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Statehood Demand v/s Identity Politics: The Gorkhaland Issue

No map of India seems to be its final print. Constant agitations for statehoods, secession and border redrawing is a significant part of India’s history. Some have been granted; some have been rejected. Others still have not yet been resolved and thus the demands continue. Election season is the best time to know more about them as they start making the headlines again- for supporting their cause becomes an easy vote bank.


A potential third partition of Bengal has been in the pipe since 1907 when the Hillman’s Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum demanding a separate administrative set-up. In 1941 the same body demanded the exclusion of Darjeeling from Bengal and make it a chief commissioner’s province. This has culminated into the present day agitation for Gorkhaland.





History:

North Bengal has a significant population of Nepali-speaking Gorkha people. They are mainly settled in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and other hilly areas of West Bengal. The term Gorkha (formerly ‘Gurkha’) is used to refer to Indian people of Nepali ethnicity as opposed to citizens of Nepal who are referred to as ‘Nepalese.’ It is derived from the kingdom that ruled Nepal- Gorkha Kingdom.


They are culturally different from the Bengali-speaking majority of the state and from here stems the differences.


After Independence, the undivided Communist Party of India was the first to support this cause. It demanded the Constituent Assembly the formation of ‘Gorkhasthan’ comprising Darjeeling and Sikkim. The controversy began between 1977-1981 when the West Bengal Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to create an autonomous district council consisting of the concerned areas.


In 1980, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) was formed under the leadership of Subhash Ghising, who also coined the term Gorkhaland. It is under him that the demand for a separate state was intensified. The movement turned violent between 1986-88 and many lives were lost. This culminated in the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988. Again in 2007, the agitations intensified after the State and Centre’s joint initiative of 2005 to bring it under the sixth schedule of the constitution. They would only negotiate for a fully autonomous state.

This agitation came to an end in 2011 after the WB government formed the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous body for Darjeeling, with Bimal Gurung at its helm.


Subsequent distrust between the state government and GTA has worsened the chance of peaceful negotiation. The Gorkhas claim that they are treated as second class citizens in their own land and have no cultural or historical reasons to be a part of West Bengal. Allegedly, since 2002, over 3000 people have died due to starvation in the tea gardens and yet the WB government has taken no action and instead denied them minimum wages.


Is It Viable?

Darjeeling district crosses through the ‘Chicken Neck’ (Siliguri corridor) of India which is the gateway to the North East (NE). It borders 3 nations-Nepal, Bhutan & Bangladesh- and this becomes strategically important.


Proponents of Gorkhaland claim that this corridor is one of the most porous borders of India and has been used by Pakistan’s Intelligence to supply arms to insurgents in the NE. After the 2015 Burdawan bombings, the National Investigation Agency reported that the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) had networks in West Bengal. Thus, they believe that the WB Government isn’t able to protect the vulnerable ‘Chicken Neck’. They attribute this to Kolkata being very far from this region because of which the administration remains aloof from the northern regions.



Population wise, Gorkhaland will have around 40 Lakh inhabitants. This number is more than in states like Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram etc.


Tourism, tea and timber are the major revenue generators here. The supporters believe that because the proposed state will have borders with 3 countries, cross border trade will generate high revenue. The region is one of the 25 prime biodiversity hotspots and thus, eco-tourism will also become a money-spinner.


But there is another stakeholder in the situation- the opponents.

Darjeeling has had little to do with national politics but is a favourite during state elections. The reason being, this- Trinamool Congress is against the formation of Gorkhaland. The Bharatiya Janata Party favours it. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha struggles to find a voice. A senior minister in the Mamata Banerjee cabinet said that consideration of this demand will open Pandora's box with other ethnic groups raising demands for statehoods. Movements like that for ‘Greater Cooch Behar’ will be revived. This domino effect might raise subsequent statehood demands.

The proponents also cite underdevelopment as a reason for Darjeeling to be separated. But the opponents cite the West Bengal Human Development Report, 2004 [prepared under the supervision of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)]. Here, Darjeeling was ranked 2nd and 4th in gender and human development indices respectively, among all the districts of WB.



Ever since the campaigning for Bengal elections of 2021 made the rounds, BJP has expressed its support in high decibels for a separate state or Union Territory of North Bengal. But many are sceptical about the economic viability of an independent state of Gorkhaland.


Ethnicity unites people, but narrow politics can quickly turn it into a divider. To separate politics from this demand is difficult, but it could also be the only way to make the right decision.



References

Mazumdar J. (2017, June 23) Why ‘Gorkhaland’ Will Be Economically Viable. Swarajya Magazine.


Press Trust of India (2021, April 14) Bengal elections: Gorkhaland demand takes back seat as GJM factions fight for political supremacy. The New Indian Express.


Mohan S. (2013, October 8) A Gorkhaland State: How Justified?. The Weekend Leader.


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