The Gorkhaland agitators will first have to give up their claims to Siliguri and the Dooars if negotiations are to get anywhere, says Bappaditya Paul
The trouble over the revived demand for a separate Gorkhaland state in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal has now well and truly spilled into the plains of Siliguri and the Dooars. This is the first time that the century-old demand for a sub-regional identity by the Gorkhas, which had attained a climax in the 1980s through a bloodstained movement, has started singeing the plains, Siliguri in particular.
At the root of this is the inclusion of Bengali-dominated Siliguri and the Dooars region in the state demanded by the Gorkhas. The Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) ~ the new party pushing the Gorkhaland demand ~ has been persistently campaigning to this effect since it surfaced in the hills last October.
In fact, after being successful in stalling the proposed inclusion of the Darjeeling hills in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, the GJMM has been using the claim for Siliguri and the Dooars as a stimulus for its activists. To the GJMM activists, the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state comprising the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong is hardly anything new and they need something fresh to drive themselves.
Thus, extending the territorial claim to Siliguri and the Dooars, the GJMM resorted to an extensive campaign for the past eight months. There have been several occasions during this period when GJMM activists, the Gorkha ex-servicemen and other factions, have come down to Siliguri from the Darjeeling hills and campaigned for statehood.
After much bargaining with the state administration, the GJMM was also successful in holding a huge public meeting in Siliguri on 7 May, with over a lakh supporters descending from the hills. Places like Bagrakote, Oodlabri, Birpara, Nagrakata, Kalchini in the Dooars too have witnessed similar GJMM meetings.
Such persistent campaigns, be it in Siliguri or the Dooars, is testing the patience of local people. As a result, the GJMM faced the first public outburst in Siliguri at Bagdogra on 8 June, when its activists descended from the hills and blocked an arterial road junction on a busy market day.
But instead of taking the hint, the GJMM first called a 24-hour bandh in the Darjeeling hills against the incident and then whimsically extended the shutdown to an indefinite one. What’s more, the GJMM declared it would enforce the shutdown in Siliguri and the Dooars.
As a result, public anger spread to other parts of Siliguri and the Dooars overnight. The confrontation is now fast taking the shape of an ethnic feud between Bengalis and the Gorkhas and all the leading political parties, including the CPI-M, are losing their grip on the situation.
The recent 32-hour bandh in Siliguri called by the Amra Bangali and the violence in parts of Siliguri and the Dooars was clear testimony to that. Significantly, during the bandh called against the Gorkhaland agitators, hundreds of volunteers came out on the streets in support of the shutdown called by the Amra Bangali ~ which has hardly got any mass base in Siliguri or the rest of West Bengal.
That a nervous state government had to deploy central paramilitary personnel overnight to contain the spiralling violence in Siliguri and the Dooars only indicates the gravity of the situation. The apparent return of normalcy could only be a lull before a bigger storm.
To meet the GJMM’s jingoism, new apolitical outfits like the Jana Jagaran and Jana Chetana have surfaced in Siliguri, which are basically propagating Bengali ultra-nationalism. Reports suggest these organisations are spreading to the Dooars.
The rise in such ultra-nationalist sentiments will obviously deepen the Bengali-Gorkha communal divide and the lives of the minority Gorkhas living in the plains will be at risk, irrespective of whether they are associated with the GJMM or not.
The GJMM, however, is unrelenting and refuses to shed its claim over Siliguri and the Dooars. As a result, whatever sympathy the Gorkhaland demand has among a tiny section of the Bengalis in the plains is vanishing fast and is actually turning to active hostility.
By sticking to the irrational claim for Siliguri and the Dooars, the GJMM is also making it more difficult for the state government to negotiate on the statehood demand. No government will dare ignore majority sentiment (Bengali sentiment in this case), least of all the Left Front government in West Bengal, which has just been jolted by Nandigram.
But the GJMM seems to be deliberately ignoring reality. Instead, to justify its point, GJMM leaders Roshan Giri and Bimal Gurung are making sweeping statements to the effect that the Bengalis living in Siliguri or the Dooars are Bangladeshi migrants.
In reply, the anti-Gorkhaland factions, predominantly comprising Bengalis, are rejecting the statehood demand by pointing out that Lepchas and the Bhutias were the original inhabitants of the Darjeeling hills and over the years the Gorkhas have been migrating to the hills from Nepal. The demand for identification of Nepali-speaking Indian citizens based on the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Friendship is gaining ground.
The bottom line is that both the pro- and anti Gorkhaland factions are making use of that bit of history that best suits them. If the debate continues like this, neither will the Gorkha community in the hills find a solution to its sub-regional aspirations, nor will the foothills rest in peace.
If the GJMM’s actual aim is to achieve statehood, then it must roll back the claim for Siliguri and the Dooars. To keep it alive, even as a bargain tactic, will prove counter-productive.
(The writer is on the staff of The Statesman/ The article originally appeared in The Statesman dt. 2 July 2008 )