Spectre of ‘Gorkhaland’

VIolence begets violence. The ‘Gorkhaland’ crusaders seem to be caught in a trap. The administration is too happy to see protesters indulging in burning and destruction of government properties as it is a specious plea to retaliate. They cannot realise their dream ‘Gorkhaland’ by issuing parochial and provocative statements and showing unnecessary muscle power. Imposition of Bengali in schools might be the reason for initial flare-up in the hills but it was not sole reason for the war cry at this juncture. Bimal Gurung, the prince charming of ‘Gorkhaland’ fiefdom or what is officially called Gokhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), thinks they live in the Republic of ‘Gorkhaland’. As for language issue the state government of West Bengal made a U-turn in no time realising the gravity of the problem while making it optional but violent agitation continued. There is every reason to believe that bandh followed by violence was aimed at foiling attempt by the state government to execute special audits at the three Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM) run municipalities. They saw in it a scheme of economic blockade which might subsequently turn into political arm twisting. After all corruption is a way of life in every government establishment, no matter whether it is run by a major party or managed by a smaller outfit like GJMM. Strangely,Mirik municipality run by Trinamul Congress was not on the agenda of the special audit team.

Left parties, particularly CPM, who are now so vocal about mismanagement of Darjeeling hill affairs by the state government, are no less responsible for the crisis that lingers. During their 3-decade-old rule they never tried to win over the support of the hill people by constructive engagement. Nor did they ever make any serious effort to involve hill people in development process. The representation of hill people in WBSEB, a major employer and other Government organisations was minimal though hydel projects in the hills date back to 1960s. For the first time it was at the initiative of anti-CPM SEB Workers’ Union that some local boys were recruited in the Board. CPM’s class struggle stopped at the foothills of the Himalayas. They mobilised the people of the plains against ‘Gorkhaland’ agitationists on chauvinistic lines only to create a hiatus between the plains and hills. They are now demanding all-party meet to diffuse the situation but they themselves never convened any all-party meeting during their prolonged rule or misrule. In other words they never gave minor political outfits including GJMM any political space. They isolated themselves completely from the hill people by showing Himalayan apathy to their cause.

For one thing no political party, mainstream or otherwise, in Bengal, is in support of ‘Gorkhaland’— they are against further division of Bengal. But the question of cessation of Darjeeling or for that matter ‘Gorkhaland’ was a burning issue even before the partition of India in 1947. And communists in those days were the champions of their cause. But the situation for them has changed radically. Today they are hyper nationalists like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On the issue of ‘Gorkhaland’ BJP seems to have acquired the dubious distinction of maintaining double standard. Their candidate won the Darjeeling Parliamentary seat with the help of GJMM supporters and activists. At the time of poll they made it no secret that they would help Gorkhas realise their dream by utilising central government authority. Three years have gone and poor Aluwalia, their MP from Darjeeling made frantic efforts to convince home minister Rajnath Singh and other top guns of BJP, about the viability of ‘Gorkhaland’ without any success. In truth home minister sent extra battalions of paramilitary forces at the request of the state government to tackle mob violence, arson and vandalism. By allowing their street fighters to go on the rampage under the slightest pretext and create an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty the Gurungs are actually jeoparding their cause. The state government functionaries are not at all unhappy over renewed violence because after every bout of violent demonstration they are getting more security forces to create panic among people.

BJP is an opportunist party, always using divisive agenda to spread their tentacles. In case of Darjeeling too they did the same thing. Caught in a bind on the ‘Gorkhaland’ issue they are now talking in multiple voices, sometimes at cross purposes. While their hill leaders endorse the bandh called by the GJMM leadership to press the demand for a separate state, the state leaders simply pleaded their ignorance about what their hill leaders said. They like any othar Bengal- based party are against another partition of Bengal while their central leaders do hardly bother about what the state leadership is saying-or not saying.

Due to much focus on mob-violence and bandh the two-day strike called by tea garden workers under the banner of joint forum, a conglomeration of 23 trade unions operating in the tea industry in the region, didn’t get attention it deserved. The forum called the strike demanding implementation of minimum wages at the earliest as the previous agreement on the implementation of minimum wages which was concluded on 20 February 2015 has expired. Workers now demand and quite justifiably, a fresh and modified agreement on minimum wages including other fringe benefits. Plantation workers in the state are the worst paid compared to other tea producing regions of the country. Banias who inherited the ownership of the gardens from colonial planters never tried to improve and modernise age-old bushes and allowed workers to toil in medieval conditions. They earned super profits by depriving workers of their legitimate dues while diverting resources to other areas of lucrative business. If anything GJMM has succeeded in dividing workers on ethnic lines much to the delight of planters who are not unhappy with recent developments in the hills as it would help them find an excuse to delay wage negotiations.

Whenever the ‘Gorkhaland’ issue gets re-kindled under one pretext or another, fence-sitters face the problem of how to maintain the art of balance. But the situation has reached a stage where they will have to either support it or oppose it—there is no middle course.

It’s a tragedy that the ‘Gorkhaland’ leadership has all along been trying to reach the goal by allying with the powers that be at the centre. Earlier they tried their luck by siding with the Congress when Congress government was in power in New Delhi. After all Sidhartha Ray was not a Gorkha but once he got elected from Darjeeling with the support of ‘Gorkhaland’ agitationists. And now they are with Modi’s BJP, hoping somewhat against hope that Modi will award them ‘Gorkhaland’. But so far this tactical move has failed to deliver and it is unlikely to deliver in the future. For all practical purposes ‘Gorkhaland’ is no longer an event; it is a mentality.   

Vol. 49, No.51, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2017