The mountain roads leading to Darjeeling from Silliguri are dotted with a new kind of hoarding these days: The Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) that had only a year ago organised an indefinite general strike in the hills against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee interfering into the affairs of the Gorkhaland Territorial Authority (GTA) has now put up hoardings thanking Banerjee for assuring resolution of the identity crisis of the Gorkha people.
For someone having lived the past few years in the eastern Himalayan region and engaged with a large number of students from Darjeeling, these hoardings make a surreal feeling. It took time for me to comprehend the changes and also the second part of the writings on these hoarding. They talk about a Third Front and the GJMM’s support to that. Mamata herself may not be sure of what the front is all about and whether at all there is space for a Third Front. But the Gorkha people seem to have made up their mind.
The GJMM's writ ran large in the mountains and its leader’s wishes to shut down life and communication across were turned into reality until the winter of December 2018. Bimal Gurung has now turned a fugitive as it happened with Subhas Ghising in the decade after 2000. The GJMM is now controlled by Binay Tamang — incidentally, Bimal Gurung did this to Ghising in the late 1990s — and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), that Ghising led for at least three decades is a pale shadow of what it was in its heydays.
After the intense phase of the Gorkhaland movement began in the mid-1980s, the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) underwent a split and its cadre went with the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) in support of the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state. The CPI(M) was decimated in the mountains and its offices were all shut down. The GNLF and subsequently the GJMM ruled the electoral outcome from Darjeeling.
Inderjeet, a journalist from Delhi, represented the constituency in the ninth and tenth Lok Sabha (1989-1996) as independent in the first term (1989-96) and as Congress MP subsequently. Though the CPI(M) wrested the constituency for a brief while in the three Lok Sabhas between 1996 and 2004, the GJMM ensured it decided who shall represent the Gorkha people in Parliament since 2009; the BJP won this seat because its leaders, Jaswant Singh and S.S.Ahluwalia, managed to strike a bargain with Bimal Gurung in 2009 and 2014, respectively.
Interestingly, Inderjeet from Delhi, Jaswant Singh from Rajasthan and Ahluwalia from Dhanbad were not Gorkhas as were those who represented the constituency before the intense phase of the Gorkhaland movement since the 1980s. They were able to negotiate a deal with the GNLF chief Ghising and later with the GJMM strongman Bimal Gurung.
It is from this background that the hoardings now seen dotting the national highway and in Kalimpong and Darjeeling town are praising Mamata Banerjee. The GJMM leader Binay Tamang has also announced his outfit’s support to the Trinamool Congress for May 2019 elections. While it remains to be seen if Tamang can ensure the Gorkha people vote for Mamata Banerjee’s candidate, the fact that the Trinamool chief could even manage a split in the GJMM and the banishment of Bimal Gurung is a feat. The CPI(M) for all its cadre strength and organisational prowess could not achieve this in the thirty years. The Gorkhaland movement dominated the Darjeeling hills and even ended up seeing its own organisation splitting.
The question, however, is whether these adjustments and the arrangements that Mamata has ensured in the politics of the hills will put the lid on the aspirations of the Gorkha people, who speak a distinct language – Nepali – and belong to a culture too distinct from the Bengali people for a separate state? If that happens, it will be sad given the commitment our constitutional scheme provides for the linguistic re-organisation of states.
For, similar cooption of such assertions and the forces that represented assertions such as language and culture in the rest of northeastern India have not led to lasting peace. Where such cooption had achieved a sense of peace at the outset have also led to violent and separatist demands elsewhere in the region. This is where the legitimacy for a constitutional arrangement ensuring the autonomy of the Darjeeling Hills region as is provided for the various states in the North-East under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
An amendment to the Constitution to include Darjeeling in the Sixth Schedule could ensure constitution of an Autonomous Hill Council and this must be addressed to in real earnest. It may appear simple on the face of it; it is not in the practical sense. But the task of ensuring the idea of India work is not to be short-circuited because it is a difficult one.
V.Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok.