by Bappaditya Paul
WHEN Franklin Prestage laid the railway tracks to Darjeeling Hills in 1879, in order to conquer the insurmountable steep incline, he employed a unique technique called the ‘Z-reverse’.1
‘Z-reverse’ is an ingeniously simple concept: while negotiating with the steep hill, the train climbs up a slope into a shunting neck and stops. It then backs up another steep incline reaching the other shunting neck higher up and there from, resumes the onward journey but at a higher level.
The inherent philosophy propelling the ‘Z-reverse’ technique is: when you cannot really move forward, better make a retreat and then find a new way ahead.
But for Franklin Prestige putting to use this commonsense, Darjeeling Hills would have never got to see the steam locomotives chugging at 7,400 feet above the sea level.
In 2005, Subash Ghisingh too, rightly embraced commonsense and reasoning when he agreed to the inclusion of Darjeeling Hills in the Sixth Schedule of Indian Constitution.
This was to facilitate a greater autonomy to Darjeeling, which has been demanding a separate statehood out of West Bengal.
A significant move it was. For, Ghisingh had been the man who had propagated the bloodstained Gorkhaland movement in the 1980’s. At that time, he acted like a stubborn leader, who did not dodge from the statehood demand until a large number of cadres were killed in the agitation.
Darjeeling got an autonomous governing body ~ the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), in 1988. DGHC was set up under a state Act. But Ghisingh realised the achievement came too costly against the massive bloodbath that the agitation had incurred.
Thus, when he got a second chance to bargain in 2005, instead of waging another bloody agitation over the statehood demand, his political maturity guided him to accept the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling.
Those in the know-how of the Sixth Schedule provisions would acknowledge, it was indeed going to be a remarkable step forward towards fulfilling Darjeeling’s aspiration for self-governance.2
More importantly, the achievement was coming without any fresh agitation on the ground or mindless insurgency, as has been the case with the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam.
It was surely a compromise, but never the end of the statehood prospects. The simple reason being that the Constitution of India was not obliterating the clause pertaining to the creation of new states. Nowhere in the Constitution there is any implicit or explicit mention that an area governed under the Sixth Schedule, cannot become a full-fledged state in future.
But Ghisingh’s political rivals misinterpreted the implications of the Sixth Schedule status on Darjeeling and compelled the Union government to shelve the idea midway.
The common public in Darjeeling, who were discontent with Ghisingh for his inept handling of the DGHC and growing isolation from the masses, swallowed the misinformation campaign. The ‘king of Darjeeling’ was dethroned overnight.
But the political culture of hero-worshipping has not ended in Darjeeling. Only that now Ghisingh has been replaced with Bimal Gurung and the GNLF with the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha or the GJMM.
In the past one and half year of his political reign that commenced in October 2007, Gurung and his party have gifted Darjeeling unrest and anarchy, all but for the demanded Gorkhaland.
His achievement so far ~ stalling of the proposed Sixth Schedule status, dethroning and ousting Ghisingh and other GNLF leaders from the Hills and compelling the Union government in convening tripartite talks on the Darjeeling impasse.
All these are but negative achievements and have facilitated nothing other than coagulating Gurung’s control over the Hills. But negative achievements can hardly hold public sentiment to ransom for a prolonged period.
Had not Gurung imported the BJP stalwart Jaswant Singh to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Darjeeling, by now, he would have probably found place in the political history of the Queen of Hills. Jaswant returning as a MP from Darjeeling has certainly extended the life span for the GJMM. But the NDA’s defeat has turned this extended breath completely useless.
Now, the GJMM has a friend in BJP that is only capable of paying lip service to Gorkhaland and an all-omnipotent foe called the Congress, which would not yield an inch to fulfill the statehood demand.
UPA government’s second-in-command, Pranab Mukherjee, has already made this clear and loud. As the GJMM leaders try to play down Mukherjee’s comments arguing that his is not the government, they are only living in self-denial for obvious political reasons.3
But conceding the reality, ally BJP has already advised the GJMM to go slow on the statehood movement. BJP leaders have called for reformulating a long-drawn strategy, replacing the March 2010 deadline that Gurung has set for achieving Gorkhaland.
If the agitation goes the other way around, it is only obvious that the saffron party would distance itself from the GJMM. After all the BJP cannot act as parochial as the GJMM over the Gorkhaland issue, for unlike the latter, its political sphere is not limited to Darjeeling.
Also the BJP West Bengal unit is openly against the Gorkhaland demand and it is a signatory to the all-party motion adopted by the state Assembly ruling out any further division of Bengal.4
Given the scheme of things, the obvious question now is ~ what can happen to Darjeeling? How can Darjeeling be freed of the suffocating state that it has slipped into?
To be candid, the probability of statehood is bleak, at least in the near future.
This is not only because West Bengal would do the last thing but part with Darjeeling. But the Union government too would not concede the demand, because, granting statehood to the Darjeeling district (even ignoring the fact that Siliguri is dead against the Gorkhaland demand), would surely open up a floodgate.
Every other district or region in India that represents one community or the other would start claiming statehood and there would be no end to it. The statehood demands for Telegana, Vidharva, Bundelkhand, Bodoland and several others are already active.
Bimal Gurung may stay adamant and shutdown the Darjeeling Hills for months, but that can hardly compel the UPA government to treat Darjeeling as a special case.
Gurung’s outfit has raised a voluntary youth force ~ the Gorkhaland Personnel (GLP), which is being imparted physical training by ex-Army men. The GLP are equipped with batons, as of now.
Some 4000-odd GLP cadres have already been deployed in the Hills to ensure “public discipline” during the shutdowns called over Gorkhaland demand. There are also reports of the GLP confiscating illegal liquor and so on.5
But to think of waging an armed rebellion in the coming days, so to pressurise the Union government concede the statehood for Darjeeling, would prove irresponsible and futile. The immediate instance is the Bodoland insurgency in Assam. In the past one-decade or so, hundreds of Bodo militants have died in pursuance of the statehood agitation but have achieved nothing.
Moreover, waging insurgency over political demands only allows the authorities to take a military approach on the pretext of national security. Darjeeling’s geographical proximity to Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China would only bolster the approach further.
The bottom line is until and unless the Union adopts a holistic approach towards the active statehood demands or constitutes another State Reorganising Committee as is being suggested from several quarters, Darjeeling attaining statehood is completely an improbable proposition.
Under these circumstances, the best option before Gurung is to renegotiate the Sixth Schedule status that he had denounced earlier. Gurung can ask for some Darjeeling specific amendments in the Sixth Schedule clause and there should not be any problem for the Union government to concede.
By doing so, Gurung would be in a position to convince his followers that there is much difference between the Sixth Schedule of Ghisingh and the one that he has negotiated.
But if Gurung really feels serious about this, he will have to act fast. Fast enough before the Opposition overpowers the current Left Front government in West Bengal in 2011. It is now almost apparent that in the 2011 Assembly polls, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul would dethrone the Left Front from Writers’.
Once that happens, it would be truly difficult for Gurung even to bag the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling, leave aside the demanded statehood. For, new into power, Mamata would not take the risk of annoying the majority sentiment in the state, which is evidently against granting any further autonomy to Darjeeling.
Moreover, considering that CPI-M is likely to play the role of a well-informed and organised Opposition, Mamata would be excessively cautious to avoid any criticism projecting her as an “anti-Bengal” element from the parochial point of view. Being an important ally of the UPA, Trinamul would also keep the Centre at bay from meddling into the affair.
This means Darjeeling would have no other option but to wait till 2016, if not more.
Hence, the best time for Gurung to negotiate the Darjeeling issue (even if as an interim measure) is right now. The more closer the state gets to the 2011 Assembly elections, the less inclined the Left Front government would be to grant Darjeeling the Sixth Schedule autonomy. This is irrespective of the fact that the state government was in agreement to this effect.
Even on accepting a renegotiated Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling, Gurung can still carry forward the campaign for Gorkhaland in conjunction with other statehood demands like the Telengana. The focus of such a united campaign would be to bring about a policy direction in the Indian Union, vis-à-vis the creation of new states.
There is another option though. That is, instead of accepting the Sixth Schedule arrangement, Gurung can allow the existing autonomous council ~ the DGHC to function, while sustaining the statehood campaign simultaneously. This would however, prove less remunerative for Bimal Gurung, but that’s how politics progress.
Many a times, one needs to halt back and employ the ‘Z-reverse’, keeping an eye on the steep incline. After all politics is seldom a straight drive.
1 Souvenir, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway 125 Glorious Years, 2006, CPRO, NF Railway, Guwahati.
2 VI Schedule, The Constitution of India, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India.
3 Pranab rules out Gorkhaland demand, The Statesman, North Bengal & Sikkim Plus, Dt. 20 July 2009.
4 Bengal BJP flays Jaswant Gorkhaland stand, says will hit party, The Indian Express, New Delhi, Dt 20 July 2009.
5 Morcha displays ‘seized’ liquor, The Telegraph, North Bengal & Sikkim, Dt. 7 August 2009.
[The author is a senior journalist with The Statesman (India), currently based at Siliguri and has been reporting on the Darjeeling fiasco since 2005. This article originally appeared in The Statesman Festival Number 2009]