The agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state has brought life to a grinding halt for nearly two months now in the Darjeeling Hills, cost nine lives and led to growing anger and frustration among the 3.5 million Gorkhas, who are Indian citizens. Anger because of the brutal, heavy-handed and undemocratic means employed by the Mamata Banerjee government to crush the statehood movement and frustration because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government has turned a blind eye to the plight of the long-suffering Gorkhas.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which is spearheading the Gorkhaland movement – the oldest statehood movement dating back to 1907 – has now served an ultimatum to New Delhi to intervene, failing which it has vowed to intensify the agitation. But the ultimatum is not likely to have any effect on the Union government, which has adopted a ‘wait and watch’ approach, besides issuing inane appeals for peace.
And as New Delhi continues to look on, Banerjee has unleashed a reign of terror on the Gorkhas, giving a carte blanche to the otherwise spineless and cowardly Bengal police to use their might to crush the Gorkhaland movement, suspended civil rights and even imposed an unofficial embargo on movement of food from the plains to the hills to starve the Gorkhas and force them to capitulate. Besides facing a severe food shortage, the people of Darjeeling Hills are a terrorised lot today. That they are continuing with their agitation in spite of such adversities speaks a lot about the courage and resilience of the Gorkhas and their commitment to their cause.
The reason why New Delhi is loath to intervene in this humanitarian and political crisis is purely political. Any intervention by the Union government could be construed as a show of support for the Gorkhas, and according to current political wisdom, that translates into bad politics in Bengal. Supporting the Gorkhas or showing even a modicum of sympathy towards them would amount to alienating the Bengalis who are, after all, the majority community in the state and, hence, politically powerful.
Banerjee, through her narrow, selfish policies, has succeeded in dividing the people of Bengal along communal lines. Her party has whipped up the latent parochialism and majoritarianism among Bengalis to tackle the Gorkhaland movement. Banerjee has used Gorkhaland movement successfully to emerge as a champion of Bengalis. Her public vow to oppose the division of Bengal has only increased her standing among Bengalis, who are strongly opposed to Gorkhaland. And it has created a deep communal divide between Bengalis and Gorkhas, especially in places like Siliguri, a trading town in the foothills dominated by Bengalis that has been economically crippled by the unrest in the hills.
Ever since the start of the current phase of the Gorkhaland agitation in early June, the BJP has been on the back foot since it was perceived to be sympathetic to the Gorkhas. After all, the BJP is an ally of the GJM and Surendrajeet Singh Ahluwalia, the BJP Member of Parliament from Darjeeling, won the seat in 2014 with the GJM’s support. BJP leaders of Bengal advised the party’s central leadership to avoid any show of support to the Gorkhaland agitation since that would spell disaster for the party in the rest of the state.
“We (the BJP) are at a critical stage in Bengal now. We are gaining ground and have already emerged as the principal opposition party in the state. Mamata has very cleverly played the Gorkhaland agitation to whip up Bengali sentiments and has positioned herself as a champion of Bengalis and Bengal. If the Union government intervenes directly in the Gorkhaland issue and if such intervention is depicted by Mamata as a move in favour of Gorkhaland, it will be disastrous for us and we will lose the support of Bengalis. We can’t allow that to happen and so we’ve advised our central leadership against intervening now,” said a senior BJP leader, who is a vice-president of the state unit of the party.
But what is good politics is not good policy in this case. And it is also wrong and morally indefensible. The Gorkhas have suffered a lot under successive rulers of Bengal. The hills have always faced neglect, even though the revenue-strapped state earns a lot from tea and tourism. The Gorkhas are looked down upon by the majoritarian Bengalis and denied their due respect and share of power. Darjeeling, once known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’, has been reduced to an ugly, congested and dirty town due to appalling neglect by Bengal’s rulers.
Thus, to deny Gorkhas their political due for the sake of appeasing the Bengalis is morally and ethically unjustifiable. The majority isn’t always necessarily right and pandering to majoritarianism is also not right. The BJP would do well to learn from ancient Hindu scriptures, especially the Gita, and side with the minority who are right than the majority who are wrong. After all, that is what Krishna did at Kurukshetra.
The Gorkhas in India have also faced a lot of discrimination within the country and suffer from a lack of identity. They are confused with Nepalese from Nepal and are often looked down upon as migrants from the neighbouring country. They face a lot of obnoxious stereotyping. They have faced violence and have been driven out of states like Assam and Meghalaya. Thus, the Gorkhas want a state (within the Indian Union) that they can call their own, a state that can make them firmly establish their identity as Indians.
The Gorkhas have also contributed more than their due share for India. Their participation in the armed forces is stellar and India’s current military history has been tremendously enriched by the courage and sacrifice of Gorkha soldiers and officers. In other fields, too, the contribution of Gorkhas has been commendable. Their demand for Gorkhaland is justified. More so since the Darjeeling Hills have never been part of Bengal till the British annexed the hills from Sikkim and made it part of Bengal province. Bengal has no justifiable, historical or moral claim on Darjeeling Hills.
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