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Darjeeling is not Kashmir but Gorkhaland demand gets a fresh lease of life

Driven by ethnic differences between West Bengal’s majority Bengali population and Gorkha residents of the north, the statehood stir has gone on for decades.

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Kolkata: Binoy Tamang of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) says the Modi government’s decision to bifurcate Jammu & Kashmir has left the Gorkha community hurt. 

Ladakh, the Buddhist-majority region now carved into a separate union territory, had never even demanded separation from J&K, he claims. And then there are the Gorkhas, he laments, who are yet to get a separate state despite demanding one for 100 years.

The bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories seems to have given fresh impetus to demands for a separate state of Gorkhaland, to be carved out of West Bengal. 

Driven by cultural and ethnic differences between the state’s majority Bengali population and the Gorkha residents of the north, the protest has gone on for decades, taking a violent turn as recently as 2017, when over a dozen people were killed. The protests peaked in the 1980s, when hundreds were killed in the stir for statehood.

The hill towns of Kalimpong, Kurseong and Darjeeling, which fall within the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, form the centre of the Gorkhaland movement, and have witnessed several protests over the years.

Almost all hill-based parties, including two factions of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha — one led by Bimal Gurung in absentia and supported by the BJP, and another led by Tamang, an ally of the Trinamool Congress — have renewed their pitch for Gorkhaland in light of the Kashmir decision. 

Gurung, who faces 122 cases in Bengal and has been underground since the 2017 stir, welcomed the Article 370 move in a social media statement, and “hoped the Modi government would also consider the demands of the people of Darjeeling”. 

Speaking to ThePrint, Tamang said “every citizen in our country has a dream and an aspiration, and Gorkhas are no different”. 

“Gorkhas living across India have a dream to get their own state of Gorkhaland,” added Tamang, who heads the GTA, the autonomous administrative council set up in the hills following a tripartite agreement between the Gorkhas, the state government and the Centre in 2012. 

According to him, the Gorkha community’s 100-year-old demand for a separate state has fallen on deaf ears with successive governments at the Centre. 

“As a Gorkha, I feel dejected when I see this scenario as the people of Darjeeling have elected three BJP MPs (in three general elections), hoping that the dreams and aspirations of the Gorkhas could be fulfilled, but there has been no positive response from the central government to date,” he added. 

Few takers 

None of the main players in Bengal politics support the state’s bifurcation, making it a rare issue where the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) find themselves on the same page

“We will never allow Bengal to be divided. It is against the sentiment of Bengalis,” a senior BJP leader told ThePrint. “We will speak to our top brass and bring a more effective and workable solution to the problem, but there is no scope of bifurcation.” 

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, meanwhile, has said on several occasions that Darjeeling is an “inseparable” part of Bengal.   

However, the BJP found itself in a pickle this week when Home Minister Amit Shah allegedly referred to the “people of Gorkhaland” — the name of the proposed state — while talking about Gorkhas.

Replying to a letter by Darjeeling BJP MP Raju Bista over alleged racism against Gorkhas in the national capital, Shah is said to have written that the concerns of the “people of Gorkhaland” will be looked into. 

The use of “Gorkhaland” in official communication has led the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress, which opposes bifurcation as well, to attack the BJP, seeking to corner the party two years ahead of a state election where it is expected to give Banerjee a tough challenge. 

“Have they (BJP) already decided to carve Darjeeling out of West Bengal the way they did in Jammu & Kashmir?” a minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet told ThePrint.  

However, the BJP insists that there is no change in its stance that the party wants to explore a political solution to the statehood imbroglio.

“We promised a permanent political solution for our Gorkha brothers. I cannot say what the solution would be,” Bista told ThePrint. 

“There has to be a tripartite dialogue in which the Centre, state government and Gorkhas have to take part,” he said. “We mentioned the repeal of Article 370 in our manifesto, and did it. So, this promise will also be fulfilled.

“We all know that Kashmir and Darjeeling are different,” he added. “The issues are different and the circumstances are also different.”

Also read: BJP uses its favourite defection strategy to breach final northeast frontier Sikkim

Reigniting the demand 

The resurfacing of the Gorkhaland rhetoric follows a pattern seen when India’s newest state was formed: In 2013, when the then UPA administration agreed to form Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh, demands for Gorkhaland were raised again. 

In August 2013, the GJM, which was then one outfit under Gurung, called an indefinite “do or die” agitation. As the agitation began, he stepped down as chief of the GTA. 

The strike went on for a month, hitting Darjeeling hard. It was withdrawn after the UPA-led government at the Centre intervened with a promise of greater autonomy for GTA and Gurung returned as its chief. 

When Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh were bifurcated in 2000, Tamang said the Gorkhas were refrained from voicing their demand by their late leader Subash Ghisingh. This, he added, was a missed opportunity for Gorkhas.

“When the three states of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were formed by the BJP in 2000, the then Gorkha leader Subash Ghisingh did not make any political statement,” he said. “He said the season was inauspicious to speak, and thus the Gorkhas missed a chance.  

“In 2013, when the Congress announced the formation of Telangana, there was an agitation by Bimal Gurung,” Tamang added. “But again in 2013, he decided to conclude the agitation for a separate state and go back to the GTA, taking the post of chairman.” 

However, in 2019, the situation is different, Tamang said. The “overnight bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir”, he added, had led the Gorkhas to understand that any decision in this regard will require political will on the BJP’s part. 

“If there is political will, it is very much possible for the BJP to fulfil the aspirations of the Gorkhas, as they have promised in their manifesto,” he said, adding that his party would take a final call on reviving the statehood demand after a meeting. 

BJP MP Bista, however, said there would be no agitation in the hills this time. According to him, Shah has been apprised of the demand and the matter has come up for discussion in Parliament twice. 

“Tamang and his party lost the Darjeeling parliamentary seat and also the Darjeeling assembly bypoll,” added Bista, who won 59 per cent of the vote share, with Gurung’s support, in the 2019 general election, while Tamang-Trinamool got 26 per cent.

“People are not with them. They maintain double-standard. If he is so honest to the Gorkha cause, then he should resign from the position of GTA chairman,” he added. 

“The GTA,” he said, “should be dissolved… It is the main obstacle in carving Darjeeling out of Bengal as a UT or a state.”

Also read: Mamata Banerjee’s only Bangla in Bengal won’t get her votes. Left did same & failed


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