Trouble in the Hills

What does the Gorkhaland movement mean for West Bengal and Indian federalism? Garga Chatterjee examines the dispute and recent violence

Trouble in the Hills
The political demand for the Gorkhaland state to be carved out of West Bengal is back on the streets of the Darjeeling hills. The period of apparently peaceful coexistence between the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) – led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha – and the West Bengal government seems to be over, for now. When the West Bengal government ordered a financial audit of the GTA during its Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling to look into financial transactions, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha raised the issue of separate Gorkhaland state again. The official reason was that Bangla was made a mandatory language in schools of West Bengal, though Mamata Banerjee has since clarified that this does not apply to the Darjeeling hills. There was Kashmir-style stone throwing and extensive damage and arson of government properties including police posts, government vehicles, private vehicles, panchayat offices and so on. The West Bengal government responded in an extremely unfortunate “law and order” maintenance mode by deploying security forces, which has resulted in multiple deaths of Gorkhaland protesters. The impasse is still on – amidst some hope of talk and negotiations.

There is an immediate political context to this. Gorkha parties have for long dominated the politics of the Darjeeling hills. In the past couple of years, the Trinamool Congress has been making some limited inroads in the area. In the 2016 West Bengal assembly election, it increased its vote percentage all across the Darjeeling hills, though the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha still has huge dominance. Then, earlier this year, in the municipal elections to the four municipalities, the Trinamool got another boost when it actually won Mirik, one of the four municipalities and got the kind of vote percentage elsewhere in the hills that is rarely associated with a “Bengali” party. However, this limited success of the Trinamool was not based on some Bengali resurgence in the hills but by Trinamool’s consolidation of non-Gorkha/Nepali hill groups like Lepchas, Bhutias, etc. This brought home the fact that there was more to the Darjeeling hills than Gorkhas/Nepalis. This happened in May 2017. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha protests started next month, in June 2017.

The West Bengal administration has spoken of links between the Gorkhaland demand and 'cross-border terrorism'

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted on the 18th of June: “In a democracy like India resorting to violence would never help in finding a solution. Every issue can be resolved through mutual dialogue. All concerned parties and stakeholders should resolve their differences and misunderstandings through dialogue in amicable environment”. This is an extraordinary statement coming from a person who called for no such “mutual dialogue” when protesting stone-pelting crowds in Kashmir were met with much greater state violence.  Also, by making a comment on what stakeholders ‘should’ do, he is in effect saying what the West Bengal government ‘should’ do. Law and order is a State subject in the same constitution under which he is the Union Home Minister. Has the West Bengal government asked for advice on what it ‘should’ do? No. Such apparently ‘innocuous’ encroachments in State government affairs either show, at best, a lack of knowledge about the federal structure; or at worst, a lack of respect for the federal structure.

Mamata Banerjee has already announced that Bangla will be optional in the Darjeeling hills. In spite of this, Delhi media houses have been repeatedly misrepresenting this issue. In stark contrast to this, Kolkata-based media, that works more on facts on Bengal and less of nostalgia and hear-say about a land they don’t inhabit anymore, has clearly pointed this out. Perhaps Delhi took Mamata Banerjee’s declaration of Bangla as being optional in the Darjeeling hills in the spirit of the Union government’s Aadhar “optional” declaration because in New-Delhi-speak, optional Aadhar means mandatory Aadhar. West Bengal happens to be a state whose own education board offers the largest number of languages as a medium for school education: Nepali, Santhali, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English.  These are schools which are funded solely by the West Bengal government. The state also has six more secondary official languages apart from Bangla, the state’s official language. Any language spoken by more than 10% people of a district is accorded that status in West Bengal – something unparalleled in the Indian Union and something unthinkable for the Hindi-imposing Union government at Delhi. The Anglo-Hindi yuppiedom that wrings its hands at the supposed Bangla imposition tends to mysteriously forget that in CBSE schools run by the Union government’s MHRD, there is no option for a Bengali to study in Bangla medium or a Gorkha/Nepali to study in Nepali medium.
If West Bengal does not agree with the demand, the Centre can still form a Gorkhaland state

Reorganisation of states in the Indian Union has primarily happened along the axis of language – hence the term ‘linguistic reorganisation of states’. Let us not forget that West Bengal is fully within its rights to make Bangla mandatory in its territorial limits because it is a linguistic state. Let us also not forget that the Indian Union has no right to make Hindi mandatory in its territorial limits because it is not a Hindi linguistic nation, unlike West Bengal, which is a Bengali linguistic state.

One also needs to examine the central issue here – the Gorkhaland state demand. The right of self-determination can include being a sovereign nation, or in the Indian Union context, a linguistic state or partially autonomous entities to which some powers are devolved within a state. No other linguistic group has the right to dictate to any other linguistic group what the limits of its autonomy aspirations ought to be. In fact, before Partition in 1947, there was the demand for Gorkhasthan, an independent nation comprising of present day Nepal, Darjeeling hills and Sikkim. Using the Darjeeling hills as its base, the Indian Union sponsored Nepalis to organise protests in the independent kingdom of Sikkim, thus creating the pretext that New Delhi needed to unilaterally swallow an independent entity. Indian Union citizens do not remember this chapter because Indian nationalism airbrushes such affairs out of its history but the Indian Union’s neighbours – Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh – remember it very well.

The present demand is for a Gorkhaland state within the Indian Union.  Constitutionally, can the West Bengal government veto the formation of a Gorkhaland state? No. Does the West Bengal government need to agree to the division of its territory in order for the Gorkhaland state to be formed? No. Then why are demands for the granting of Gorkhaland state being pursued in the form of protests against the West Bengal government? Only the forces demanding a Gorkhaland state can answer this.

In the Indian Union constitution, the power to make new states rests solely with the Centre. If West Bengal does not agree with the demand, the Centre can still form a Gorkhaland state. If the West Bengal assembly opposes the demand or does not even take it up for discussion, even then, the Centre can go ahead and form the Gorkhaland state. The Union government is led by the BJP, which enjoys an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supported the BJP candidate S. S. Ahluwalia – he is the one who represents Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha at present. The BJP’s national manifesto voices support for the Gorkhaland state demand. The BJP’s Hill Committee has taken part in the present protests with the BJP flag. So, if anyone stands between the actualisation of the Gorkhaland state demand and its supporters in the Darjeeling hills, it is the BJP-dominated Union government.

In this whole fiasco, the West Bengal branch of the BJP is playing a most dubious role. In Kolkata, it maintains that it is against the Gorkhaland state demand. When S. S. Ahluwalia – the BJP MP from West Bengal – openly supports Gorkhaland, it does not protest. When BJP’s Hill Committee leaders march with BJP flags in support of Gorkhaland, its affiliated branch, the West Bengal BJP, does not protest. Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s leaders come down to Kolkata to consult with West Bengal BJP leaders. When BJP’s national manifesto supports the demand, the West Bengal BJP does not say that it opposes its party’s national manifesto, while taking people for a ride when it still maintains that it is against Gorkhaland. West Bengal BJP probably thinks that this speaking in one voice in Kolkata and another voice in Darjeeling is something that the people of West Bengal cannot see through. What it fears is the decimation of the BJP in West Bengal if the Gorkhaland state is granted by the Centre. The fact that the BJP’s national manifesto supports the Gorkhaland demand shows how irrelevant West Bengal is to the BJP’s national leadership’s political calculations.

Finally, one factor that can never be forgotten in any issue that concerns the Darjeeling hills is its geopolitical location. When Mamata Banerjee made allegations (without offering much proof as is sadly the case for all such allegations) about cross-border terrorist/insurgent links of some Gorkha outfits, what came into focus was a strange reality. In West Bengal, Bengali-speakers from the other Bengal cannot enter freely and the whole border is fenced, while in the same West Bengal, Nepali speakers from Nepal can enter West Bengal freely. This is odd indeed and goes against the interests of the state of West Bengal. This cross-migration from Nepal is an issue that anti-Gorkhaland forces of West Bengal have been using to show – with some but not fully convincing justification – that the Gorkha dominance of Darjeeling is a result of migration from Nepal.

As far as West Bengal is concerned, the Nepal border is an international border just like the Bangladesh border. Now, if “national security” is the issue and double standards are to be avoided, then the former ought to be sealed just like the latter!

Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at