Then and Now

Darjeeling 2017 is eerily similar to Subhash Ghising’s violent Gorkhaland movement in 1986

The violent agitation shook up West Bengal thirty years ago and left the region bloodied with 1,200 people dead.

Almost inevitably, the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling has turned to violence to press for the demand for a separate state carved out of West Bengal. Since trouble started in the hill district on June 8, Gorkhaland supporters have torched government offices, police vehicles, train stations and the offices of the Trinamool Congress, which is in power in the state. On Wednesday, a Bengali community hall in the Kurseong area was set on fire, bringing to the fore the simmering ethnic fault line that underlines the Gorkhaland demand.

India is a land of a million mutinies. However, the militarised culture of the Gorkhas – Darjeeling is a prime recruitment point for the Indian Army’s Gorkha regiments – means that agitations for Gorkhaland through the years have been especially violent. As 2017 sees the hills roiled by another statehood stir, inevitable comparisons are being raised with the first such movement, which was led by Subhash Ghising in 1986 and left the region bloodied with 1,200 people dead (although unofficial figures are much higher).

Search for a Gorkha homeland

Till the end of the 18th century, Darjeeling was a part of the Kingdom of Sikkim. The region then underwent a short spell of Nepali rule before ending up with British India in 1816. Nepali rule and a favourable view of Nepalis as a martial race during the British Raj meant large-scale migration into Darjeeling, where Nepalis soon outnumbered the Lepchas who had dominated the region under Sikkimese rule.

Indian Independence in 1947 meant a crisis of identity for the Nepali speakers of Darjeeling, given that they were often confused with citizens of the state of Nepal. As a result, today, they prefer the name Gorkha. Although Gorkha is Nepali in origin, taken from the Gorkha Kingdom, it also refers to the Gorkha soldiery that created a well-known martial tradition serving in the British Indian Army.

This crisis of identity also led to the demand for separation from West Bengal. In 1947 itself, the All India Gorkha League, a political party, sought a separate state for Nepali language speakers in India that was centred around Darjeeling. This gentle demand was ignored by the Union government, which has exclusive powers to create new states. Four decades later, with the Gorkhaland demand having made no progress, came Subhash Ghising.

Pahar ko raja

Till then, Gorkha politics had been dominated by moderates, but Ghising, who headed the Gorkha National Liberation Front, was no moderate. While the All India Gorkha League had asked for a Gorkha state, it was a listless demand and played no role in the everyday politics of the party. Ghising changed that – his only agenda, he said, was Gorkhaland.

In 1981, Ghising wrote to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asking her to create Gorkhaland. Three years later, he wrote to Rajiv Gandhi with the same request. He questioned the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship that allowed Indians and Nepalis free movement into each others’ countries. Ghising opposed the pact because he felt the unchecked migration from Nepal diluted the identity of the Indian Gorkha. He even wrote directly to the king of Nepal, asking him to abrogate the treaty since “it has mixed up the citizens of Nepal and the Indian Gorkhas in a single basket of illusion”.

Moreover, in his telegram to Rajiv Gandhi, he was open about the movement turning violent. “The Central government of India is always against democratic movement and has always encouraged the people to take up arms,” he wrote. He backed up this belligerence by appointing former armymen to the top posts of the Gorkha National Liberation Front – even picking a rather bellicose name for the party.

Flashpoint

Even as Ghising broke the mould with his aggressive politics in 1986, ethnic riots broke out in Meghalaya in which local Khasis threw out thousands of Indian Gorkhas and Nepalis from blue-collar jobs and chased them out of the state. Ghising’s assertions about Gorkhas not being treated as bonafide Indian citizens had an immediate and bloody example.

Ghising’s Gorkha National Liberation Front called for bandhs, vote boycotts and, if all else failed, a “do or die” struggle. He also asked former arymymen to train his volunteers.

From then on, the Gorkhaland movement followed a pattern similar to what is unfolding now in Darjeeling. Bandhs were declared (in 1986 and 1987, Darjeeling was shut for 200 days), protestors clashed violently with security forces and the ruling party (the Communists then and the Trinamool Congress now) was made persona non grata in the hills. Like in 2017, in 1986 too, allegations of foreign interference swirled. Journalist and political commentator Romit Bagchi wrote in his book, Gorkhaland: Crisis of Statehood, that Nepal supported Ghising’s movement as a way to scotch demands for Nepali citizenship for Indian-origin people in the Terai, a region in the country’s south bordering India.

Sub hash Ghising addresses a press conference in Kolkata on February 23, 2008, at the beginning of his forced exile from Darjeeling. (Credit: Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP)
Sub hash Ghising addresses a press conference in Kolkata on February 23, 2008, at the beginning of his forced exile from Darjeeling. (Credit: Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP)

Resolution

In the end, the scale of the violence in Darjeeling made all parties sit up and take note of the Gorkhaland demand. In January 1987, Ghising met with Union Home Minister Buta Singh and agreed to consider peaceful negotiations. And in February that year, West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu agreed to hold talks with Ghising, provided he ceased the violence. Ghising grabbed the opportunity and suspended the movement.

In the talks that ensued, Ghising dropped his demand for Gorkhaland. As quid pro quo, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a semi-autonomous administrative body, was set up. While the council had few powers, Ghising remained completely in control of it. Known as “pahar ko raja”, he would continue to be the king of the hills for the next two decades.

His violent style, however, carried over into his administration. Ghising brooked no political dissent and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was a one-man show. Political murders were common and even top leaders of the 1986 movement were killed. In 2007, this ultimately culminated in another violent movement for Gorkhaland, led by Ghising’s one-time lieutenant Bimal Gurung. Gurung used the movement and the anger against Ghising’s iron rule to banish him from the hills in 2008. He set up the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha that is spearheading the ongoing agitation. Ghising was forced to move to Jalpaiguri in North Bengal. He died in 2015, a political non-entity.

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