Darjeeling, the ‘Queen of Hills’, is a paradise on earth cuddled in the lap of the majestically gorgeous Mt Kanchenjunga. Green tea gardens stretch from the hills to the valleys, pine trees grow along the peripheries, and the toy train with the snow-covered mountains in the background succinctly summarises the beauty of this place. The tranquillity and calm nature of the beautiful Himalayas are naturally inherited by the locals, and this is reflected in their lifestyles, traditions, art, and music.
In accordance with the natural beauty of the place, fashion is a religion for most of the young folks here – so much so that it isn’t cool for anyone to not have a swanky get up in the highly fashion conscious streets of Darjeeling. Independence Day in Kalimpong is celebrated more religiously than Diwali or Dussehra, and a new set of clothes is a must for most teenagers.
Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim in the first half of the seventeenth century. It was annexed by Nepal in the 1780s. Within a few decades, Nepal was dominating its neighbour (Sikkim). The Gorkhas of Nepal conquered the areas to the east of the Teesta River and the Terai region. After the Anglo-Gorkha war in 1814, the Treaty of Segowlee was signed between the British East India Company and the King of Nepal in 1815. The treaty forced Nepal to cede the territories that the Gorkhas had annexed from Sikkim to the Company. Later in 1817, through the Treaty of Titalia, the Company restored the areas between the Mechi River and the Teesta river to the Chogyal of Sikkim. In 1835, Sikkim returned the Darjeeling hills to the British. The Treaty of Sinchula in 1865 between the Company and Bhutan helped the British gain control of Dooars and Kalimpong.
Today, Darjeeling comprises of the Darjeeling constituency, Kurseong, Mirik, and parts of Siliguri, as a result of this long history of treaties and annexations. Kalimpong is now a new district which also includes parts of Dooars.
A century ago, the people of Darjeeling felt that on the basis of their ethnic history and distinct identity, a separate administrative unit for the Gorkhas would be an initiative for the greater good of the community. This separate administrative unit, with time, took the shape of a demand for a separate state within the Republic of India. Such a demand had become a necessity, chiefly because of the identity crisis of the Indian Gorkhas, but also because historically Darjeeling has never been a part of Bengal and because states in India are created on an ethnic and linguistic basis.
The Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling was the first group to raise a demand for a separate autonomous body to administer Darjeeling, in 1907. They raised similar demands in 1917, 1930 and 1934 to the British government, for separation from Bengal. The Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), in 1952, demanded separation from Bengal. Various other political parties like the CPI and Pranta Parishad also raised demands for Gorkhasthan.
Subhash Ghisingh, under the banner of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in 1986, began a fresh agitation for a separate state – Gorkhaland. The agitation ended in 1988, with the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) with some degree of autonomy covering some areas of Darjeeling district.
In 2004, Subhash Ghisingh was made the sole caretaker of DGHC by the then Bengal government, till a new Sixth Schedule Tribal Council was established. The work culture of the Ghising administration had almost always been authoritarian, with a lack of transparency and rampant corruption. The chairman was almost inaccessible. This undemocratic functioning of the administration, the high unemployment rates among educated youth, and the dictatorial attitude of the party in power created a trust deficit among the public. The big mistake Ghising made in 2007 was not supporting or acknowledging the “Indian Idol” contestant from Darjeeling, which baffled the entire hill population. His cold reaction was perceived to be utterly humiliating and insensitive. Secondly, provisions of the Sixth Schedule were still very unclear, and this wreaked havoc among the non-tribal population.
The public grudge against Ghising’s 21-year long misrule was capitalised on by Bimal Gurung, a former aide of Ghising. When Gurung was in GNLF, Ghising’s liabilities were his as well. As soon as he left GNLF, those liabilities became assets. In 2007, he launched the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and within a short period of time, he managed to garner overwhelming support from the public. By 2008, Gurung became popular and was looked upon as the only one who could possibly make Gorkhaland a reality. Many people participated in dharnas (hunger strikes) or provided voluntary support for the agitation in other ways, giving momentum to the Gorkhaland movement.
But sadly, with the mass support, an absolute anarchism prevailed in the hills when it came to dealing with the leaders of GNLF. Their houses were ransacked and burned down. They were even ostracised and driven out from the hills. In 2010, a new level of violence was witnessed in the hills, when Madan Tamang, President of the ABGL, was butchered by an alleged supporter of GJM. A state of lawlessness prevailed across the hills, and with the murder of such a big leader, democracy came under threat as the ruling party was mutilating the opposition, as per many critics.
In 2011, just within a year of Madan Tamang’s murder, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee managed to convince the GJM to sit down for discussions. They signed an agreement with the state and central governments for the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). It replaced the DGHC after three years of agitation. Some clauses of the agreement were highly compromising. The GJM keeps touting the jurisdiction of the GTA, and initially, they claimed that many good things would be possible under the GTA which were impossible under DGHC. However, even a cursory reality check will reveal that no substantial development has taken place under the GTA.
The GJM leadership’s inability to accommodate Dr H B Chhetri, a former GJM MLA from Kalimpong and now president of the Jan Andolan Party, underscores their major fault-line. Dr Chhetri’s political prowess is renowned even in Kolkata circles, but not only could the GJM not keep him, they later blamed Dr Chhetri alone for their inability to shape and lead the movement. Leaders do not blame, leaders take responsibilities. For six years and counting, the GTA has failed to function properly either due to the interference of the state government or due to internal politics. The GTA and the TMC government have no answers for the rising unemployment because this new administrative body and Mamata Banerjee’s policies are corrupt to the point of being farcical.
Mamata Banerjee may talk about ‘development’, but does she have any answers for why the TMC govt has been blocking the primary teachers’ appointments and various other openings in different state-controlled departments, especially in the hills? Casually announcing development boards and allotting unregulated funds cannot be a tangible solution for the unemployed youth. Granting crores in money to a few community leaders is not synonymous with development. Didi says she loves Darjeeling. That may be true, but her policies show that she definitely does not love the people of Darjeeling.
For two terms now, GJM has been supporting BJP at the Center. But there seems to be no progress towards statehood. Instead, they are now clinging to tribal status for 11 communities, which is yet another promise impeded by bureaucratic hurdles.
This tribal status is likely to be a quid pro quo on securing an MP for BJP. They have a larger interest in Bengal, as indicated by the fact that the party president Amit Shah himself started the #EbarBangla campaign a while back. It was launched to win a larger mandate in the 2021 Bengal assembly elections. Gorkhaland is a political issue for Bengal, and a populist party like the BJP will never care about a minority community like the Gorkhas. Gorkhaland through BJP is a far-fetched dream.
GJM, as a party from a Gorkha-dominated area, should not have indulged in supporting policies that have hurt the majority of the Gorkha population. To support demonetisation was a complete blunder as it undermines the two major sectors in which the hills’ population is engaged – tea and tourism. When GJM cadres were rallying in support of demonetisation, tea garden labourers were not given their wage for three consecutive weeks due to the cash crunch. Have they ever rallied against the minimum wage discrimination faced by tea garden labourers? No, because no tea garden labourers will give them ₹500 after the rally.
Hiding a truth and defending a lie with another lie is a high-paying job theses days. The local online media, with a lot of local followers, often takes the side of corrupt political parties. Facebook pages engaged in political activities should have interviewed the aforementioned tea garden labourers about demonetization rather than a few shopkeepers from the main town. They should have talked to the taxi drivers and the hotel owners who were severely hit by the cash crunch resulting from the note ban.
The house is divided, and there seems to be no sign of a truce between parties. Didi must be grinning right now, as her divide and rule policy has successfully divided the Gorkhas in the hills. If political parties cannot come together, then the public must speak and choose a wise and effective leadership, so that, we can finally achieve the dream of Gorkhaland.
Jai Gorkha, Jai Gorkhaland!