It is the story of every election in West Bengal: Darjeeling demanding Gorkhaland, a separate hill state, partitioned from the plains of Bengal. And it is the same as it votes on Sunday in the West Bengal Assembly elections.
Political demands are always contested, but it is true that the Darjeeling region was never politically a part of Bengal in any form. It was annexed by the British Raj in 1850, taken from an exceedingly weak Sikkim, a princely state itself annexed by India in 1975. Bundled into the Bengal presidency by the British, Darjeeling has remained in Bengal even after 1947. This is even after the 1955 States Reorganisation Committee had successfully arranged Indian states according to language. Nepali-speaking Darjeeling district, therefore, is an incongruous part of Bangla-speaking West Bengal.
Amar Singh Rai, the Darjeeling constituency candidate for the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha is clear that the demand for Gorkhaland is based on ethnic identity. “We want a homeland for ourselves – for our own identity,” he said. “Although we are bona fide Indian citizens, we are still called ‘Nepali’. To get rid of the stigma we feel it’s essential that we have our own state.”
The Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha is the largest party in Darjeeling and it campaigns on almost a single-point agenda: the creation of a Gorkhaland state. The popularity of the Gorkhaland demand can be seen from the fact that in the 2011 Assembly elections, the GJM picked up 79% of all votes caste across the three constituencies in Darjeeling district. In Darjeeling town, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), widely seen as a Bengali party in the hills, received all of 3.5% of the votes cast.
Rai alleges that there is ethnic discrimination at play here, with the hills being ignored by the Kolkta's Bengali rulers. “Gorkhaland is a right of self-determination for us since West Bengal is oblivious to us,” Rai charged. “They don’t care about the tea industry or the rights of the tea garden workers.”
Support for Gorkhaland is starkly visible across Darjeeling town. Stores invariably list their address as “Gorkhaland” rather than the “West Bengal” it officially is.
Anup Chhetri sells winter wear in the busy Chowk Bazar area of Darjeeling town and is clear in his support for a new state. “We who live here need to decide what will happen with our land,” he argued. “How can people sitting in Kolkata or Delhi decide things about our home?”
Pie in the sky
In spite of this fervour, the Gorkhaland demand is now widely seen as a pipe dream. The demand has existed in some form or the other for a century now, culminating in a violent agitation in the 1980s led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front. The agitation led to the creation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a local government body to which the state government transferred some administrative powers. A 2007 agitation led by a new party and current incumbent, the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha, led to the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, with its powers expanded vis-à-vis the earlier Hill Council.
The revenue from the tea and tourism industry, though, means that Kolkata is extremely reluctant to let go of Darjeeling completely. And while the final decision to create a new state rests with the Union government – and not West Bengal – given the tiny population of Darjeeling, no ruling party in Delhi would wish to antagonise Kolkata. The political trade-off in terms of support from Darjeeling is simply too small.
Cracks in Gorkhaland
Recognising this ground politics at play, critics of the all-or-nothing demand for Gorkhaland have also emerged. From the Kalimpong constituency, the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha is being opposed by Harka Bahadur Chettri, who broke away from the GJM in 2015, complaining that their voluble demand for Gorkhaland was simply a ploy to garner votes and one that was actually harming the development of the region.
This is not the only dissension at play. During her term as chief minister, Mamata Banerjee created multiple “development boards” aimed at specific minority ethnicities, other than the majority Gorkhas – a move that Amar Singh Rai angrily characterised as a “policy of divide and rule”. In the past five years, Kolkata has formed six boards for the Lepcha, Tamang, Rai, Sherpa, Bhutia and Mangar communities. Even the Trinamool candidate from Siliguri town, another Gorkha-Bengali contested space, is a Bhutia – India’s best-know footballer, Baichung Bhutia.
These ground realities mean that no matter the fervour on the ground and its use as a vote catcher, the creation of an actual Gorkha state seems quite unlikely.