One of the few partially operating hotels in Darjeeling, whose only customers during the ongoing indefinite strike in the hills were media people, got an unusual vendor on a late evening. "I have some vegetables and a hen. Does anyone here want to buy?," a local asks Gobinda, the lone member of hotel staff who has been somehow persuaded by the owner to stay on. While buying the food items, Gobinda murmurs to himself in Bengali, "These people are struggling to earn their livelihood. I don't understand why they are still supporting this strike for Gorkhaland."
This is indeed the story of many in the hills - like Yogen Gurung, a 54-year-old worker in Happy Valley Tea garden of Darjeeling, or 32-year-old Raman, a driver with a local tourism agency - who are finding it difficult to provide for their family as the strike has brought economic activities in the hills to a standstill. Yet, they support the movement for a separate state and they are all convinced that Gorkhaland will give them their "identity" and this will be good for them and their children's future.
This indomitable spirit of many of the locals is undoubtedly the biggest strength of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung who is spearheading the agitation. "It is not so much about development, the demand is a more basic one. The Gorkha community has made a lot of contribution to the freedom struggle. The fight was for Swadesh and Swaraj. We got swadesh - our country India - but what about swaraj or self-governance. It is a fight for our identity. This land has never been a part of Bengal," says the GJM president.
GJM spokesperson and MLA from Kalimpong, Harka Bahadur Chhetri, recalls the contribution of the freedom fighters like Bhagat Bir Tamang of Mirik, Durga Malla of Dehradun, Dal Bahadur Thapa of Himachal Pradesh, Dal Bahadur Giri of Kalimpong, who was imprisoned for his non-cooperation activities against the British, even Indian National Army musician Captain Ram Singh Thakuri who, among others, composed the tune for the famous patriotic song "Kadam kadam badhaye ja".
Historically, until 1905, when then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, effected the partition of Bengal, Darjeeling was a part of the Rajshahi division, now in Bangladesh. From 1905 to 1912 Darjeeling formed a part of the Bhagalpur division now in Bihar. It was given back to Rajshahi in 1912 and remained with the Rajshahi division till Partition.
History is on their side, believe the Gorkhas. "This demand is among the oldest such demands across the country," says Chhetri, recalling that the first plea made for an administrative set-up outside of Bengal was in 1907 to the Morley-Minto Reforms panel. Thereafter, numerous representations were made every few years first to the British government and then free India's government for separation from Bengal.
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Gorkhas say that despite being Indians, who fought for Independence, they are considered foreigners and migrants from Nepal. This misconception can be rectified, say separate state activists, only by the creation of Gorkhaland. To achieve this, they want the Darjeeling district and the northern part of Jalpaiguri district, which comprises the Dooars, to be constituted into a new state. This would account for 6,450 sq km area and a population of three million.
This fight for the identity of Gorkhas had turned violent in 1986 under the leadership of Gorkha National Liberation Front supremo Subhas Ghising. The 28-month long protest had culminated in the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988, which remained active for almost 22 years.
When the DGHC proved inadequate to meet Gorkha aspirations, the Centre and state sought a sort of permanent solution in 2005 by initiating the process to bring the region under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, implying some degree of autonomy to a predominantly tribal area.
But, the Gorkhas, including a large section of GNLF supporters, opposed the Sixth Schedule and the Standing Committee of Parliament was forced to put a Bill tabled by the home ministry for this in cold storage. Riding on popular dissension against Ghising and DGHC, Gurung took control of the Gorkha leadership. Gurung, known to be a shrewd politician, had become popular among the locals primarily by means of garnering mass support for Prashant Tamang, the local contestant who went on to win the Indian Idol reality show in 2007.
The fact that Gurung could successfully gather mass support for his 'Gorkhaland' cause was perhaps an indication of misreading the situation by then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's government, which banked on Ghising as a face of the hills for far too long. With Ghising banned from entering Darjeeling by GJM, the Left Front government was on a collision course with the new party.
Things seemed to take a change for the better when the Trinamool Congress strode to power in the state. The new chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, managed to strike an agreement and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) headed by Gurung was formed.
CPI(M) is of the view that Banerjee acted in haste in concluding the GTA agreement. "We have always supported autonomy, but not the creation of a new state. But when the GTA accord was signed in a hurry, the state compromised by mentioning Gorkhaland in it, which shouldn't have been done. The state government is now paying for it," says leader of Opposition Surya Kanta Mishra.
When the Congress announced on July 30 that it was in favour of Telangana, Gorkha hopes were roused again. Soon after, Gurung resigned as chief executive of GTA, and the movement gathered strength anew, helped also by the fact that people had lost all faith in GTA.
Banerjee's oft-repeated and emotional take on Gorkhaland is, "Bengal cannot suffer the pain of yet another partition". There are many in the government who question the very right of Gorkhas for such a demand. According to a senior bureaucrat, former chief minister Jyoti Basu had once told Ghising that the Gorkhas were but immigrants from Nepal who have settled in India over generations and so had no right to demand a state.
To such arguments, the Gorkhas point out the documented history of how they came to be in India. After the 1815 Anglo-British War, Nepal, the defeated power, ceded almost 18,000 sq km of territory in parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Darjeeling and parts of Assam to the British. "We came with this territory in 1815," is the slogan of the Gorkhas, "we are not settlers from Nepal." Darjeeling itself was acquired from Sikkim by the British in 1835 (Darjeeling had been given to Sikkim after 1815), Kalimpong and Dooars from Bhutan in 1865.
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The agitation for a separate state has affected the economy of Darjeeling, home to the world's most loved tea. "Because of these strikes in the last few years, tea gardens here have often failed to meet their commitment of supplying tea. The industry is losing reliability in the market because of this," says Sandeep Mukherjee, secretary of Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA). According to Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce officials, tea industry in the hills generates an average of Rs 450 crore revenue annually, equal to that of the tourism industry in the region.
"The economy of the hills is mainly dependent on tea and tourism. Earlier timber had a major contribution but with stricter rules its importance has waned. While work is on in the tea gardens, tourism is worst affected," says Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce President B M Garg.
The report on Gross State Domestic Product and Gross District Domestic Product of West Bengal for the period from 2004-5 to 2009-10 by the Bureau of Applied Economics & Statistics, shows GDDP for Darjeeling at 2009-10 price level Rs 10,224.84 crore, which is 2.5 per cent of state GSDP.
Many believe, Darjeeling has more potential, but the political impasse came in the way whenever the district showed sign of any improvement. Samrat Sanyal, executive director of Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators' Association, points out that the tourism industry had moved forward after the formation of GTA in 2011. "In 2012-13, there was substantial growth, with over 700,000 domestic tourists compared to 430,000 in the previous year. The first quarter was also good, but in the last one month hardly anyone has visited hills and we are back to square one," says Sanyal.
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Snubbed by the state government, the Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee (GJAC, an apex group of eight political parties and organisations, including GJM, formed recently to spearhead the movement) plans to take the fight to New Delhi, as Gurung has pointed out, "Gorkhaland demand is a political issue, for which the remedy is with the Centre, not the state."
A tripartite meeting involving the Centre, state and GJM is likely sometime soon. An agitated Banerjee has already written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that any tripartite meeting cannot be called by the Centre arbitrarily. "The prime minister had promised me nothing would be done in this regard without keeping the state in the loop. I do not understand why Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde is even meeting the GJM leadership in Delhi," she said at a press conference in Kolkata, after a GJAC delegation met Shinde in Delhi last week.
Perhaps, time has come for all involved, including the Centre, to make their stands clear. Strategically also, the nation cannot afford any unrest in the region for too long given its location bordering four countries - Nepal in the west, Bhutan in the east, Bangladesh in the south and China in the north.