The Himalayas in and around Darjeeling and Kalimpong and down to Siliguri are in turmoil, several protesters have been killed and many police and protesters injured. Government offices have been set ablaze and police cars burnt.
In its demand for a separate Gorkhaland, the main political party, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), has organized mass marches on government buildings, its leader’s home has been raided and the West Bengal government has closed down access to the internet.
To find the root of the “Gorkhaland” unrest in West Bengal, one has to go back in history.
Prior to the Treaty of Sugauli between the Kingdom of Nepal and the British East India Company in 1816, Nepal embraced most of the territory east of Nepal including Sikkim as far as the western border of Bhutan including Darjeeling (Tibetan Dorji-ling).
It also extended east, encompassing Gharwal and Kumaon almost to the border of Kashmir. The Anglo-Nepal war that started in 1814 ended with the capitulation of the Gorkha Kingdom and a peace treaty that deprived Nepal of about one-third of its territory, including what was designated the Darjeeling District of West Bengal.
As is so often the case, arbitrary political boundaries do not reflect the ethnic status of the people living within them but they sow the seeds of potential social unrest and ethnic conflict. Thus the Third Reich’s annexation of the Sudetenland and Russia’s seizure of the Crimea.
And so it came to pass that the Darjeeling District, from the Chumbi valley in the north down to Siliguri in the south, which passed into British Indian hands, was predominantly populated by ethnic Nepalese.
Since Indian independence in 1947, the district was swept into the majority Bengali state of West Bengal and governed from Calcutta.
Padma Shumsher Rana
A historical curiosity needs to be mentioned. When the British were preparing for Indian independence, the then viceroy Lord Mountbatten offered to return to Nepal the territories ceded under the Sugauli Treaty. Sadly, for purely selfish reasons the then maharajah of Nepal, Padma Shumsher Rana, declined the offer. His fear was that the better educated Nepalese in those territories would foment a revolution to end his family’s feudal autocracy.
It is a bitter irony that this greedy myopia only bought the Ranas another five years but it subjugated the Nepalese inhabitants of the Darjeeling District to rule by the Bengalis.
West Bengal’s Nepalese struggled under the Bengali yoke. Indian federal legislation passed to discriminate positively in favor of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes – to which the Nepalese did not belong – meant that when it came to employment, the Nepalese were last in line.
This had the effect of making the Nepalese a social and economic underclass, statutorily relegated to the most menial jobs.
Growing dissatisfaction with this unjust situation led to armed rebellion and guerrilla warfare in the 1980s. Eventually, New Delhi condescended to the creation of the Gurkha Hill Council. This was a third-rate form of localized self-government, barely more than a parish council.
Other than restoring peace to this stunningly beautiful part of the world, it did little to improve the lot of the ethnic Nepalese. Bengali rule continued to rankle with them. The Bengalis are a gifted race; under the British Raj they formed the critical bureaucratic mass. But their gifts are matched by their propensity to infuriate.
Matters came to a head when, with extraordinary insensitivity even by West Bengal’s infamous standards, Mamata Bannerjee, the chief minister, decreed that everyone, regardless of ethnicity, must be educated via Bengali as the lingua franca. It was akin to Beijing decreeing that the medium of education in Hong Kong should be Putonghua only.
Gorkhaland in India
Only a crassly ignorant politician would have failed to anticipate a violent reaction by the Nepalese and Banerjee rescinded the order. But the independence genes have been released and the oppressed Nepalese, through the GJM, are now demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland within the Indian Union.
Carving a new state out of an existing one is a discretion within the gift of the president of India
Carving a new state out of an existing one is a discretion within the gift of the president of India. It was last exercised in June 2014 with the creation of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh.
There is growing recognition of the administrative and economic advantages of delegating vast tracts of government down to manageable and comprehensible sub-legislatures, especially where there is a defined ethnic/linguistic community.
Opponents of the movement argue that granting statehood to the area’s indigenous population of 1.25 million when measured against India’s population in excess of 1.3 billion does not merit consideration.
Yet, set against the cost of policing aggravated social unrest that disturbs the contribution of tourism and tea plantations to the economy and renders even more complex manning the critical border with China, it would be plainly cost-effective.
Considered historically, culturally, linguistically and socially, long overdue recognition of the not unreasonable demands of the indigenous Nepalese population in this corner of West Bengal by granting Gorkhaland autonomy would surely be an equitable resolution to improve their lives.
After decades of discriminatory treatment, the Nepalese population indigenous to this unique region centered on the “Queen of hill stations” deserves the opportunity to achieve the dignity that would come with a practical measure of autonomy.
But once the genie of protest is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back, especially once it waxes violent. Violence, whether against people or property, is no substitute for reasoned argument. Ironically, all too often it only harms the poor. If the GJM want to be taken seriously, especially by a hard-headed leader like Narendra Modi, it must moderate its tactics, otherwise it will all end in tears.