New Internationalist

Gorkhaland – the second coming

Web exclusive

In the sleepy Himalayan towns of West Bengal, India, an old agitation for Gorkha statehood is revived and ‘resolved’. Ann Morgan reports on a fascinating struggle (which Western readers may only know of as the backdrop to the Booker prize winning novel The Inheritance of Loss.)

West Bengal, by judepics under a CC Licence

You can’t make out the place where the severed heads used to hang along the main road in Kalimpong anymore. But the memory of the violent campaign for a separate Indian state that shook this picturesque town in the foothills of the Himalayas 25 years ago remains.

‘The state government fired upon the people of Kalimpong, just 100 yards from here,’ says local guesthouse and orchid nursery owner Norden Pemahishey, recalling one of the most violent days, 27 July 1986. ‘I witnessed that. One of my neighbours got shot. At that time the police had those second world war infantry rifles. They are nasty pieces of work. Just a small hole here and it blows you apart.

‘My dad and I took out our jeep to take the wounded,’ he continues. ‘No one else came out. We had seven or eight people with these bullet holes in one jeep. You can imagine the blood gushing out. By the time we’d crossed into town, people saw our jeep going through to the hospital. Then all hell broke loose. They attacked the police station and massive firing took place. Officially I think 22 people died on that day, but unofficially it was a lot more. That was Gorkhaland part one.’

Since a fresh separatist campaign launched in 2007, many have feared that Gorkhaland part two might go much the same way. So this June, when West Bengal’s first female chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, announced that she had ‘resolved’ the Gorkhaland issue less than three weeks after she and her Trinamool Congress party swept to victory in the north-east Indian state’s elections, ending 34 years of communist rule, it seemed as though the state’s new leader was making a habit of achieving the impossible.

The news came after just two days of talks between Banerjee and representatives from the Darjeeling region’s new ruling party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM; literally Gorkha People’s Liberation Campaign). The fine details of the deal, which has yet to be formalized with the Indian government, will be thrashed out over the coming months, but the pact will involve the establishment of a new elected body to administrate the Darjeeling hills and certain other – as yet unconfirmed – neighbouring districts, and promises investment in development for this hitherto neglected region. Already, the GJM has hailed it as the foundation for establishing Gorkhaland.

It’s an astonishingly rapid solution to a dispute that has rumbled on in one form or another for more than 100 years, and is bound up with the shifting boundaries that have seen land and people passed back and forth between India, Nepal, the British Empire and the various independent kingdoms that used to hold sway in the region.

Matters of state

In the 1980s, when the term ‘Gorkhaland’ came into common parlance, the campaign for a separate state for Gorkhas – loosely defined as the descendants of the Nepali Gorkhas who were drafted into the British and later Indian armies – was spearheaded by Subhash Ghising’s Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). The violence then saw an estimated 1,200 people killed in the space of two years and only ended in 1988 when an agreement was signed between the West Bengal government and the GNLF.

Like the deal between Banerjee and the GJM, this paved the way for the formation of a semi-autonomous body with a mandate to administrate the Darjeeling hills. The GNLF painted it as the first step on the road to a separate state, but as time passed, rumours of corruption within the party and a growing sense that the ideal of Gorkhaland had been sacrificed for lesser concessions fuelled discontent.

Rumours of corruption within the party and a growing sense that the ideal of Gorkhaland had been sacrificed for lesser concessions fuelled discontent

In 2008, the newly formed GJM drove Subhash Ghisingh and his supporters out of the hills and began a new separatist movement, which saw them winning resounding victories in all four seats they contested in the recent elections. Anxious to play down any parallels between their campaign and the GNLF’s, and perhaps now between their deal with the West Bengal government and the one struck in 1988, the GJM are quick to stress the contrast between their methods and those of their predecessors.

‘This time, our agitation is a Gandhian, non-violent agitation,’ says Suva Pradhan, General Secretary of the GJM’s Kalimpong Subcommittee. ‘We did not cooperate with the [former] West Bengal government. We are not paying any taxes. No one in the whole area has paid any taxes for three years. We have organized hunger strikes to open up dialogue with the government.’

He goes on to explain that the campaign for Gorkhaland grew out of the cultural, linguistic and emotional differences between West Bengal’s hill people and those living on the plains in the rest of the state.

Here, ethnic Nepalis, including Gorkhas, make up the majority. Nepali, or Gorkhali as some campaigners are anxious to brand the local dialect, is the most common language. Many people can trace their roots in the area back five generations to the first Nepalese workers brought in to labour on the Darjeeling tea plantations, although, because of the freedom of movement permitted between the two nations under the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, they often possess neither Indian nor Nepalese citizenship papers. This has given rise to a sense of statelessness which the GJM is keen to address, bolstered by their belief that the historical contribution of the British and Indian gurkhas makes a compelling case for giving them administrative control over the region.

The faithful and the brave

‘The Gorkhas of Darjeeling, the Gorkhas of India, the Gorkhas residing anywhere in the world have always been recognized as the most faithful, most loyal, most brave people,’ says Pradhan. ‘They have fought the battles of different countries. They have protected this country for generations. Now their homeland is being colonized by Bengal, by people who only want to extract benefit from here. The Gorkhas should get their due. They should get justice which is overdue now.’

As well as non-payment of taxes, hunger strikes and bandhs (enforced region-wide shut-downs of roads and services which have crippled the local economy in recent years), the GJM’s ‘non-violent’ tactics include the establishment of the Gorkhaland Personnel (GLP). Uniformed, equipped with batons, and drilled in martial arts, this is an 18,000-strong organization of 16-21-year-olds, all of whom have been trained by ex-commandos and can be mobilised within 48 hours. They patrol the streets in parallel with the West Bengal police, often ‘arresting’ people for disorder or drunkenness.

At the Kalimpong training camp, located at the empty Chest Clinic, Retired Major SP Warner, the General Secretary of the GLP, is proud of what his organization has achieved.

‘It is the brainchild of Bimal Gorung,’ he says, sitting beneath a large framed photograph of the party leader. ‘It is the first time we ex-servicemen have been invited to join the party. Our main part of the agitation is we control the civilians – the action they take. We control them a lot. We stop them becoming violent. That is the point of us.

‘Our agitation is a Gandhian, non-violent agitation. We did not cooperate with the [former] West Bengal government. We are not paying any taxes. No one in the whole area has paid any taxes for three years’

‘It’s not for fighting. We have proved this many times. The inspector general of police said that many times. He got fed up of me. I took him to the camp. He supervised the camp. Then he gave his word: “ah, yes, no arms training is taking place”. Previously he was saying that the arms training was taking place. I said, “no, see for yourself, but please do not give the wrong information”.’

He points out that, with unemployment and drug addiction rife in the region, the GLP provides much-needed opportunities for young men and women, for whom discipline and physical fitness is very valuable. Many people believe in it. So much so that the trainees’ 1,500 rupee monthly salaries (about $34), clothes and food costs are paid for purely by ‘supporters’ – he himself gives 100 rupees a month towards the effort, he says. Quite who the other supporters are is unclear, although in the narrow strip of India caught between the troubled nation of Nepal, Bangladesh and the states of Bhutan and Sikkim – the subject of an angry dispute between India and China – the list of possible donors to an unofficial youth movement trained by ex-military men is long.

And, for all the rigorous drilling and training, the Major says he cannot rule out violence in certain circumstances.

‘As far as possible we will not permit that to take place. But can we? Because the youngsters of today – you can control them to a certain point, a certain stage, and after that it will be very difficult,’ he shrugs.

The limits of control

In February, there was an example of what that certain point might be when three young GLP members died when police opened fire during a rally, in Shibsu. The resulting backlash saw police buildings and buses torched. As yet, there has been no inquiry and, given past incidents of alleged policy brutality, such as the beatings at the Siliguri Rally in 2008, there seems to be a reluctance to investigate, as local Gorkha TV journalist Sandhya Pradhan found when she went to the scene of the deaths.

‘They have thrown plastic tarpaulins over the area so no-one can put any memorial to the people who have been shot,’ she says. ‘They don’t want to see the area where it happened. The blood is still there on the spot. They want to cover it up.’

A passionate supporter of Gorkhaland, which she says she needs ‘like a mother’, she shows me around a puja (Hindu ritual worship) site set up for people to come and pray for Gorkhaland in the run up to the elections. Two large pyramid frames, wrapped round with flowers and decorations stand over coals where offerings of rice, spices and food can be made to Ganesha, the elephant god revered as the remover of obstacles. On a table in the far corner stand pictures of Jesus Christ and some Buddhist lamas, as a nod to some of the other religions in the area.

Diktats and defiance

Although the Nepali Gorkhas are in the majority, the hills around Darjeeling are home to a wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups, partly as a result of the area’s complicated political history, which has seen boundaries drawn and redrawn across the region. Kalimpong itself has a sizeable Tibetan refugee community, while members of various indigenous hill tribes make up a considerable proportion of the population. Chief among these is the Lepcha tribe, whose members account for 12 per cent of residents. Though generally committed to the idea of a separate hill state, for which provision was made in the 1947 Indian constitution, they are anxious that their interests and ancient traditions are not being represented.

‘You can’t have one state to create an identity for one community. There is no such thing. We all are Indian. We are Indian and that is the bottom line’

‘The Gorkhas have a right to demand Gorkhaland but that does not mean that the Lepchas support the nomenclature,’ says Dorjeet Lepcha, President of the Lepcha Youth Association and Co-ordinator of the Lepcha Rights Movement. ‘We want something inclusive, like “Darjeeling”. You can’t have one state to create an identity for one community. There is no such thing. We all are Indian. We are Indian and that is the bottom line.’

In 2008, the Lepcha community opposed a diktat from the GJM that all hill people should wear Gorkha dress for one calendar month as part of the separatist campaign. The party relaxed that requirement for Lepchas, but the Gorkha bias remained.

Frustrated at their community’s lack of political representation, the Lepcha Association called for all Lepchas to abstain from the recent elections. However, they were keen to stress that this action ‘is neither against any community nor against any political party but an expression of the circumstance [sic] of Lepcha Community at present’, in an official statement.

They are right to be careful. It is only a year since Madan Tamang, leader of the moderate Akhil Bharatiya [All India] Gorkha League party, was set upon and hacked to death by a mob who tried to cut off his head at a public meeting in Darjeeling, allegedly after he had criticized some of the GJM’s methods.

With the name Gorkhaland painted on every shop sign and plastered on posters and graffiti on the very street where the heads of Gorkhaland sceptics once hung, it seems that, no matter what Banerjee has agreed, Gorkhaland is here to stay.

Ann Morgan is a freelance journalist.

Comments on Gorkhaland – the second coming

Leave your comment