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Trouble in the “Queen of Hills”

Dr. Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 14, 2008

    Peace in the picturesque town of Darjeeling and adjoining areas has been shattered for the last month by an agitation demanding a separate Gorkhaland and the removal of Subhash Ghisingh from the post of Chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). The agitation is part of a protest movement against the Indian government’s plan to grant Sixth Schedule status to the region. The movement is led by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJMMM), which gave a call for an indefinite bandh on February 13 in support of these demands. It has been reported that the movement is being supported by many regional parties that are opposed to the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) led by Ghisingh.

    A prominent player in the ongoing agitation is the Bharatiya Gorkha Bhutpurba Sainik Morcha, an organisation that was recently formed under the aegis of the GJMM by the roughly 40,000 strong Gorkha ex-servicemen who are settled in and around Darjeeling. Interestingly, the services of these ex-servicemen were earlier utilised by Ghisingh (himself an ex-serviceman) during the Gorkhaland agitation in the mid-1980s. But on February 13 they changed their allegiance from Ghisingh to the newly formed Morcha. Faced with popular opposition, Ghisingh resigned as the caretaker administrator of DGHC on March 10. But his resignation is unlikely to restore calm because the demand for a separate state including not only Darjeeling Hills but also the Dooars is getting shriller.

    The ongoing agitation for a separate state has its roots in history. Darjeeling and the surrounding areas were part of Sikkim in the seventeenth century. They were overrun by Gorkhas during the reign of Prithvi Narayan Shah. After the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-1815, the British wrested Darjeeling from Nepal and restored it to Sikkim. But in 1835, this area was incorporated within British India and subsequently Darjeeling district was created, comprising of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, within Bengal. The district is predominantly inhabited by Gorkhas, Lepchas and Bhutias, collectively called the “Hill People”. During the course of the next few decades, the Hill people, especially the Gorkhas, became increasingly dissatisfied with the administrative system.

    Unhappiness with the patronising attitude of administrative officials in Calcutta and a growing sense of insecurity against plainsmen led the Gorkhas to demand a separate administrative set-up for Darjeeling District as early as 1907. In 1917, they organised themselves under the banner of Hillmen’s Association and repeatedly petitioned for the administrative separation of Darjeeling District from Bengal Province. The formation of the All India Gorkha League (AIGL) in 1943 provided a sense of direction to this movement and support began to gather pace with the return of ex-soldiers from World War II. Over the years, the demand for a separate administrative set-up gave way to the demand for a separate state of “Uttarakhand”.

    From independence till 1985, the movement was peaceful and it was intermittently courted by many political parties who proposed different alternatives. The Communist Party of India favoured regional autonomy for Darjeeling within West Bengal. AIGL demanded the status of Union Territory. The Congress, the United Front and the CPI (M) all supported the demand for a special status for Darjeeling district within the Indian Union.

    In 1980, Subhash Ghisingh formed the GNLF and revived the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. By 1986, the movement had not only intensified but also turned violent claiming some 1200 lives. It also severely crippled the District’s economy, which is based on three Ts – tea, tourism and timber. The movement was wound up in July 1988 after the Government and GNLF reached an agreement on the setting up of a hill district council. In August 1988, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) came into existence with Ghisingh as the Chairman. Subsequently, in 1992, Nepali was included as one of the languages in the Eighth Schedule.

    But matters did not rest there and tensions between the Council on one hand and the West Bengal and central governments on the other soon rose on the issue of panchayat elections. The Seventy Third constitutional amendment of 1992, while exempting all other autonomous hill councils in the Northeast, stipulated that panchayat elections should be held in DGHC. Ghisingh, who was opposed to the holding of any elections in what he saw as his domain, blamed the state government for the omission and refused to participate in these elections. He also threatened to revive the demand for a separate state. The issue of panchayat elections generated a split within the GNLF. A faction led by Madan Tamang broke away and formed a new party called the All India Gorkha League (AIGL), which participated in these elections and won a sizeable number of seats. In due course of time, the AIGL also became a platform for airing public grievances against Ghisingh for his allegedly autocratic and corrupt ways. In May 2005, the AIGL organised a massive rally to revive the demand for a separate state, but failed to mobilise mass support.

    The situation, however, changed dramatically when the proposal to grant Sixth Schedule status to the Darjeeling Hills was tabled in the winter session of Parliament in 2007. Granting of Sixth Schedule status would pave the way for the formation of an Autonomous Hill Council with more powers than the present Council enjoys. There are, however, opposing views on the advisability of such a course. Ghishing is in favour of the bill since, according to him, conferring Sixth Schedule status to the Council would provide it with much needed constitutional recognition. The West Bengal government also supports Ghisingh’s demand. But the GJMM, which was formed in October 2007 under the leadership of Bimal Gurung, opposes this move, claiming that Sixth Schedule status will be against popular sentiment, which in fact aspires for a separate state.

    The Centre appears to be duty bound to impose Sixth Schedule on the Darjeeling Hills since it had signed a tripartite agreement with DGHC and the West Bengal government to this effect on December 6, 2005. The question is why both Ghisingh and the Central government are keen on granting such a status to Darjeeling, where only 31 per cent of the population is listed as tribal? It appears to be an obvious case of Ghisingh’s machinations to perpetuate his control of the Council. The last election to the Council was held in 1999, and its term expired in March 2004. Since then, Ghisingh had been postponing elections on one pretext or the other, the latest being the implementation of the Sixth Schedule. According to the accord of 2005, elections to the Council could only be held after the full implementation of the Sixth Schedule. But till his resignation last week Ghisingh remained at the helm of the affairs for which purpose he was given six extensions as the care taker administrator of the Council by the government.

    The implementation of the Sixth Schedule will, no doubt, enhance the status of the DGHC by conferring it with greater administrative and legislative powers. But it is also seen as scheme to perpetuate Ghisingh’s reign. According to the 2005 tripartite accord, the Council will have 33 seats, out of which 10 will be reserved for Scheduled Tribes and 15 for non-tribals. Three seats will be open for all communities and five members will be nominated by the Governor of West Bengal from the unrepresented communities, of which at least two should be women. The inclusion of Ghishing’s tribe, the Tamangs, along with Limbus in the list of Scheduled Tribes in 2005 reinforced his chances of winning more seats in the Council since Tamangs and Limbus are numerically preponderant in the Hill district. The Centre seems to have obviously fallen for Ghisingh’s political ploy and played along since it considers him as the sole representative of the people of Darjeeling Hills.

    It is quite apparent that the imposition of the Sixth Schedule, which is meant to protect and promote the socio-cultural and economic aspirations of tribals in the states of the Northeast, is unlikely to resolve the issue. Analysts are apprehensive that it may create ethnic tensions among other tribes of the state. At present, the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled areas of West Bengal are being governed by the Fifth Schedule. If the tripartite agreement of 2005 is implemented, then according to Article 244 part (1) & (2) of the Constitution, not only the Hill Council but the entire State would come under the purview of the Sixth Schedule, since a State can have either Fifth Schedule or Sixth Schedule in operation but not both. This would mean that other tribes in the state such as the Koch, Rajbonshi, Bodo, etc. who till now are under the Fifth Schedule would be included in the Sixth Schedule. If this happens, then there would be intense competition and conflict between them to avail of the benefits bestowed under Sixth Schedule, such as reservations in jobs and education. In addition, demands for the creation of autonomous councils might pour in from the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. Already similar demands from Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur have been voiced and are under consideration.

    Given that the Gorkhaland agitation is taking place in the strategically sensitive region of ‘Siliguri corridor’, the Central government needs to handle the situation carefully and decisively so as not to allow the situation to get out of hand. At the same time, it is important that before devising a solution, it takes into consideration the sentiments of the people of the Hill district. A closer assessment of the situation reveals that there is a growing consensus among the major political parties to grant statehood to the Hill people of Darjeeling District. It has been reported that both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party have extended their support to the GJMM’s demand for a separate State in November 2007. In addition, the Parliamentary Standing Committee to which the Bill was referred has advised the Indian government to take into account the “ground realities” before taking a decision.

    Under the circumstances, it appears that Darjeeling might become a state. But such a step would have several consequences. Firstly, the issue of economic viability of such a small state needs to be addressed. It is necessary to ascertain whether Darjeeling as a state would be able to sustain itself or will it become an appendage to the Central government by surviving on grants-in-aid doled out by it. Secondly, such a gesture would open up demands for other separate states in West Bengal and elsewhere. Presently, Kolkata is grappling with the movement for a separate state by tribal communities like Koch, Rajbonshis, etc in north Bengal. They aspire to carve out a separate state comprising of the districts of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, North and South Dinajpur and Malda. The movement is increasingly turning violent as armed groups have taken over and have established links with other militant organisations like the United Liberation front of Asom. Moreover, the movement for a separate state in the same region might also result in the clash of territorial interests between these tribes and Gorkhas, because in its demand for separate state the GJMM has included not only the Darjeeling hills but also the Dooars, i.e. parts of Coochbehar, Siliguri and Jalpaiguri. This might result in spiralling violence in this region. Either way, the region bordering the sensitive ‘Siliguri corridor’ seems set for a period of instability.