The Big Story: Magnanimous in victory

After 104 days, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung on Tuesday called off the indefinite strike asking for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the hills of West Bengal. The move came hours after Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued an appeal to the Morcha to end its agitation assuring them that his ministry would seriously consider Gorkha demands.

This is a big blow to the Morcha. This was the third movement for the attainment of statehood. While the earlier two – in 1988 and 2011 – did not obviously succeed in creating a separate Gorkhaland, they did manage to wrest some concessions from Delhi and Kolkata in the form of greater powers and local government for the hills. The current agitation did not even achieve that. Gurung had to call of the movement without as much as a sop.

Gurung’s hand was forced by the fatigue setting in around the forced hartals and economic activity grinding to a halt. As a region dependent on tourism, the shut down was crippling for Darjeeling. Last week, various trader associations in the hills had, in fact, decided to defy the Morcha and reopen their shops. The Morcha was also crippled by some deft politics by Chief Minister Banerjee who appointed Binay Tamang, also a Morcha leader, head of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration on September 25.

The next step of course is talks with the Union government. Right now it is a bit unclear what shape the talks will take or even who the Union government will talk to, given that the Morcha had split between Tamang and Gurung. However, there is little the talks are expected to throw up. While the Bharatiya Janata Party had talked of the need to “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas” in its 2014 manifesto, it seems unlikely it will live up to its promise now that it is a major player in West Bengal. No party in the state can politically afford to advocate the division of West Bengal.

In this situation, the West Bengal government needs to step in and listen carefully and sympathetically to Gorkha demands. Whatever one might think of the demand for Gorkhaland, their complaints about being culturally sidelined in West Bengal do have a ring of truth. While Banerjee rescinded her order making Bengali compulsory in the hills, it is indicative of how little importance the hills have in Kolkata that she didn’t even consider that it would be an issue in the first place when announcing the policy. Even during the agitation, West Bengal was able to easily muzzle Nepali-language media.

Given the continued neglect of the hills in Kolkata, the state government needs to strengthen the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. The Morcha complains that the West Bengal government did not adhere to the letter and spirit of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Act: key departments such as land, revenue and tea gardens were never transferred.

With the agitation ending in a whimper, Mamata Banerjee has won this political contest. Yet, she needs to be magnanimous in victory and ensure full rights for the minority Gorkhas in West Bengal.

The Big Scroll

  • For a month now, India’s only Nepali satellite news channel has been facing an unofficial ban, reports Anuradha Sharma.
  • Reviving Gorkhaland: How language identity and ethnic strife is driving violence in Darjeeling, writes Shoaib Daniyal.
  • Identity politics: Gorkhaland is to Mamata what Kashmir is to Modi

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