Last month, the Trinamool Congress announced that Bengali would be taught compulsory in all of West Bengal’s schools. The clarification that this would not be applicable to the hill districts of Darjeeling, primarily Nepali-speaking, was slow to follow. By then, Darjeeling and Kalimpong were already in the grip of an agitation that started as an opposition to the West Bengal government’s language move and grew into the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. In the ensuing three weeks, we have seen a spiral of regressive political behaviour in a region that has been mired in protracted ethnic-based conflict.

In India, “Gorkha” is an umbrella term for various Mongoloid and Indo-Aryan communities, but in the context of the creation of Gorkhaland, refers to any ethnicity whose antecedents can be traced to communities that fall under the modern nation-state of Nepal.

However, the agitation raises serious questions about local governance, leadership and ethnic divisions.

Discriminatory in its essence

Ethnicity is a descent-based marker, much like caste: it is inherited genealogically. The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which seeks to end differentiation based on descent, nationality and ethnicity as well, suggests monitoring “trends which give rise to the segregation of descent-based communities” and “to take steps to promote mixed communities in which members… are integrated with other elements of society.”

Surely, a state created for a specific ethnic group and named after it contradicts conventional wisdom. This points to perhaps one of the biggest challenges that Gorkhaland would face: how would it deal with other ethnicities that would fall within its boundaries, such as Bhutias, Lepchas, Sherpas, Marwaris, and Bengalis?

Darjeeling (and Kalimpong) are fledgling districts with a fledgling territorial administration at a crossroads and with several socio-economic and political grievances. But the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which is at the forefront of ongoing protests, and its political allies have allowed their supporters to indulge in discrimination, bullying, threat and violence against other residents in the hills, including those from Sikkim, as well as against Bengalis and Marwaris, during the ongoing agitations.

An incident that made news in the region was the misappropriation of the khada, a Tibetan white silk scarf that symbolises the purity of intention of the giver. A video did the rounds last week showing protesters putting khadas over the heads of those courageous enough to ply on the road between Sikkim and Siliguri (which goes through the heart of the proposed Gorkhaland) with the warning: “Go now, but let this not become a noose if you return tomorrow.” Bengali lorry drivers are also too scared to drive up National Highway 10 linkning Sikkim and Siliguri because of threats of violence.

With the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha calling for an indefinite bandh, the disruption of education – even in Darjeeling’s famed boarding schools where day students and teachers were barred entry and boarders were down to one slice of bread for breakfast before being sent home – has also cast doubts on the intention of the leadership.

Opportunistic leadership

Serious political parties should be based on ideology and judged on their policies and plans for social development. This is what helps voters decide if their aspirations will be met. This is where the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and other pro-Gorkhaland parties fall short: they have failed to articulate policy aims for the proposed state and continue to condone violence.

This is also what leads to suspicion that greed and opportunism, rather than people’s grievances, are driving these parties. When Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung and other party members backed out of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, the semi-autonomous body that administers Darjeeling and Kalimpong, on June 23, they unilaterally destroyed any opportunity for meaningful discussion among stakeholders and put the rest of the Gorkha parties in an uncomfortable position of choosing between the movement and the leader.

The potential for opportunism is huge: the proposed borders of Gorkhaland would include Jaigon, the border-crossing to Bhutan and Rajganj, which shares a border with Nepal. Its leaders would also be the first recipients of Chinese goods arriving from Sikkim’s Nathula pass trade route. The rapidly developing regional hub city of Siliguri, West Bengal’s largest city after Kolkata would also fall within Gorkhaland’s domain. And if the flurry of hydropower construction along the Teesta river – replete with corruption scandals – is any indication of Darjeeling’s energy producing potential, it may benefit both the district’s populace and the Centre to negotiate with a leader who does not already have serious allegations of corruption against him.

Credit: Charles Roscoe Savage/Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Charles Roscoe Savage/Wikimedia Commons

The Centre should now insist on a change of leadership as the basis for further talks on the Gorkhaland issue. Bimal Gurung, the self-nominated first chief minister of the proposed state – who faces serious criminal cases and allegations, including corruption and murder – should not be rewarded.

In fact, the downward spiral in local governance and organised corruption and increase in ethnicity-based exclusion since the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Association in 2011 says as much about the credibility of the Gorkhaland leadership as it does for the need for reform in local governance in India.

Responsible support

Movements that are easily framed as a David and Goliath fight appeal to emotions and find support easily. But to responsibly support a cause requires significant investment in getting to know the context and the formal as well as informal actors and their interests.

The protests have brought issues of local governance to the fore and the Centre, with its tendency to opt for band-aid policies, needs to work out mechanisms to balance the aspirations of statehood of smaller communities like the Gorkhas with the ideal of a national identity.

Stakeholders need to present a roadmap with a broad buy-in. The state government and the Centre need to put in enough time and money to build civic amenities, culture and agency so that Gorkha communities can reset their connection with the state.

Gorkhaland supporters would gain a broader support for their grievances if they revised the state nomenclature, chose a leader with a clean record, desisted from violence and formulated coherent administration policies. They would do well to remember that a state formed on ethnicity alone cannot provide solutions to the larger issues of livelihood, opportunity, education that people of the region face.

It is of no coincidence that this movement has gained momentum at a time when the gap between the state and society is critically wide. Globally, the key in other divided societies has been to reduce the cleavages between ethnicities, promote better working relationships between them, deconstruct negative perceptions of the”other” and encourage respect. The logic is that if you segregate your population by ethnicity, you create communities of people without allegiance – political, social or moral – to the country as a whole. It also runs counter to conventional wisdom: if a state is created for one ethnicity, the presence of thousands from other communities will pose a serious threat to peace, stability, and security.

As the Centre decides how to manage the latest crisis in Darjeeling, it is critical that its leaders examine the issue of ethnic-based politics outside of the context of individual power groups. If India’s lawmakers continue to rely on reactionary force and patchwork measures rather than inclusive dialogue and coherent processes, the increasing xenophobia will lead the country toward a potential regeneration of local political instability and violence, from Greater Cooch Behar to Khalistan.

Pema Abrahams is a former international human rights researcher, advocate, and development professional. She lives in Sikkim.