The newly elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, announced on 7 June that the West Bengal state government has come to an agreement with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the party leading the agitation for a separate Gorkha state since 2007. Gorkhaland was supposed to be carved out of West Bengal in India and encompass the current district of Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills.
Darjeeling district is culturally distinct from the rest of the state by its primary language (Nepali instead of Bengali) and its character as a melting pot of religions and ethnicities (various indigenous tribes and immigrants from Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan). Now the leaders of the GJM have dropped the demand for a separate state and instead reached an agreement with the West Bengal government to form a new hill council with elected representatives to govern in a semi-autonomous fashion.
It seems that history has just repeated itself. The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland is not new. In the 1980s, Subhas Ghisingh and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led a violent two-year conflict for a separate Gorkhaland state. In 1988 Ghisingh accepted a political settlement, signing a tripartite agreement with the governments in Kolkata and New Delhi that gave partial autonomy to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGCH), the governing body for the district of Darjeeling.
The 2007-2010 agitation was directed as much against the West Bengal government as it was against the leaders of the GNLF. The GJM accused the hill council of siphoning funds and claim that some GNLF functionaries, including Ghisingh, have amassed personal fortunes with money allocated for development. In short: the opposition parties like the GJM were not satisfied with the autonomy granted in the 1980s as it did nothing to improve the living conditions in the region (high unemployment, water shortages, road conditions that deteriorate every monsoon, and landslides). Since the second agitation started, there were frequent strikes affecting government offices, schools and transportation.
Recall: Gurung declared that he will shoot himself dead if he fails to achieve Gorkhaland by March 10, 2010. Now he has dropped the demand for Gorkhaland and thus repeated what his adversary Ghisingh did more than 20 years ago. No wonder that some Gorkhaland supporters discussing on Facebook and on the community blog The Himalayan Beacon feel betrayed by the GJM leadership. “Sold to the Goondas” (thugs) and “sold in exchange for chair, money and power” are just two of the many comments by disappointed activists, and one has to understand that when they say “sold”, they mean that quite literally.
Considering the Indian context, it is not unlikely that the demand for a separate state was suppressed in exchange for money behind the curtains. The stakeholders – speak GJM leadership − might well have been promised political power and developmental packages, needless to say for their personal financial gains. According to the general secretary of the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists, Taramoni Rai, “the GJM has fooled the people of the hills by leaving out the demand of separate statehood for the Gorkhas during the meeting with the government on 6 June 2011. It is now clear that the GJM used Gorkhaland as a platform to win the assembly elections. With the polls over, they have abandoned the issue.”
Chief Minister Banerjee did nothing to silence these rumors. When asked whether a financial package will be given to Darjeeling, she retorted, “Shall I attend a wedding without a gift? We love the people of Darjeeling.” It can only be hoped that the gift will be given to the people of Darjeeling, and not just to their leaders.