After Setting Darjeeling Hills On Fire, Banerjee Now Clueless On How To Douse The Flames

After Setting Darjeeling Hills On Fire, Banerjee Now Clueless On How To Douse The Flames

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Sunday, June 18, 2017 02:13 PM IST
After Setting Darjeeling Hills On Fire, Banerjee Now Clueless On How To Douse The FlamesA Gorkha activist takes part in a demonstration demanding a separate Gorkhaland state in the Darjeeling. (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • The Gorkha Hills are burning, and Banerjee is the stubborn ‘Nero’ who wouldn’t accept that it was she who set them literally, and proverbially, on fire.

The (Darjeeling) Hills, claimed Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee six years ago (after the formation of the Gorkha Territorial Administration, or GTA), are smiling. Her government has been issuing full-page advertisements in newspapers and commissioning huge hoardings with pictures of smiling hill folks and a visage of Banerjee benignly and patronisingly looking down on the hills. Today, the Hills are burning, and it is she who has set them on fire.

Utter insensitivity, and a complete lack of understanding and appreciation of the sentiments of the hill people, has caused the latest flare-up in the Hills. Add to that Banerjee’s propensity to shoot off her mouth, view all issues through the ‘me-versus-them’ prism, intolerance of contrarian views and ride roughshod over opposition. Banerjee’s ham-handed attempts to increase her political footprints in the Hills has also contributed in a big measure to the unrest there.

The Demand For Gorkhaland

A primary mistake that Banerjee made was to ignore history. The demand for Gorkhaland, a separate state for the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas within the Indian Union, is an age-old demand. It was first articulated by the Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling in 1907 through a petition submitted to the Minto-Morley Reforms Panel demanding a separate administrative setup. In 1917, the Hillmen's Association submitted a memorandum to the chief secretary of the government of Bengal, the secretary of state of India and the viceroy for the creation of a separate administrative unit comprising the then Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts.

In 1929, the Hillmen's Association again raised the same demand before the Simon Commission. In 1930, a joint petition was submitted by Hillmen's Association, Gorkha Officers’ Association and the Kurseong Gorkha Library to the secretary of the state of India, Samuel Hoare, for separation of the Darjeeling Hills from the province of Bengal. In 1941, the Hillmen's Association again wrote to the secretary of state of India, Lord Pethick Lawrence, to exclude Darjeeling from the province of Bengal and make it a Chief Commissioner’s Province.

In 1947, the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) submitted a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly demanding the formation of Gorkhasthan comprising Darjeeling district and Sikkim. After Independence, the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) became the first political party from the region to demand greater identity for the Gorkhas and economic freedom for the community, when in 1952, the party met Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, in Kalimpong and submitted a memorandum demanding the separation from Bengal. In 1980, the Pranta Parishad of Darjeeling wrote to the then prime minister of India Indira Gandhi demanding the creation of a separate state comprising Darjeeling and some parts of the Dooars.

The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led by Subash Ghisingh launched a fiery agitation in 1986 for the formation of Gorkhaland. The agitation ultimately led to the establishment of a semi-autonomous body in 1988 called the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) to govern certain areas of Darjeeling district. The DGHC experiment was a failure since the then CPI(M)-led Left Front government refused to honour the commitments under the DGHC Accord.

In 2007, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) once again raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland and launched a protracted agitation. The agitation ended with the GJM signing an agreement with the Union and state governments for the formation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous body replacing the DGHC. The GTA was to have been given administrative control over many departments in the Hills and much greater financial powers than the DGHC, but the Banerjee government dragged its feet and failed to honour the promises made in the 2011 Accord.

Not An Autonomy Issue

However, to look at the current agitation sweeping through the Hills as a result of the failure of the state government to honour the 2011 accord would be deeply flawed. As many intellectuals and prominent citizens of the Hills will say, it is not an issue of autonomy, but of identity. “Yes, the non-implementation of the provisions of the 2011 Accord, and before that the DGHC Accord, by successive governments in Bengal has totally eroded the credibility of the Bengal government and created a trust deficit that will be impossible to bridge. So even if the Bengal government now promises to fulfill all provisions of the 2011 agreement and make the GTA a truly autonomous body, the people of the hills will not be convinced. But the issue now is much greater than that. It is one of identity,” said a very respected academic, who used to teach English at a reputable college in Darjeeling.

Nepali-speaking citizens of India call themselves Gorkhas to assert an identity separate from that of the Nepalese of Nepal. “We are not Nepalis, just as Indians who are US citizens and not Indians any longer. Gorkha is our Indian identity,” explained GJM leader Roshan Giri. What galls the Gorkhas is that despite the immense contribution of the community towards India, especially the defence of the country for which a lot of Gorkha blood was shed, the Gorkhas don’t have a place to call their own within India and are still looked upon as migrants from Nepal who ought to return to their country of origin.

This quest for identity, which includes a state the Gorkhas can call their own, was accentuated by the ethnic troubles in many states of Northeast India that resulted in thousands of Nepali-speaking people who had been residing in those states after being driven out of the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A large number of those took refuge in the Darjeeling Hills and this led to a hardening of the Gorkha identity. The expulsion of tens of thousands of Lhotshampas (Nepali-speaking people residing in south Bhutan) from that kingdom around the same time also resulted in the realisation that the Nepali-speaking people of India need to have a state they can call their own.

“Our brethren were simply driven away overnight from states like Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram. They had to flee because of real threats of violence and many were also killed. They are Indians, but they had nowhere to go and ultimately settled down in the Darjeeling Hills. Gorkhas still face a lot of discrimination in various parts of the country. We are often treated as Nepali citizens. A Gorkhaland state within the Indian Union will give Gorkhas an identity as Indians,” argued Giri.

Trust Deficit Among Hills And Plains People

The non-implementation of the provisions of the 2011 Accord transferring administrative control of departments to the GTA and granting it financial powers and autonomy created a yawning trust deficit between the government of Bengal and the Gorkhas of the hills. What accentuated this divide was Banerjee’s ill-advised attempts to divide the hills people by forming separate development boards for various communities in the hills.

Banerjee’s policy of divide and rule riled the Gorkhas. In order to politically counter the GJM, she reached out to the Bhutias and Lepchas (who were the original inhabitants of the Darjeeling Hills, the Nepali-speaking migrants from Nepal came in later) and formed development boards in order to win them over. She went on to form similar boards for other communities as well. The GJM saw this as a serious challenge to its authority and to the GTA which was given the mandate to administer the hills.

It is indeed ironical, as Giri pointed out, that for a person who cries ‘federalism’ at the drop of a hat, Banerjee trampled on the GTA’s autonomy and behaved like a dictator. “Forming separate development boards for different communities was a shameless act of divide and rule. What if the Union government forms separate development boards for different communities in Bengal? Would Mamata take it lying down?” asked an angry Sushil Gurung, a leader of the CPRM.

Also, the revival of the Gorkhaland demand this time has led to a simultaneous rise in Bengali chauvinism. Social media is rife with lakhs of Bengalis posting messages against Gorkhaland and insulting the Gorkhas, calling for their ouster from the Darjeeling Hills. Chauvinism and parochialism are latent traits among many Bengalis, and the prospect of Bengal breaking up with the creation of Gorkhaland is one that ignites such latent feelings and result in ugly outpourings in social media. These anti-Gorkha and anti-Gorkhaland posts have been circulated widely in the Hills and has led to the cementing of the Bengali-Gorkha divide.

Wounding Gorkha Pride

Like most other politicians, and people, of Bengal, Banerjee also knows (and cares) little about the sentiments of the Hill people. That Darjeeling is not Purulia or Howrah is something that Banerjee does not simply understand. And, hence, this crisis.

Banerjee’s diktat to make Bengali a compulsory language in schools across Bengal was quickly taken up by the GJM to resuscitate the Gorkhaland movement. Banerjee, during a visit to the Hills earlier this month, clarified that schools in the hills would be exempt from the order. But her clarification failed to convince the Gorkhas and the GJM launched a series of peaceful movements.

Banerjee then decided to take on the GJM in its own turf and held a meeting of her council of ministers at the Darjeeling Raj Bhawan. That resulted in GJM activists clashing violently with the police. “Gorkhas are proud, sensitive and emotional people. They should not be challenged. Honour means a lot to them. If you hurt their pride, they will retaliate. Mamata and her administration have no understanding of this,” said an IPS officer, who had served in the Hills many years ago.

The day after her cabinet meeting and the resultant violence, Banerjee strutted through Darjeeling and that acted as rubbing salt into Gorkhas’ wounds. “That was a huge mistake. The video clips of Mamata walking around Darjeeling town went viral with comments likening her to a conquerer surveying the conquered territories,” said the officer. Banerjee’s acts may have won her the support of her Bengali constituency in the plains, but it totally alienated the Gorkhas in the hills.

Mistaking Gurung For Gorkhaland

Another big mistake that Banerjee made was to confuse the Gorkhaland issue with GJM chief Bimal Gurung. Banerjee and Gurung have little love lost for each other now, even though they were allies in the 2011 assembly polls and Banerjee used Gurung when she was in the opposition to take on the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee regime. She felt that suppressing Gurung and the GJM through administrative measures would automatically silence the fresh demand for Gorkhaland. But it had quite the opposite effect.

Till even three weeks ago, many Gorkhas in the Hills held an unfavourable opinion of Gurung, looking on him as corrupt and autocratic. “Public support for Gurung was on the wane. Though the GJM held power in the GTA, it delivered little and there were serious allegations of corruption against the GTA administrators. Gurung is rumoured to have amassed many properties and a lot of wealth. Mamata thought the time was ripe to strike against Gurung and strengthen her own party in the Hills. But she had grossly miscalculated and had not taken into account the sentiments of the hill people,” said Manendra Chetri, a prominent businessman, who was once associated with the GNLF.

“It has to be realised that the Gorkhaland issue is different and the GJM or Gurung is only articulating it. Even if Gurung is discredited and put behind bars, the Gorkhaland demand will not die down. It will remain, maybe it will lie dormant in the Gorkhas’ hearts, but it will be given vent to till Gorkhaland is achieved,” said Chetri.

The crackdown on Gurung and the GJM the raids on his residence, the arrest of GJM cadres, the heavy-handed police action on GJM agitators had had the effect of the people of the Hills, Gorkhas and non-Gorkhas alike rallying behind Gurung and his GJM. The deaths of three in police firing on Saturday has ignited the Gorkhaland movement like nothing else in living memory.

Rubbing Salt Into Wounds

Banerjee’s allegations against the Gorkhaland agitators after Saturday’s violence and deaths in the Hills has rubbed salt into the wounds of the hill people and totally alienated them from Bengal. She claimed that the agitators, led by the GJM, have links with militant groups in Northeast India. She called the agitators “goons” and “hoodlums”. She said foreign countries were aiding the agitation.

Nothing can be more ridiculous. “Questioning the patriotism of the Gorkhas by linking us with separatist Northeast militants who are fighting the Indian army, in which the Gorkhas proudly serve in large numbers, is ludicrous and sinister. She (Mamata) wants to portray us as anti-nationals. We are more nationalists than she is,” said Chetri angrily. His anger finds complete resonance across the hill people, who are incensed and deeply hurt at the accusations and the labelling of the footsoldiers of the current phase of Gorkhaland agitation as goons by Banerjee.

She also alleged that arms are being supplied by other countries and being stockpiled by the GJM. The reference was, obviously, to Nepal which, beset with problems of its own, is in no position and has absolutely no inclination either to interfere in the Gorkhaland movement or India’s internal affairs. Raids on Gurung’s residence and GJM offices over the last few days have yielded a laughable cache of bow and arrows, spades, pickaxes and currency notes; so much for the stockpiling of arms that the Bengal Chief Minister alleges.

The heavy-handed manner in which the state administration is trying to suppress the Gorkhaland movement has won Banerjee many supporters in Bengal. Social media is rife with messages from Bengalis, some from even outside the country, congratulating her and even referring to her as an ‘iron lady’ while condemning the Gorkhaland movements and its supporters and heaping scorn and abuse on Gurung and the Gorkhas. And such sentiments are the reason why the Gorkhas don’t want to remain part of Bengal. But that is something Bengalis and Bengali politicians like Banerjee just can’t fathom.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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