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The Battles for Gorkhaland

By SATYABRAT SINHA, KOLKATA (NY Times): Mangal Singh Rajput, a 45-year-old father of two, died in a hospital in Siliguri, West Bengal, on Aug. 3, three days after he set himself on fire while shouting, “We want Gorkhaland!” Mr. Rajput’s self-immolation occurred on July 30, the day New Delhi set into motion the process for the creation of the state of Telangana, which will be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Mr. Rajput’s cry joins a clamor of pending statehood demands all over India, fueled by the central government’s announcement about Telangana.

The constitution declares India a “union of states.” But experts liken India to a quasi-federation or a unitary state with subsidiary federal features, saying that the adoption of unitary features was to focus on the challenges of state formation and nation building. Indian National Congress’s harnessed the emotive power of diverse linguistic identities during the Indian independence movement, but the violent partition of British India in 1947 infused a fear of balkanization in the new nation-state. Independent India avoided the division of provinces on linguistic lines for the fear of such balkanization.

Yet the demands for linguistic reorganization continued, and in 1952, Potti Sriramulu, a political activist, began a fast unto death in appealing for a state for Telugu-speaking people. Mr. Sriramulu’s death led to the creation of the state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Indian government formed a States Reorganization Commission in 1953.

Sixty one years later, Mr. Rajput’s self-immolation and death are symbolic of the passion of the people who desire to see a separate province of Gorkhaland for the Nepalese-speaking population in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district, which sits at the narrow stretch of land that connects the northeastern states to the rest of the country.

Darjeeling covers 3,150 square kilometers (1,200 square miles) and has a population of 1.8 million in West Bengal, which is identified as a state of Bengali speakers and largely flat plains. By contrast, Darjeeling district can be neatly divided into three subdivisions of hills and one subdivision of foothills, called the Doars. The hilly areas of Darjeeling, which are the center of the Gorkhaland movement, are Nepalese speaking. Even in foothills of Darjeeling, a Nepalese-speaking population is found. The city of Siliguri, which is also in the foothills, has a population of 500,000 and contains a concentration of Bengali speakers.

A large number of Nepalese speakers also live in the northeastern states of Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur, where they have in the past faced discrimination and threats of eviction. The ethnicity-driven movements of northeast India categorize Nepalese speakers as outsiders and add to the community’s anxieties.

The Nepalese inhabitants of the Darjeeling hills have been viewed as migrants from Nepal and therefore “foreigners,” even though their history in the area long predates an independent India. The shared border with Nepal, the policies of the British colonial empire and a treaty between free India and Nepal that grants nationals of both countries the right to reside in either country have led to the migration of Nepalese nationals into India over the past two centuries.

Historically, Darjeeling was not a part of Bengal and was leased by the British from the kingdom of Sikkim in 1835. The allegation of being “foreigners,” used by those opposed to the demand for a separate state, paradoxically feeds the insecurity of the Indian Nepalis and strengthens their statehood movement. The current movement constantly reaffirms its patriotism to India while demanding a separate province in the slogan of “Jai Hind, Jai Gorkha.”

The earliest demand for a separate province is traced to 1907 but the first mass movement calling for a separate Gorkhaland state, led by the Subhas Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, took place in 1986-88. Around 1,500-2,000 people were killed in the violent agitation for the cause. The movement came to an end with a semi-autonomous governing body known as the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council being created in 1988.

The Gorkha National Liberation Front’s lasting and perhaps most creative contribution to the movement lay in its efforts to distinguish Indian Nepalis from the country of Nepal by adopting the term “Gorkhali” to describe themselves, and hence, the demand for a land for the Gorkhas called Gorkhaland.

There are three generally accepted principles to determine the legitimacy of contemporary statehood demands in India: a different ethnic/linguistic identity, a separate history, and economic disparity. The demand for Gorkhaland scores on almost all these counts except on economic disparity.

The Nepalese identity is an umbrella term for the various Mongoloid and Indo-Aryan groups and castes, like animists, Buddhists and Hindus, bound together by their linguistic identity tied to the Nepali language. The eighth schedule of the Indian constitution lists 22 recognized languages, of which Nepali and Bodo (spoken by a minority group in Assam) are the two language groups without their own province. Both the Bodos and the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas are staking a claim for statehood.

The area the proponents of Gorkhaland claimed for their prospective state is biodiverse and rich. The primary employment is dependent on tea and tourism, and the area is home to century-old schools run by Christian missionaries. Building hydroelectric power stations on its mountain river could generate more revenue. The statehood movement asserts that the West Bengal government has neglected and ruined productive economic activity in the region over the years and is also discriminatory.

The number of lawmakers an Indian state can send to the Indian Parliament depends on its population and a state’s bargaining power in a federal coalition government. Such electoral calculations determine how both the federal and state governments respond to popular demands. The sheer asymmetry in population also ensures that more federal and state funding flows to the more populated regions and the majority community. West Bengal sends 42 members to the lower house of the Parliament, including a single lawmaker from Darjeeling. In the West Bengal state assembly, which has 294 legislators, Darjeeling sends a mere three members.

The sparse populations of several northeastern states translate into a small number of representatives in parliament. The northeastern region of India also feels discriminated against because it is racially different. While Darjeeling is not included in northeast India, it is culturally and racially similar to the region. One of the government’s approaches to dealing with the restiveness of the northeast region is to let a local outfit control it, and then the government controls the local leader by offering autonomy and financial aid and also through arrests, impounding of passports, among other punitive measures when needed. The approach was followed in Darjeeling, where the former rebel Mr. Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation Front was co-opted by the West Bengal government and turned into a local autocrat, who kept the demands for autonomy in check for two decades.

The search for identity among Indian Nepalis took a fortuitous turn with the selection of a participant from Darjeeling in the TV show “Indian Idol 3” in 2007. Prashant Tamang, an employee of the West Bengal government police force and an ethnic Gorkhali from Darjeeling, became the new poster boy for a new Nepalese identity movement. The entire population of the Darjeeling hill areas and Nepalese speakers across India mobilized to gather support for Mr. Tamang because Gorkhalis believed that his victory would be another step toward their goal of being recognized as Indians.

Mr. Ghising’s lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Tamang provided the catalyst for some members of the Gorkha National Liberation Front to break away. Bimal Gurung, the leader of the breakaway group, led a campaign to support for Mr. Tamang, who won the singing competition. Mr. Gurung followed it up by forming a new political outfit called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha to continue the fight for the state of Gorkhaland, which his mentor, Mr. Ghising had given up.

The movement led by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha exiled Subhas Ghising and then entered into an electoral alliance with the Trinamool Congress, then the leading opposition party in West Bengal. In the elections to the state assembly held in 2011, when the Trinamool Congress came to power, they created a new body for the hills called the Gorkha Territorial Administration. In accepting the new arrangements, Mr Gurung clarified that participating in the G.T.A. did not mean the end of the demand for a state of Gorkhaland but merely another step towards it. Mr. Gurung resigned from the G.T.A. after the creation of Telengana was announced on July 30, 2013, so that he could continue the battle for Gorkhaland.

The more serious challenge to the Gorkhaland movement is the presence of minorities in the Darjeeling hills. The area claimed for a putative Gorkhaland is home to several other ethnic minorities, who settled there during the British rule and even earlier.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and other Gorkha social organizations contend that the state of Gorkhaland is not only for Darjeeling, but for about 4 million to 10 million Gorkhas estimated to reside across India. The Gorkhas’ demand for an ethnic state does raise insecurities among the small ethnic groups living in the area claimed as Gorkhaland. Yet the the abysmal neglect of the area has made several non-Gorkha residents of the area to identify with the demand for a separate state. Mr. Rajput, who sacrificed himself for the movement, was not an ethnic Gorkha but a Bihari Gorkha, as the minorities who support the movement refer to themselves.

Although there is skepticism about the credibility of the Gorkhas’ political leadership, the popular sentiment in Darjeeling is overwhelmingly in favor of a separate Gorkhaland state. The Gorkhas routinely face racist discrimination in the Indian cities, where they seek education and employment.

India needs to work out mechanisms to consider the aspirations of statehood within smaller communities like the Gorkhas, while providing legal protection to minorities within such states. The inefficiency of India’s largest states provides another reason to consider creation of a set of smaller, more manageable states.

Satyabrat Sinha is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Presidency College, Kolkata.

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Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point
Information for Indian tourists travelling by land:- 72 hours (-) C-19 report, CCMC form and Antigen Test at entry point