GORKHALAND : One Hundred and more years of servitude

After theseuncountable days of complete shutdown it is becoming very clear that the script that has played out for more than a century is not due for any new interpretation. The imminent hour of compromise and betrayal is upon the hill people as the opportunistic and spineless Gorkha “leadership” is making overtures towards the West Bengal government, with their begging bowls lined with thick layers of opportunism and greed. Once again, a telltale picture is emerging wherein the hill public has been used as political bait in this game of profit and self-interest of the Gorkha leadership. The hapless hill people are hooked by their noses as they are coerced to yield in whatever direction the shallow and weak leaders point them towards. The hill people have been completely run down in this political drama as they have been cornered into a readymade wall after the long drawn-out strike called upon by a shaky consortium of hill political parties. They have been stretched to the breaking point, months without proper supply of necessities, internet and cellular networks, harassment from the state police and para-military forces. All this had been done for the benefit of power formations at the centre, the state and the hills. They know that a broken janta will not look beyond a quest for a return to normalcy and peace as sudden bomb blasts around Darjeeling become an added factor in a push for a quick resolution of the crisis. For a hungry public the larger issue of Gorkhaland will be but a mirage as hostages cannot make demands at gunpoint. The tables have turned all thanks to a ruthless political dispensation in the hills and their strategically blind supporters who are present in every form and forum on Gorkhaland, flashing their one-dimensional view of Gorkha-ness and Gorkahaland and castigating anyone found to be wanting in the blind trust towards such “leaders” who are ready to lead the people from the back. Thus, what the unveiling so far has revealed is that we, the Gorkha public were never in the driver’s seat, to begin with we were already companionable hostages. Since the mid of the 19th century the hills of Darjeeling have been embedded and engulfed in the myriad power struggles between empires. It is through such struggles that the identity of the region and its people has been structured. This relationship between the master class and the subservient groups and communities has been and still is the defining feature of hill society. The servile attitude of the hill leaders in their dealing with the state and central governments has led to the gradual erosion of any political and cultural cache the hill communities might have had in the past in their relation with the state and centre. Such obsequious gestures have only served to denude the hill people of their power and self-respect while emboldening the state government to further exploit and humiliate us. Further, the glorification of martial identity has itself become part of their subjection and subjugation as the overall discourse defining the contours of such identity has been flawed since the colonial period.

Since its colonial usurpation in 1835, Darjeeling has been transformed from lonely hillocks sparsely populated into a pristine landscape within the colonial imagination. This was further aided by the growth and perpetuation of tea plantations in hills since the mid of the 19th century. The history of the region is thus embedded in the colonial and the global matrix of colonial and capitalist accumulation. Seeped into the colonial state matrix and the global forces of capitalism the region soon turned into a bustling township inviting ethnic groups from different regions to settle and perpetuate themselves in the vicinity. Following the colonial policy to recruit ethnic groups of Nepali origin to settle in the region a viable Nepali community thus developed in Darjeeling. Aided by the colonial education system the growing middle class in Darjeeling hills raised many concerns and protests over the deplorable conditions of hill communities. Significant in this regard is the voice raised by the hill leaders from the turn of the 20th century to carve a separate administrative set-up for Darjeeling outside the administration of Bengal. In 1907 an appeal was made by the hill leader to create a separate administrative set-up for Darjeeling. Such demands were premised on the fact that the hill population felt subjugated and discriminated from the Bengali population of the plains. Citing the case of cultural/geographical/linguistic difference hill leaders periodically demanded separation of hills from the administrative set-up of Bengal in years 1919, 1924, 1930 and 1934 in the pre-Independence era. Given such demands Darjeeling was categorized as backward tract, scheduled district, excluded and partially excluded areas during the colonial period. The changing discourse and contours of state power from colonial to postcolonial period have subjugated people of Darjeeling to new forms of power, while at the same time made them celebrate the terms of their subjugation. The apprehension of joining the West Bengal state was such that the leaders of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha league on the eve of Indian Independence gave a clarion call for the inclusion of Darjeeling hills in the State of Assam. Along with demands for the formation of a state called Uttarakhand comprising Cooch Behar, and the hills of Darjeeling was also proposed during 1940’s. Despite these concerns Darjeeling was included in the state of West Bengal, thus creating a ground for the perpetuation of discrimination and exclusion.

Historically the region is defined by utter neglect from both the colonial and post-colonial governments. Along with it the quasi-constitutional settlements in the forms of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988, and Gorkhaland Territorial administration (GTA) in 2011 have only exacerbated the process of satiating the aspiration of a class of people, especially the ruling elites and members of political party in power in Darjeeling. The real benefits which the hill people deserve and the long cherished dream which they aspire for is long waited. Since independence the Bengali intelligentsia exerted tremendous pressure in structuring the profile of the district through administrative mechanism. Along with it the economy of the hills, the tea plantations was also taken over by leading business houses of India. The perpetuation of this neo-colonial situation was facilitated by the twin forces of capitalism and state power. This form of neo-colonial loot has left the tea garden workers in impoverished and diseased conditions as they struggle to maintain a livelihood on not more than Rs. 90 per day. Such marginalized and peripheral existence of the hill people have time and again prompted the hill leaders to take up the cause of separate statehood for the hills.

Ever since the first demand we have covered a long journey of a hundred years of servitude while trying to justify our ontological presence through the narrative of nationalism and martial identity. Delayed by time and history, denied by the administrative and political debacles, the Gorkhaland movement today presents a watershed in the long march to break the shackles of servitude so long witnessed and tolerated by the hill masses. The recent manifestation of the movement has made it evident the brutal and racist character of state machinery. The ways in which citizens from both Darjeeling/Kalimpong and also Sikkim are manhandled at Siliguri is a specific manifestation of this phenomenon. From its very core the paradigm of governance adopted by the state and the central government in the case of Darjeeling is exclusionary in nature, as it tries to shift the focus from core issues that plague the hill society. The way the state has tried to manipulate the ethnic formations in the hills through constitution of development board for ethnic groups have fractured the ethnic solidarity in Darjeeling. Despite these developments, the current movement underway in hills exhibits a form of collective mobilization to achieve the historical demand of the people. The current wave of mobilization is coordinated by the alliance of political parties under the banner of Gorkhaland Movement Co-ordination Committee (GMCC), yet, the waves of protest in hills shows a larger public character of mobilization. Rather than being a party based mobilization, the current upsurge is truly characteristic of a people’s movement to achieve their and their forefather’s dreams. What is needed now is a leader or leaders from amidst the people themselves for the movement to truly become a people’s movement. The hundred and more years of subjugation can only end with the people taking active control of the movement and realizing their dreams and aspiration through their concerted effort. In this regard the current mobilization has the manifest qualities. However, the ruthless tactics adopted by the state to curtail active mobilization is condemnable. The servile and docile condition of the people in the hills has been exploited by the successive governments from the colonial to the post-colonial period. Indeed the liminal charter of hills in the administrative set-up of the hill is produced and maintained through the nexus of government elites, the capitalists’ interest and the general reluctance on the part of mainstream Indian press/media and the people at larger to accept the denizens of Darjeeling as fellow citizens.

Beyond the romanticism of mass mobilization, we also have to look and consider the downside of such struggles which are accompanied by long stretches of strike and bandhs in the hills. Such conditions have structured the response of the people on various aspects of social life. As the hill parties again make a bid to sit down for talks with an inflexible state government who has made it very clear that they will never aid in the creation of Gorkhaland, such a futile exercise can only mean that a compromise of hill people’s future is underway since the recent delegation which met the Home minister in Delhi on 12th August also failed to gain something substantive. The same cycle has been repeated again whereby the core issue is sidelined following the directives of the center, state and the regional leaders.

The recent developments in the hills following the bipartite meeting between the state and the hill leaders on 29th August 2017 shows the complacency of the situation and also brings to relief the inherent contradiction of hills politics and its leadership. The rift created within the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leadership between Bimal Gurung and Binay Tamang which came into focus after the meeting with state government has created a confused situation in the hills. With the relentless appeal by Binay Tamang to lift the seventy and more days of bandhs and the strong opposition to such appeals by the GJM chief has created a political conundrum in the hills. Unlike mid 1980’s the present nature of bandhs is significantly different both in terms of its temporal and political character. Firstly, it has well exceeded the 40 days bandhs called during the leadership of Subhash Ghising, and secondly, the array of voices raised both for and against the bandhs presents before us a different picture from the time of first phase of Gorkhaland movement. Without a well-organized political strategy the bandh has itself become the embodiment of Gorkhaland agitation, any voice against the bandh is considered to be a statement against GJM and thereby against Gorkhaland. It is high time now that people realize the impact of bandh on hill people, especially those residing in rural and remote areas; or those earning their everyday livelihood through daily wage labour. For this section the bandh has created havoc. It is time for the leaders and the people to think of a different strategy to carry forward this movement. Significantly, given the present predicaments the intellectuals and the leaders of the hills should seek legal remedies for the gross violation of constitutional and legal norms; be it the raids conducted in the territory of Sikkim by the West Bengal police in plainclothes without valid documents in which eleven leaders of the hills were arrested or the recent killings of Dawa Bhutia and Ramala Rai in the Darjeeling skirmish. Both situations call into question the way West Bengal Government is treating the hill denizens of Sikkim and Darjeeling hills. The silence of the central government in this matter is also highly condemnable. The political tragedy on the part of the hill public to put their blind trust in Bimal Gurung and his party, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJMM) as they feted support to S.S. Ahluwalia of the BJP as M.P. candidate from the hills in the last elections is further proving inimical to the Gorkhaland movement. The M.P. and his party have conveniently washed their hands off the Gorkhaland issue or rather wiped their hands on it and discarded it without due ceremony confident in the knowledge that this action won’t warrant any backlash from a subjugated people kept in line by their own compromised leaders. This deplorable and gory picture reinforces the situation of servitude, which is historically structured and augmented by political processes. Time and again the same brand of sellout netas have manipulated people’s emotions and faith in Gorkhaland for their own gains and we have been or made mute witnesses to their avarice, cowardice and bullying. Without able leadership it is unimaginable to see the movements to its logical conclusion as this servile situation continues and will continue sadly to define the future of the hill society.

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Dr Nilamber Chhetri teaches Sociology at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. His PhD thesis titled ‘The Gorkhas and the Politics of Ethnic Renewal: Social Constitution of Identities in Darjeeling’, submitted to Jawaharlal Nehru University examines the growth and proliferation of ethnic associations in the Darjeeling hills and their demands for recognition as scheduled tribes. His research interests include- Politics of Social and Cultural Identities, Scheduling of Tribes and Practices of State Classification in India, and issues related to ethnic minorities and the politics of recognition in South Asia. Agastaya Thapa, is currently working on a project with the A.I.I.S. - A.R.C.E., Gurgaon as a data cataloguer. She has completed her Ph.D on tourist art and colonial ethnology at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Visual Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests include colonial visual culture, photography, popular paintings and prints, Eastern Himalayan history and ethnic movements

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