“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” – Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
The state of ‘Bangla’ has finally fulfilled, as the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) chairman says, the dream of ‘People of Darjeeling’ by granting a university in state assembly. The leader of Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJM- B) left no space and time to express his gratitude towards the Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee for showing her ‘benevolent’ attitude towards the ‘non-tax payer’ of Darjeeling region. Now, even the sons and daughters of ‘illiterate’ tea garden workers, who generate huge revenue to the owners and state government, can fulfill their dreams in the ‘Indian labour market’ that has been eagerly waiting for them from centuries. The people who are ought to be displaced for the new railway project may probably find a job as construction workers in the upcoming university.
The forte of happiness was so much that a central committee member, who was formerly a student leader, equated the decision of state university to ‘Gorkhaland in the field of education’. What could possibly have happened had the central university bill been passed in the parliament? Yes! Then according to his argument it seems there would have been a separate country in the field of education. This sudden mania of the GJM leaders and its cadres is astonishingly stupid. The ‘Annexure B2’ of the memorandum of agreement for GTA, signed in 2011, had already listed various institutes (such as Central institute of technology, NIT including IT and Bio-Technology, Fashion Technology institute, medical and nursing colleges and Central university) to be established as grand ‘developmental projects’ under GTA with an aid from both central and state government.
The manias of GJM-B only manifest their incapacitated ruling of the GTA-2 since they took charge of Lalkothi last year. This (manias) could very well be the reflection of the limited time GJM-B has onward to Lok Sabha election. From its inception in 2011, GTA hardly made any difference in the lives of people apart from road repairing and ‘statehood’ demand from the then GJM supremo. The helplessness of the situation only aggravated the crisis further leading up to another uprising for statehood in 2016.The GTA gambling card that was placed on the table at Pintail village by both state and Centre was supposed to achieve ‘all round development of the people of region’ in terms of socio-economic, infrastructural, educational, cultural, and linguistic developments. Now, seven years down the line the GTA card turned out to be the lowest of all the poker hands and has nothing concrete to show in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections in 2019. In this context, the manias of the GJM-B is lucidly justifiable.
What’s in a name?
What was fishy about the bill was the name of the University. They (the state) named the upcoming university in the region as ‘Greenfield’ university. All the universities established in West Bengal has been named either after the name of the region (Bankura, Bardaman, Raiganj etc.) or after some historical figures (Rabindra Bharati, Sido Kanuhu Murmu, Kazi Nazrul etc.). The government that has been constituting “n” number of ethnic boards supposedly for promoting local culture and dialects could not manage to find even a single word that could well describe/ define the historical specificity of the region. Such move of naming the university bereft of any local/regional specificity is to make people of the region cognizant of the fact that they have no historical figures, whom they can look up to.
As a crutch to the state government, some cadres of the GJM through various social media platform started a campaign ‘What’s in a Name’. The name is not as simple to be relegated to just a word but it also carries with it the objective reality. However, the political manoeuvring of words is not new in Darjeeling politics. The power and solemnity of a word is to be learnt from late Subash Ghishing. After a compromise of Gorkhaland movement in 1986, the then chairman of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) went to claim that Identity problem of the Gorkhas has been resolved as the state and central government has agreed to add ‘Gorkha’ in Darjeeling Hill Council. We now know for how long GNLF ruled the region under the shadow of the then Left front government by just adding a word Gorkha to the Hill Council. For that matter, even the united GJM (A+B) after their compromise in 2011 had openly taken credit and pride of having the word ‘Gorkhaland’ in the new territorial set up (GTA).
The GJM-B, particularly at this juncture, is well aware of the implications that a word can have for its ‘own’ survival and would rather prefer to leave no stone unturned. As expected, GJM MLA approached the monitoring team at Nabanna requesting a change in the name from ‘Greenfield’ to ‘Darjeeling University’. But it still raises few doubts. First, were they (anyone from the region) not consulted beforehand while formulating the bill? Second, why has the state government preferred to use a ‘foreign’ name that has nothing to do with the people and their regional history? Third, is it an act of denial of people’s history in the region? The state government may rename the university from Greenfield to Darjeeling University, which of course is a politically neutral word that should not bother much, sooner or later. However, the whole political cinematography only reflected the high-handedness of the state government over the region and the ‘puppetism’ of the local leaders.
Gorkha National Question (s) and the Development
At the pick phase of the last Gorkhaland movement, an old man from a tea garden was asked to define Gorkhaland in an interview by a local media. His answer was simple and succinct: For him Gorkhaland meant land (Gorkhaland Bhaneko Mato Ho!). How would have the leader of the Gorkhaland movement answered the very same question? Not surprisingly, the answer would have been the ‘lack of development’. Not only the beguiled leader of the movement, but even the honest Gorkha intellectuals and supporters have often confused the Gorkha national question (s) with the (one point) ‘undervelopment’ problem.
The argument of ‘underdevelopment’ has its origin in the left front rule in West Bengal. Whenever the demand for separate statehood intensified the ruling class and its intelligentsia always brought ‘underdevelopment’ on the table for discussion. Thus, diverting the core question of national political identity for Gorkhas to the general problem of underdevelopment faced by every people and regions in India. GJM leaflet (2009) at the very outset quite correctly identified the core problem of the Gorkhas that read “the demand for Gorkhaland is basically a question of the Gorkha Indian Political Identity…as the spectre of ‘alien-ness’, being called ‘foreigner’ and ‘eviction’ continues to hunt the Indian Gorkhas even today…”. However, major part of the leaflet emphasised on the question of ‘economic deprivation’ and ‘discrimination’.
Economic backwardness may be one of the aspects of the crisis in the region but an information document (1986) of West Bengal itself suggests that the district, in terms of various economic indicators, stands out to be better than any other districts in north Bengal or any districts in western Bengal such as Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum and Midnapur. If economic development is the panacea for century-old unrest in the region, then one would expect cropping up of such statehood demand in every regions of the state.
Now, let us assume that the state/Central government is going to fulfill all the major projects, listed in MoU of GTA, including the establishment of various institutes and central university in the region. Are these ‘mega’ projects going to resolve the national question (s) of the Gorkhas? For elucidation, the Chinese government has changed and transformed the face of Tibet better than any cities in India through its mega developmental projects. Has it also changed the aspiration of the people of Tibet? Since 2011, around 152 Tibetans have self-immolated for their national cause.
Gorkhaland and the Land Question
The major part of Darjeeling district is covered by forest and tea gardens. Almost 70% of the population lives in forest and tea gardens. Since the forest and tea gardens come under the jurisdiction of state government, none of the population staying in the forest and tea gardens has the ownership right over land. Even for small repairing work of the houses, one has to take permission beforehand from the management to whom the state government has given the land in lease for pittance. Not only the tea gardens and the forest, there are several villages near the towns (comes under municipality) that have no valid and legal documents to support their claim/ownership rights over the land. It is precisely due to this alienation of people from their own land, which time and again gets articulated in terms of strong posturing of land question in the movement for Gorkhaland.
A significant number of the tea gardens are in a state of lockdown as workers demanded a hike in wage rate. Lockout has become a popular instrument of keeping the wages at the subsistence level in tea gardens. Even the plantation labour act 1951 that favours the owners and the management are being violated. Some of the tea gardens are locked down throughout the year, except in the plucking and harvesting seasons. In doing so, the management is not liable to provide basic rights such as ration, medical facilities, bonus etc. There are also instances when the workers have requested the management to run the factory without even providing statutory rights to them. In some of the abandoned tea gardens, the workers by defying the state government formed a cooperative and started running the factory. However, the state government later leased out the same to private players. This is how successive generations of the tea garden workers have been kept under starvation and poverty. This is also probably the reason that the people from tea gardens stand out quite vehemently at the forefront of every Gorkhaland agitation.
Moreover, the tea industry has not been doing quite well particularly in the neo-liberal phase of globalisation. The reason for this could be growing competition in the tea industry. Another reason for this dwindling situation of the tea industry is the reluctance of the management to reinvest back in the production site. This has resulted in the limited development of productive forces and has also constrained the increase in the productive capacity (employment opportunity) in the tea industry. Can the people of district go for other livelihood options (at least where the factories have been shut down for a long time) so that they can raise the standard of living and send their children to Greenfield University in the coming few years from now? West Bengal is known for having more or less successful land reforms, where the state confiscate the land from the landlords and distribute it to the bargardars (tenants). One may be interested in knowing the proportion of land that was distributed to the people of Darjeeling during the much celebrated ‘operation Barga’ (1978-1985). Can the state government distribute abandoned tea estates to the erstwhile tea garden workers? The monitoring team at Nabanna would not be pleased to hear all that ‘crap’ as the Nabanna is also constantly monitored by domestic and foreign capital.
The century old national question (s) of the Gorkhas in Darjeeling cannot be resolved through extravagant use of money and power. The same old method of silencing the dissent voices has only postponed the crisis in the region as the frequency of the statehood demand has increased in recent years. Moreover, the state-led financing of the anti-statehood squad (ethnic boards, GJM-B etc.) in the region is unsustainable in the long term as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data noted that the West Bengal debt (second top borrower only after Maharashtra) burden has increased staggeringly in the last few years. It is more likely that the people of district is going to witness a change in the squad in coming years.
The state government has been acting like a ‘traditional landlord’, where it refuses the release the productive forces but collects handsome revenue by leasing out land to the tea owners. In the absence of enough employment opportunity there has been a temporary migration in big cities and many have piled up in the informal sector of the region. The outcome of National Register of Citizen (NRC) in Assam may likely to further aggravate the situation, in the region, as it did in the late 1980s when Bhutanese government enforced the citizenship act of 1958.
The territorial separation of oppressed, marginalized and discriminated region is a step ahead for the democratization of the oppressive and centralized social structure of India. However, there is a need to enlarge the canvas of Gorkha national struggle vis-à-vis other struggles by oppressed nationalities, oppressed communities and religious minorities in Indian subcontinent today. However, the major concern of the Gorkhaland movement since its inception has been liquidation of the movement from the rank of its own leaders. The regular betrayal has led the movement to the road of serfdom at various points . Such betrayal is to be overcome through concerted spirit and uncompromising participation for the statehood and their own homeland which assign them the real political identity in Indian subcontinent.