) increase the area of any State;

(c) diminish the area of any State;

(d) alter the boundaries of any State;

(e) alter the name of any State;

Provided that no Bill for the purpose shall be introduced in either House of Parliament except on the recommendation of the President and unless, where the proposal contained in the Bill affects the area, boundaries or name of any of the States, the Bill has been referred by the President to the Legislature of that State for expressing its views thereon within such period as may be specified in the reference or within such further period as the President may allow and the period so specified or allowed has expired.

Bengal always indifferent towards Gorkhas?

People in the hills have long complained that Kolkata have not heeded to their concerns and problems on many occasions. Ethnic Gorkhas have been branded “foreigners” and “intruders” on occasions, and deprived of their rights in their ancestral land. It is alleged that the Late Subash Chakraborty, the then cabinet minister in Jyoti Basu-led CPM government, had once said, “Gorkhas khetey diyechi, sutey chai? (We have given the Gorkhas food to eat, now they want a space to sleep?).”

It is felt that the West Bengal government shows colonial attitude to the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills region. Though Bengal gets huge revenue from the tea and tourism industry in Darjeeling, the infrastructure of the region is severely neglected.

The Gorkhas are fighting for their rights, identity, history, heritage and culture. The demand for separate Gorkhaland statehood is a means to that end.

Gorkhaland – The economics

Unlike the debt-ridden West Bengal, the proposed Gorkhaland state could be one of the most economically vibrant states in India as the three ‘Ts’ – tea, tourism and timber – would act as money-spinners for the region.

  • Tea: The premium quality Darjeeling tea, globally known as “champagne of teas” for its distinctive aroma, fetches about Rs 1500 crores revenue annually.
  • Tourism: Around 5 lakh domestic tourists and about 50,000 foreign tourists visit the region every year, which fetches a revenue of around Rs 500 crore annually.
  • Timber: The sale of timber and other forest products in the hills fetches an estimated revenue of Rs 100 crore.
  • Hydel power: Gorkhaland has the potential to generate thousands of megawatts of hydel power as rivers of Teesta, Mechi, Rangeet, Balasun, Relli and Sankosh flow through the region. Apart from meeting the needs of the region, the surplus power can fetch revenue for the proposed state.

The way  forward

Even though the BJP had earlier supported the demand for Gorkhaland, the party and the central government appear non-committal currently. There is immediate need to initiate talks as the stalemate has stretched for long. The center has decided to send 4 more CRPF companies to the area on directions of Calcutta High Court to maintain law and order, but it is more important to re-visit the demand for a separate state.

Political writer, policy observer.

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