Whose Peace Is It Anyway?
The constitution declares India a “union of states.” But experts liken India to a quasi-federation or a unitary state with subsidiary federal features, saying that the adoption of unitary features was to focus on the challenges of state formation and nation building. Indian National Congress harnessed the emotive power of diverse linguistic identities during the Indian independence movement, but the violent partition of British India in 1947 infused a fear of balkanization in the new nation-state. Independent India avoided the division of provinces on linguistic lines for the fear of such balkanization.
Yet the demands for linguistic reorganization continued, and in 1952, Potti Sriramulu, a political activist, began a fast unto death in appealing for a state for Telugu-speaking people. Mr. Sriramulu’s death led to the creation of the state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Indian government formed a States Reorganization Commission in 1953.
Right from 1977, when Jyoti Basu took over as West Bengal CM, Darjeeling had been a thorn in the side of the Marxists. Highlighting neglect and apathy by Kolkata, a number of hill outfits were clamouring for the region's separation from West Bengal.
The Communist legend overhauled the Darjeeling Hill Areas Development Secretariat set up by his friend and predecessor, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, with an eye on increasing the party strength in the Hills. About a year after, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led by Subash Ghisingh began an armed struggle for Gorkhaland in May 1986.
The search for identity among Indian Nepalis took a fortuitous turn with the selection of a participant from Darjeeling in the TV show “Indian Idol 3” in 2007. Prashant Tamang, an employee of the West Bengal government police force and an ethnic Gorkhali from Darjeeling, became the new poster boy for a new Nepalese identity movement.
Mr. Ghising’s lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Tamang provided the catalyst for some members of the Gorkha National Liberation Front to break away. Bimal Gurung, the leader of the breakaway group, led a campaign to support for Mr. Tamang, who won the singing competition. Mr. Gurung followed it up by forming a new political outfit called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha to continue the fight for the state of Gorkhaland, which his mentor, Mr. Ghising had given up.
Ever since the current government came to power in Bengal, the focus of the administration, led by the Chief Minister, had been to reach out to the people of North Bengal, who had been ignominiously ignored by the Left Front government for three long decades. From roads to basic amenities, education to infrastructure development, the districts of North Bengal had always been subject to a step-motherly attitude from Kolkata.
Post 2011, there was a paradigm shift in the way the WB administration viewed or treated Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar or Dinajpur and Malda. From instituting a separate ministry for North Bengal development to setting up a Secretariat in Siliguri, the government made all the right noises. That their intent was positive was shown by the CM’s visits to the Hills or Dooars almost regularly. The current government has even unfurled a host of developmental agenda for the backward districts that form North Bengal, including setting up of colleges and laying the foundation of an industry hub in the region. Since the inception of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, Rs 350 crore had been sanctioned to it for developmental works; needless to say, the funds remained unused.
As a columnist in The Asian Age rightly pointed out:
“The cry for smaller states is less about representation and more about real aspirations. Size may matter. Big could be bold and beautiful too. Bigger states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu do better by leveraging the state’s output and budgets for intervention and investment. So let’s forget formulaic solutions and worry about formats. In a democracy, every vote is sacrosanct. Voters vote for change, not to be presented with fait accompli. And delivery of governance is dictated by devolution, not dialects. India turns 66 this month. Let not petty political cartography obfuscate the real reasons for failure. Let not India get lost in transmogrification.”
That the WB government is truly empathetic towards Nepali aspirations was demonstrated by the decision of the CM to start schools with Nepali as the medium of instruction. The birthday of great Nepali littérateur Bhanu Bhakt is celebrated pomp that equals Rabindranath or Nazrul.
Why then is there a need for Nepali speaking brothers and sisters to feel alienated in a Bengali-majority state? The aspirations of development and identity politics that Gorkhas clamour for can be met by GTA with ease. They need to give it time, and send honest, committed leaders to represent the masses in the council, and not self-serving ones.
Normal life has been paralysed in the Hills for over a month now, thanks to the ongoing agitation for separate statehood. With the arrest of over 800 GJM workers, the state sent a strong message that it was in no mood to relent to pressure tactics. In the show of strength and muscle power by Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, the commoners in Darjeeling suffered due to lack of ration and food crisis. The state government, under the leadership of Minister for North Bengal Development, Gautam Deb, opened kiosks across the Hills to distribute ration to the starving populace.
“We want peace in Darjeeling, we want its children to get an education and the poor to get food. We want Bengal to remain united. For political reasons, doors may be closed. But I appeal to the people to open their doors to development. First, it was (Subhas) Ghishing (leader of the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front, GNLF) and now (Bimal) Gurung (GJM supremo). I ask: When will development take place? Do not set your house on fire on provocation from outsiders,” the Bengal CM said.
The biggest sufferers due to the ongoing agitation are the students. Not only did the GJM force educational institutes to shut down, but they also issued a bizarre diktat to outstation pupils to leave the Hills at a short notice. Moreover, to prove their political clout, the agitators even made innocent kids march with placards supporting their movement; politics surely never hit such a low. “They are denying education to the children here. I am shocked to see children being denied education, deprived of their right to go to schools,” the Chief Minister remarked.
In a democracy, everyone has a right to protest. But an agitation should not endanger democracy itself and push a region to the brink of collapse. After years of turmoil, peace and development had finally returned to the Hills. Let the smiles be back on the faces of the people, amid unity and prosperity.