India is a union of states where it is understood that states would be formed on linguistic lines. In 1920, the Congress decided to create state committees not as per the haphazard provinces of British India but using language as a boundary. This principle was extended to India itself after independence when states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh were formed on the basis of language. It is exactly this principle – of the right of a linguistic community to determine their political future – that drives the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of the hills of West Bengal to demand a separate state of Gorkhaland.
Yet, this simple issue has throw the Bharatiya Janata Party into a quandary. For the past decade, the party has supported the demand. in 2009 senior party leader Sushma Swaraj spoke in the Lok Sabha in favour of carving out a Nepali-speaking state from West Bengal, calling it “an idea whose time has come”. In its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP said it would “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas” if it came to power. This support meant that for the past two terms, Darjeeling has elected a BJP MP – an welcome foot in the door for the BJP in a state where it has been a marginal player in the past.
Change of stance
Yet, this is now changing. The BJP is making a committed bid to become a major party in West Bengal. And the main casualty in this quest will be Gorkhaland. Of late, the West Bengal BJP has made it clear – multiple times – that it does not support the creation of Gorkhaland anymore. On Tuesday, the BJP top brass itself commented on the issue: party General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said they cannot support their demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.
Gorkhaland has long been a sensitive issue for Bengalis in West Bengal who see it as an effort to break the state. The emotiveness of the issue means that no party that wants to be a mainstream player in West Bengal can be in favour of Gorkhaland. Earlier the Communist Party of India (Marxist) made political use of the Gorkha demand, painting themselves as the protector of West Bengal’s unity. Today, the ruling Trinamool has taken up the same mantle, playing up Bengali identity in order to shore up votes.
Even as the Trinamool attacks the idea of Gorkhaland, the BJP finds itself in a tight spot. The optics of being a party that once advocated the partition of West Bengal will play badly with the majority Bengali population of the state. And any electoral gains from Gorkhaland will be paltry. Gorkhaland, if created, would be a tiny state and currently elects all of one MP to the Lok Sabha – in contrast to 42 from West Bengal. Even that one MP seat, it seems, will be cornered by a Gorkha party like the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha – making the whole affair a terribly unprofitable one for the BJP.
Pulling out the excuses
What makes matters even worse is that in the constitutional scheme of things, Parliament has absolute power to create new states. Thus, the BJP, if it had stuck to its earlier stand, could have easily carved out Gorkhaland from West Bengal. Its refusal to do so, in the face of a strong Gorkha movement, shines a spotlight on its volte-face.
As a way to get out of a tight corner, the BJP has pulled out a familiar card: national security. “The Centre has intelligence inputs that there could be Chinese incursions through the region,” said a senior BJP leader to the Indian Express. In dealing with Gorkhaland, this is the easiest and oldest excuse in the book. The West Bengal government has already played it, claiming that the Gorkhaland movement has links to militant groups in the North East. Earlier, the Rajiv Gandhi Union government has shot down claims for Gorkhaland claiming that it would have “very dangerous implications” and would be seen as a “victory for separatist forces”.
In this power politics, the Gorkhas have been abandoned again. Too small to be of consequence to either Kolkata or New Delhi, their democratic quest for a separate state, it seems, will go into limbo yet again.