Gorkhaland stir is a festering sore which could threaten India’s security

Gorkhaland stir is a festering sore which could threaten India’s security

In the context of the Sino-Indian standoff in nearby at Doklam, the Gorkhaland agitation and the ostrich-like response to it from the West Bengal and Indian governments are extremely worrying, writes P.K.Balachandran in www.southasianmonitor.com

It was in the middle of May that the Nepalese-speaking Gorkhas of North Eastern India re-started their agitation for the establishment of an autonomous State (or Province) of Gorkhaland within the Union of India. Since then, the whole area, including the hill resort of Darjeeling, has been virtually shut. The agitation has claimed nine lives. Eight of these were killed in police firing.

And yet, till date, there is no indication that the governments of West Bengal and India are willing to even consider the demand for Statehood. The door for talks remains firmly shut.

Meanwhile, a further complication has arisen. While Ghorkhaland is in turmoil, trouble with China has arisen in Doklam on the nearby Bhutan-Tibet border. The Sino-Indian military standoff at Doklam could very well lead to war, with disastrous consequences for the entire North-Eastern region of India, especially Gorkhaland, because its capital, Darjeeling, is a major national and international tourist destination. Most of Gorkhaland’s 300,000 people are linked to tourism in one way or the other.

It is in the Doklam standoff context that the Gorkhaland agitation and the ostrich-like response to it from the West Bengal and Indian governments are extremely worrying.

Leave alone the Trinamool Congress (TMC) of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, which considers the Gorkhaland movement as being a “terrorist plot”,  every political party in West Bengal and India is opposed to the separation of Gorkhaland from West Bengal.

The governments are therefore wantonly ignoring the fact that the Gorkhaland area is populated largely by non-Bengali Nepalese-speaking Gorkhas. Its strong case for “Statehood“ as per the linguistic and cultural principle on which States or Provinces were carved out in independent India back in the  mid-1950s, is being deliberately overlooked.

The stubbornness of Kolkata and New Delhi is based on an irrational fear that the Nepalese-speaking Gorkhas will sooner or later become allies of neighboring Nepal which has a tendency to take an anti-India and pro-China stand off and on. This, despite the fact that the Gorkhaland agitators have been repeatedly stating that they want Statehood “within India” and not independence.  And to make this clear to one and all, the agitators  make it a point to carry the Indian national flag with them in their marches and rallies.

But instead of lending an ear to the agitators, the State and national governments have been using the big stick to quell them. According to an article in The Wire by Boishakhi Dutt, the West Bengal government has even enforced an unofficial food and medicine embargo. People needing urgent medical treatment have to go to hospitals in Sikkim now. Internet services have been disrupted.

The Security Forces have so far killed eight peaceful agitators, says resident Upendra Pradhan. But according to the police, 300 to 400 weapons, including arrows and explosives, were recovered in raids. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has publicly dubbed the movement as “terrorist”.

However, according to Pradhan, the food and medicine embargo will not deter the agitators who only want Art 3 of the Indian Constitution, which allows formation of new States to be formed, to be implemented.

“We, the hill people, are a tribal community. We have survived much before atta and rice became fashionable. We have our own items such as ‘bodo’ or foxtail millet. But is this the way things are supposed to be in a democracy? Starving people to see how long they can survive?” Pradhan asked.

He further said: “Ration is not the only cause of concern – the youth’s future is at stake, as the lack of connectivity made it impossible for students to apply to colleges. The internet ban was imposed in Darjeeling at a time when students who had finished their 12th standard board exams were to fill up college admission forms. A number of students were unable to do so because the deadlines have passed.”

According to local academician Parjanya Sen: “Darjeeling is unrecognizable now. People are scared to move around after dark because there are forces with guns everywhere and we don’t know when who will question us about where we are going. Earlier everybody would be out at night, but now, people don’t go out after 6-7 pm. There are CRPF people everywhere standing with guns. We are intimidated.”

In Siliguri, hill people who were trying to bring rations to Darjeeling were  attacked and looted, the article said.

“Trucks are not being allowed to come up to the hills from below. For food we are going barter. If someone grows vegetables or has managed to get some meat, then they are sharing, that is how we are managing,” it quotes Sen as saying.

On July 20, bank accounts of three top Gorkhaland Janamukti Morcha (GJM)   leaders were frozen by the West Bengal police for alleged “misuse” of funds for “illegal operations such as purchasing arms and weapons”. An intelligence officer told the Press Trust of India that around INR 26 lakh had been seized from the three accounts. The GJM is leading the stir.

But despite the repression, the agitation is on, even taking a global form. On July 30, rallies were held in over 100 places abroad in including towns in Afghanistan, Australia and 15 places in the US, notes Boishakhi Dutt. In Darjeeling and other parts of Gorkhaland there has been a complete shutdown since June 15.

The GJM has now given a ten-day deadline to the central government to intervene. ” The Centre can’t just sit idle when the hills are burning,” GJM Assistant General Secretary, Binay Tamang, told reporters on Sunday night.

The 30-member Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee (GMCC), a body of all the hill parties of Darjeeling, is in Delhi for an all-party meeting. The GMCC has sought an appointment with Union home minister Rajnath Singh.

Though the demand for a separate Gorkhaland has been on for years, the on-going agitation was triggered by a West Bengal government order of May 14 which made Bengali compulsory for all school students up to Class IX. The order was subsequently withdrawn in the face protests in Gorkhaland, but by then, the stir had become an agitation for Statehood.

The rallies started by the GJM, are now supported by  the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists and six other hill parties.

Of the five members of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from the Gorkhaland region, two are from the GJM, two from the Congress and one from the CPM. The Darjeeling Municipal Chairman is from GJM.

While the Gorkhaland units of India’s national parties want the Gorkhas’ demand to be conceded (S.S.Ahluwalia, the BJP leader who represents Darjeeling in the Rajya Sabha is a key campaigner for Gorkhaland), their state-level leaderships are against it.

This is because the majority Bengali community in West Bengal is dead set against a separate Gorkhaland. The standard argument is that Bengal has been divided too many times already and cannot afford one more division. Bengali intellectuals also argue that the Gorkhas cannot claim Gorkhland as their homeland as they were all immigrants of recent (British era) origin.

It is recalled that the original inhabitants of the sparsely populated area ceded by Bhutan to British India, were Lepcha tribals.  It was when tea plantations came up there that Nepalese Gorkhas came to work on temporary contracts. Later, the India-Nepal treaty of 1950 opened the India-Nepal border to free movement and also allowed Nepalese, long resident in India, to become Indian citizens. Many Nepalese thus came to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Siliguri, settled there and became Indian citizens. The Bengalis argue that if the Gorkhas say that Bengalis are not native to Gorkhaland, they can also turn around and point out that the Gorkhas are not native to Gorkhaland either.

There is thus an intractable stalemate on this issue. In normal times, the agitation might meander without causing much harm, and some solution might be found over time. But the India-China standoff at nearby Doklam combined with China’s threat to destabilize India’s North East, makes a solution to the Gorkhaland problem an urgent necessity.

India’s North East has been a hotbed of terrorism, tribalism, and armed separatist movements since the 1960s with sporadic and tacit support from China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. New Delhi cannot be indifferent to the region for long.

(The featured picture shows the intensity of the Gorkhaland agitation)