On June 20, just before Union minister Kiren Rijiju arrived in Gangtok, to lead Yoga Day celebrations the next day, over 6,000 people marched in the city for Gorkhaland. In the small state of Sikkim, that is quite a gathering. It was, indeed, larger than the 1975 demonstrations demanding Sikkim’s merger with India.
The next day, soon after the Yoga show, Rijiju received a delegation of local Gorkha leaders. They echoed what Bimal Gurung, leader of the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha, headquartered in Darjeeling in neighbouring West Bengal, has been saying: that the only way to restore peace and deliver justice to the Gorkha people is the creation of Gorkhaland.
This has for long been the GJMM’s stance. The party stuck to this position even when it signed an agreement with the central and Bengal governments to set up the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in July 2011, replacing the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council established in 1988. That day, as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared that West Bengal will not be divided, Gurung said “she has her own political compulsions and we have ours.”
Still, after the deal, the GJMM and Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress appeared to get along well. The ruling party did not contest the first election to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2012, leaving Gurung’s party to sweep to victory, taking all 45 elected seats. Gurung hailed the arrangement as a “milestone to a Gorkhaland state”.
Since then, however, the two parties have drifted apart. The rift has only widened as the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration nears the end of its first term on August 3. The GJMM has now declared this governance arrangement cannot work and a separate state is the only way to redress the Gorkhas’ grievances and safeguard their identity, language and interests in accordance with the Constitution.
The Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling Hills have long dreamed of a separate state. They, in fact, believe it has been denied them fraudulently. The original sin, so to say, was committed when the ruling elite of Bengal gave fudged demographic data to the States Reorganisation Commission in the 1950s. They ensured that a number of communities were not classified as Scheduled Tribes, thereby foreclosing the possibility of the Hills being declared autonomous under the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule. Successive regimes in Kolkata then did everything in their power to keep Darjeeling Hills in West Bengal. In 1988 and 2012, this was done by fabricating, respectively, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in a manner that they became agencies under the Bengal government rather than autonomous Constitutional bodies.
Coming to a boil
This is the context in which two policy decisions announced by Banerjee’s government in May-June 2017 became immediate triggers for the ongoing agitation.
On May 16, the state made the teaching of Bengali compulsory in all schools up to Class 10. Alongside, the children have to choose any two from a basket of languages – Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Nepali, Santhali and English. It was Banerjee’s response to the Narendra Modi regime making the teaching of Hindi compulsory in schools affiliated to the Central Board of School Education.
The second announcement came on June 6. The Trinamool had just wrested Mirik municipality from the GJMM in the civic polls in May. Visiting Mirik after the victory, Banerjee said a special audit of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration’s funds (adding up to Rs 1,500 crore) would be done. On June 9, officials of the West Bengal Audit and Accounts Service reached Darjeeling to do the audit. They were given 10 days to complete the job. Unsurprisingly, the GJMM was outraged and mobilised people for an agitation.
Barking up the wrong tree
Perhaps the outrage, if it is really informed by the desire for statehood, is misdirected. If it so wills, the Modi regime can easily lay the groundwork for creating Gorkhaland. For a new state to be created, Article 3(a) of the Constitution calls for the introduction of a Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament. On the recommendation of the president, the Bill can be sent to the legislatures of states whose boundaries or names may be affected by the reorganisation for their views. These views are not binding on Parliament.
So, all that is needed to realise Gorkhaland is for the NDA government to pass a Constitutional Amendment Bill in Parliament. The amendment will stand even if the West Bengal Assembly rejects the Bill as laid down by the Supreme Court in the State of Punjab v Balbir.
The GJMM is part of the NDA and SS Ahluwalia of the BJP is the MP from Darjeeling. What, then, is preventing the legitimate demand of the Nepali-speaking people for a separate state from being met?
Krishna Ananth teaches history at Sikkim University.