Cherrila Bhutia Wangchuk | Research Scholar, Sikkim Central university
The events occurring in the hills barely see a nationwide coverage in the mainstream media, be it print or television. The national news channels have done their least bit to educate or inform the public at large about the current ongoing crisis that has hit the hills of Darjeeling in West Bengal with their demand for a separate state – Gorkhaland. Many people across India are curious about the Gorkhaland issue, but most of them do not know about the issue very well and are under the false impression that Gorkhaland is a demand by the Gorkhas for separation from India.
To begin with, the word ‘Gorkha’ (in the Indian context) is an umbrella term used to identify a varied group of people, as one unified entity. In terms of Darjeeling, communities such as the Róng – Lepchas, the Tsong – Limbus, the Kirat – Rai, the Dukpas and the Magars are the aboriginal/ethnic/native people of the region, who constitute a large chunk of the ‘Gorkha’ people living in the Darjeeling region. They do not consider themselves as immigrants who came from Nepal as per the popular belief. Rather they call themselves the sons and daughters of the soil. However, it is well recognized that there are many immigrants from Nepal, who have also settled in India, post-independence.
According to history, the Nepali kingdom in the 17th and 18th Century was spread all over the Himalayas. In the year 1777, Nepal had appropriated the Kingdom of Sikkim (that included most of the present day Darjeeling district) in the east and had also successfully invaded and conquered the Kingdoms of Kumaon, Garhwal and Kangra in the west. The Nepali Kingdom was spread from the east of rivers Teesta to the west of river Sutlej.
However, following the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-1816, Nepal agreed to cede most of the Terai region, the lands of Sikkim, Kumaon, Garhwal and Kangra to the British through the Treaty of Sugauli (Sugauli Sandhi), which was signed on 4 March 1816. After the Anglo-British war of 1865, the British appropriated the lands that are today known as Kalimpong and Dooars. Therefore, all the people of Nepali, Sikkimese and Bhutanese origin, who were living in these tracts automatically came under the British and subsequently under India (after the British left). Except for major areas of Bhutan, where they had separate agreement with British.
The region was inhabited as early as the 9th century. When Guru Padmasambhava had passed through this region in the 9th century, he had established Buddhism in the region – which indicates the presence of people living in the area way, before the British ever landed in Asia. In addition, other groups of people such as the Gurungs, Thapas, Chettris, Newars, Sunwars, Bahuns, Kamis, Damais, Sarkis, Bhutias, Thamis etc., came to the region following subsequent wars. For instance, the establishment of the Kingdom of Sikkim in 1642 brought in a large Bhutia population from Tibet and Bhutan into the region. Similarly, the Nepali incursions starting from as early as 1700s brought many present day Nepalese to the region.
The Indian state of West Bengal is boiling in turmoil since the past one month facing criticism from the Gorkhas’ from all over the world. To address the issue, it is important to understand who these gorkhas are. The ‘Gorkhas’ in the Indian context are Indian citizens of Nepali ethnicity, who live across the length and breadth of India. The term ‘Gorkha’ in the Indian context is used to differentiate the Indian citizens of Nepali ethnicity from the citizens of Nepal, who prefer to be called ‘Nepalese.’
The Darjeeling district in West Bengal lies in the lap of Himalayas and is also famously referred to as the ‘Taj of Bengal’. This hill station, along with surrounding areas such as Kalimpong and the entire dooars region have been fighting a battle which dates back to more than a hundred years old. Their demand? A need for a separate state – Gorkhaland.
The demand for a separate administrative unit (separate state in today’s term) for the Darjeeling region started as early as 1907. The Gorkhas from the Darjeeling region have always been labeled by the state sponsored Bengali organizations such as Bangla O Bangla Bhasa Bachao Samity, Amra Bangali, Jan Jagaran Morcha, Jan Chetna Morcha as illegal immigrants and the demand for Gorkhaland illegal. They have rendered the ethnic Gorkha people as an intruder in his/her own ancestral lands. This has caused widespread socio-economic and political marginalization of the Gorkhas. All these factors have resulted in the Gorkhas being under-represented, stereotyped and communally discriminated in almost all sectors. Thus the demand for Gorkhaland is a demand to protect the identity, culture, history, traditions and the rich bond of people from Darjeeling region, which they share with their land.
Moreover, Bengal has always been colonial in its approach to this region. The large revenues collected from Darjeeling region have been used to develop other parts of Bengal, while neglecting even the basic infrastructure in the region.
Case in point: the National Highway 55, which used to be the artery connecting the hills of Darjeeling to the rest of India, has been closed due to land slide since 2009 and the West Bengal government has done nothing to rebuild it. Last year alone, there were over 20 malnutrition related death (death due to starvation) reported from the Dooars region and yet the West Bengal government did nothing to alleviate the sufferings of the people in the region.
Although it’s an ongoing battle for more than a century, the cause of its most current uprising was the language imposed on the people in Darjeeling. Under the reign of its Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerjee, a new rule was introduced which made it mandatory for all the students to learn Bengali. This triggered the underlying emotions of the people who already felt that their ethnic identity was being questioned every now and then. The gorkhas are a nepali speaking community and thus imposing the Bengali language by force meant disrespecting their culture and language. The gorkhas, although they belong to the state of West Bengal have never identified themselves as Bengalis.
Abhishek Gurung from Darjeeling, a vocalist by profession and an active voice in the protests for the formation of Gorkhaland states it is by right that they should be given this statehood because right from their ethnicity to their language, culture and tradition, not a single thing represents any similarity with the Bengalis. If they’re given the statehood, he says it will help them form their own identity nationally and internationally. When asked why did this fight gain momentum only now after a gap of 15-20 years? He very answered that even the administration is at fault here. But now the public have woken up to the cause and are now fighting as a united mass and that the demand lies further beyond just administrative benefits.
He cites ‘if Punjab is for the Punjabis, Tamil Nadu for the Tamilians, then why not Gorkhaland for the Gorkhas?’
If a statehood is given to the Gorkhas, he believes that it will help them in every aspect of development right from curbing the problem of unemployment to better infrastructures for the region thus helping both the land and its people.
The neighboring state of Sikkim has shown complete solidarity with the Gorkhaland movement. There have been silent protests held by different organizations every other day including the students and faculty from Sikkim University, OMAS (Organization for Musicians and Artistes), various government departments, and several NGOs, who’ve come forward for the cause of the Gorkhas. On the flipside, this movement has caused a string of inconveniences for both the residents of Sikkim and tourists visiting the state. The NH10, the only national highway which connects the state of Sikkim from the rest of India, has been witnessing chaos and bandhs every now and then. The national highway rarely sees any vehicular movement since the Gorkhaland issue gained momentum. However Sikkim has not faced a complete isolation. The reason being, the state run buses are allowed to commute sometimes on a daily basis and sometimes on alternate days. This small act has been a boon for the people who need to travel both for official purposes and for the students who are studying elsewhere in the country or abroad. Conversely, these state run buses also is not completely safe. Everyday reports come in stating the news that sometimes these buses get vandalized on the way by the mobs or any vehicle bearing Sikkim number plates get attacked. Students studying in Siliguri get harassed by the Bengalis there on the issue of Gorkhaland.
Privat Giri, a scholar in Sikkim University from Darjeeling says, it is unfair that even though loads of funds are received by the state govt from the center, yet Darjeeling remains ignored. He says “we do not have a University of our own and that’s why we have to come here or study in NBU (North Bengal University)”. He feels that now the people are educated and they know what they’re fighting for so there might be some changes in the administration towards the cause contradictory to the past where the mass had been lead blindly into something that did not materialize into anything. He says that there’s no point in aspiring to do something great since hardly they get any opportunity under the West Bengal government. He has a lot of friends from Sikkim and he feels that the Sikkimese people are lucky in every sense since they do not have to live a life fighting for their rights on an almost everyday basis.
With people from all over coming together for this cause, one can only ponder if the demand for Gorkhaland is a seeming reality or still a distant dream.