The hills of West Bengal are in ferment again as the third movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland for Nepali speakers gathers force. The present agitation was set off last fortnight by a West Bengal government decision to make the teaching of Bengali in schools compulsory across the state. Although Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was quick to backtrack on the decision after initial protests and clarify that it would not apply to the hills, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the largest party in Darjeeling, had already kicked off its statehood movement.
Scroll.in spoke to Amar Singh Rai, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha MLA from Darjeeling, about why he thinks Gorkhaland should be carved out from Bengal, and on the reasons he is disappointed both with the Mamata Banerjee government as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre.
Although the decision to make Bengali compulsory in schools was withdrawn for the hills, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha still went ahead with its protest on June 8. Why do you think Bengali is being imposed on the hills?
Our president [Bimal Gurung] had made it very clear on June 8, that when the [West Bengal] cabinet meeting was being held at Raj Bhawan [in Kolkata], a resolution be adopted and a written statement be given that Bengali would not be compulsory but would be an optional subject. Now, when that was not done, it was taken for granted that what the chief minister said at Mirik [that Bengali will not be compulsory in the hills] had no relevance. The people were not happy with this. This is why the issue escalated. Had a written statement been given then I do not think violence would have erupted on June 8.
Before this decision, do you think there are any other examples of what you think is Bengali cultural imposition?
When I was a student, Bengali was always an optional subject and that is the situation even today. When the GJM [Gorkha Janmukti Morcha] MLAs met the West Bengal Speaker, our main point was, “maintain the status quo”. If it is optional, let it be optional. Why go ahead and say that the third language has to be Bengali? That irritated and aggravated the whole situation.
And you know, there has always been Bengal’s hegemony over the hills. If you look at history, it has always been there. So after this incident, we said, this far but no further. We are not going to take it anymore.
Till now, the Bharatiya Janata Party, your ally and ruling party at the Centre, has not come out in support of Gorkhaland. Given that the Centre has the power to create new states, would you be expecting the BJP to act?
We know that the state unit of the BJP will never support a demand for Gorkhaland. This is because the BJP has today become a major factor in West Bengal politics while earlier it was non-existent. The BJP knows that if it supports a separate state of Gorkhaland, it will become a non-entity in Bengal,
But then, we have always believed in the Centre. We have trusted the Centre under the National Democratic Alliance because it believed in the creation of smaller states. When the National Democratic Alliance was in power [1998-’04], it created three states. With that hope we have always thought the BJP would support our cause. That is why since the time of Jaswant Singh [former Darjeeling MP] and now SS Ahluwalia [current Darjeeling MP], we supported the BJP, with this hope, trust and faith that they would definitely look into our demand of creating a separate state. Because the BJP believes in smaller states and it believes that there is no harm in a federal system if there are more states or units.
You mentioned your MP, SS Ahluwalia. Are you disappointed that he is not here in Darjeeling with you?
Yes, we are disappointed. Him being here would have given us a morale boost. But then he was leading a delegation to a foreign state. But he is definitely busy with the issue of Gorkhaland and what is happening in Darjeeling. He is busy over there [New Delhi] and is doing whatever he can for our cause. [The reason]...I ask him to be here is because as the people’s representative, the people question us: where is our MP? What answer do I give as an MLA? So because of that, we were disappointed. But then I suppose we cannot deny the fact that he is doing something for our cause at the Centre also.
Why is the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha ruling out talks with the West Bengal government? If not via talks, how do you propose a way ahead?
Yes, we have made it clear that there will be no talks. That is why we decided to not attend Thursday’s all-party meeting. In this 110-year-old demand [for Gorkhaland], where we have faltered all along is that we have not been assertive enough. Even though the ’80s movement under Mr Subhash Ghising was so strong, so powerful, ultimately, we sidelined the demand and accepted the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.
Now when Bimal Gurung came into prominence in 2007, he raised the demand for Gorkhaland once again. We had 13 tri-party meetings with the then United Progressive Alliance government. And we were given to understand that the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration would be some sort of an interim arrangement. That the Centre would seriously look into our demand for a separate state. So on that plea, we accepted to go ahead and tried to run the GTA [Gorkhaland Territorial Administration]. But that did not happen. I think the GTA has been a total failure. Not because the people here could not run it, but because of state interference. West Bengal did not seriously adhere to the letter and spirit of the GTA Act. They did not transfer all the 59 subjects [such as the transfer of control of key departments such as land and revenue to the GTA, as laid out in the memorandum of understanding signed during the tripartite talks]. The main subjects were not transferred. Even tea gardens has not been transferred.
The last two movements for Gorkhaland ended after devolution of power to bodies such as the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration and Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. Would this movement also be satisfied with this sort of devolution? Or is it Gorkhaland or nothing?
Yes, this time it is Gorkhaland or nothing. We have realised a hill administration is never going to work. At the end of the day, the state is running this area via the District Magistrate and the police administration. At the same time, you have the GTA [Gorkhaland Territorial Administration]. So for the people, it is very confusing. Do they owe the allegiance to GTA or to the state administration representatives like the DM [District Magistrate] or the police? It is very confusing. That is why it has to be clear-cut. I do not think this dual system will ever work.
Do you think your bandh is causing a disruption in the hill economy? After two major movements for Gorkhaland, will this result in fatigue amongst the population?
Not at all – we are getting a stronger response from the people. Now the people have realised that it is a question of do or die. We are not going to settle for anything less than Gorkhaland. The people have realised this. They feel that their identity can be protected only if they have their own state. Because even till now, we are still being called foreigners, outsiders and immigrants. On social media, people say, “these people are from Nepal, they should be thrown out. Let them go to Nepal and ask for their own state there. Why have they come to Bengal?” So this has really hurt the sentiments of the people.
We are being called insurgents, extremists and terrorists by the chief minister. We are the ones who guard the borders, we are the ones who combat the terrorists and the extremists – calling us terrorists is too much. People are realising all this. The West Bengal government has always followed this policy of divide and rule. They have created so many boards [for ethnic minorities in the hills such as the indigenous Lepchas]. Even the board people have realised the game plan of the Trinamool Congress. So now, many of them are resigning. Ultimately, the Trinamool will be totally wiped out from hills.
The Trinamool Congress claims that your current movement was inspired by its foray into the hills rather than a principled demand for Gorkhaland. How would you respond?
No, no. So many board members have now resigned. Today, it has become a people’s movement. Under these circumstances, these boards cannot exist.
Is this a weakness in the Gorkha movement? The fact that these boards and divisions exists?
The government has been misinformed by local leaders and even the intelligence agencies. Just because the Trinamool vote share has increased, and it won the municipality in Mirik, they thought they had made inroads into the hills. That was the main intention of the Trinamool Congress. But they should realise that the reason they have made inroads is not because the people support the Trinamool, it is because of the fact that they got the votes for the different boards. That is the reason. In Darjeeling, if you want to count the number of Trinamool supporters, you can count them on your fingers. They have no presence here. Their vote share increased because the boards were directed to cast their votes in favour of the Trinamool.