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Storm In The Tea Gardens

OF INDIA’S million mutinies, the one still roiling the hill town of Darjeeling and its surrounding tea-growing areas in the north of the state of West Bengal is a long-running one. Back in 1907, the region’s residents, dominated by Nepali-speaking ethnic Gorkhas, demanded administrative autonomy from the then British colonial capital, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

They are still doing it, seeking to break away from West Bengal, whose capital is still Kolkata. Huge marches, segregated by sex, chant for “statehood” for Gorkhaland as they snake up Darjeeling’s steep narrow streets to the Chowrasta, the main square. Virtually every shop is clearly marked with the word “Gorkhaland”. Fluttering ubiquitously is the green, white and yellow flag of the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the party leading the statehood campaign (its women's brigade is pictured above).

Their campaign has been largely peaceful, but disruptive. The favourite tactic is the bandh—ie, a strike or self-imposed curfew. This shuts schools, shops and offices, and often cuts transport links. In December the GJM called off plans for a two-day bandh, despite the government's missing an ultimatum to agree to a new interim administrative set-up for the area—the Gorkhaland Regional Authority—which would in itself have been far less than the full state it formally demands.

On January 12th, however, it is to launch a four-day bandh, the first of several to be spread over a month.  If that does not work, the GJM’s leaders have threatened a hunger-strike from February 16th.

The latest outburst was provoked by the publication on January 6th of a report on an entirely different statehood campaign—for carving a new state, Telangana, out of Andhra Pradesh, in the south of India. The report has provoked a bandh in Andhra Pradesh itself, for failing to give unequivocal support for the state.

The GJM’s beef is the opposite of the pro-Telangana protesters': the partisans of Gorkhaland are incensed that their own demand is not being accorded similar priority. GJM leaders are themselves under pressure, after being accused of involvement in the assassination last May of an ethnic-Gorkha politician from a rival group. Early this month there was an ugly clash in one village where locals turned on members of the “Gorkhaland Personnel”, a pro-GJM vigilante group whose thuggish reputation helps explain why shopkeepers are so diligent in advertising their pro-Gorkhaland loyalties.

In the past, the demand for Gorkhaland has been bloody. Even the moderate GJM’s flag shows the sun, the Himalayas, and crossed kukris—traditional curved Gorkha daggers. A violent campaign by a liberation front in the 1980s led to the establishment in 1988 of a Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. But protesters say the autonomy it was promised then has never been forthcoming.

Their demands seem fanciful. Telangana would have a population of 35m. GJM activists say about 1.5m live in the jurisdiction they are demanding—ie, about 0.1% of India’s population and less than 1% of that of Uttar Pradesh, the biggest of India’s 28 existing states.

The GJM points out, however, that Gorkhaland would have twice as many people as neighbouring Sikkim. Some have eyed enviously the money that has flowed into Sikkim since its incorporation into India in 1975, and the benefits its residents enjoy, such as privileged access to government jobs. Indeed, some Gorkhas would like to see their area merged with Sikkim, which is already home to a significant Gorkha population.

Another group, however, has gone further and called for outright independence for Gorkhaland. That is surely not on the cards. Many locals think the same about statehood. In last year’s general election, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), campaigned on a platform of support for smaller states, including Gorkhaland. That probably won the BJP some votes. But not enough.

(Picture credit: Irene Slegt)

Our Comment: There is no question about the marginalization of an already fringe population (as the article points out); and that is something that tends to happen in democracies. If it is the rule of the majority, what is the minority to do? It is impossible to discount the role of ethnicity in Indian politics. So what are the ethnic minorities to do? It is a big challenge for the idea of democracy.

On the other hand, the politics of fear in the hills which has now continued for 2 decades, has indeed reduced the place to a wasteland. The problems of democracy cannot be solved overnight, but the propensity to use terror by local politicians in Darjeeling can be changed.

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