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28 Jun 2017

Gorkhaland, an Idea Whose Time Has Come


Swaraj Thapa |News 18.com | June 27, 2017: Jairam Ramesh, the former Congress minister whom I consider a friend, once took me by surprise when he casually asked how often I went home to Kathmandu. Expressing my displeasure, I said I was as Indian as he is and that I hailed from Darjeeling in India where Gorkhas are the major community. 

That moment was an unhappy reminder yet again about the perception which mainland India harbors about Gorkhas. When a well-read person like Jairam Ramesh can have such an impression, what can one say about the countless ordinary citizens who erroneously believe that a Gorkha either hails from Nepal or is employed as a Chowkidar. We have to repeatedly remind the country that Gorkhas have contributed equally in its freedom and that their economic and social status is not linked to a particular profession. This is a bit ironical too given that Gorkhas are wholly identified with defending the country since every family has one or more member who has served in the Indian army.

Such impressions causing incalculable damage to Indian Gorkhas has persisted since Independence. Sardar Patel wrote to Nehru in 1950 that “people inhabiting Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas had no loyalty or devotion to India and were not free from pro Mongoloid prejudices”. Morarji Desai as Prime Minister had declared Nepali to be a foreign language, implying in the process that Nepali speaking population in India were foreigners. 

Perhaps that’s why the Gorkhas of Darjeeling hills and Dooars, even after a hundred years, have tirelessly pursued the dream of a separate state of Gorkhaland, a demand that is hence unmistakably linked to the quest for an unblurred Indian identity and the compelling desire to determine their own fate in an administrative setup outside of Bengal in order to achieve political, social and economic empowerment in this country. That this sentiment is shared by Gorkhas living outside the geographical boundary of Darjeeling hills is a fact that must be noted by those in power seeking to author a permanent solution for Darjeeling hills. Gorkhas in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the entire Northeast have wholeheartedly backed their brethren in Darjeeling hills even though they don’t benefit directly when Gorkhaland becomes the 30th state of India.

The demand for Gorkhaland is a just and democratic one. Gorkhas are patriots and want to underscore it through the statehood demand. The imposing statue of Shahid Durga Malla near Gate No 3 of Parliament stands testimony to the role of Gorkhas in the freedom struggle. Barrister Ari Bahadur Gurung’s signature in the original Constitution of India is recognition that that Gorkhas played a role in nation-building. Indian Gorkhas have given their blood for the nation but have not got their due. Yet there is opposition from some sections to the idea of statehood for Gorkhaland.

So what are the arguments against Gorkhaland and the counter to them?


Strategic location: The Centre has gone by the long-held view that the region is strategically sensitive. A narrow 27-kilometer corridor, aptly called the Chicken’s Neck that one can easily identify in any map of the subcontinent, connects mainland India to the entire Northeast and is flanked by the international boundaries of Nepal and Bangladesh. Yes, the region is sensitively located. But Darjeeling’s neighbor Sikkim, which has similar terrain and topography, is already a state in the vicinity. If Sikkim can exist, why cannot Gorkhaland. On the contrary, if no permanent solution is found and the problem lingers, the region would be fertile ground for anti-India forces.

Opening Pandora’s box: The Centre fears that creation of Gorkhaland will open a Pandora’s box, prompting more demands elsewhere in the country. This view is clearly misplaced as no new demand has surfaced after the country saw the creation of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh in 2000 and Telengana in 2014. There exist the same old statehood demands such as Vidarbha and Bundelkhand but it is only Gorkhaland and Bodoland that are backed by mass movements.

Centre-state relations: Mindful of the federal nature of our polity, the Centre is reluctant to take steps unless the state is taken on board. However, there is no Constitutional hurdle in this regard as the Centre is empowered under Article 3 of the Constitution to bifurcate any state. Parliament’s authority is supreme and there are four Supreme Court judgements that have upheld this view in regard to creation of new states. Consultations with the state legislature is mandatory but the legislature’s recommendation is not binding on Parliament. This was made clear in another Supreme Court judgement that dismissed a petition challenging creation of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. The apex court in 2008 held that “consultation” did not mean “concurrence”. When Telengana was created, the Centre in fact, disregarded view of the united Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly which had rejected the Telengana bill and went ahead with its bifurcation.

Partition pain: Bengal’s case has rested on the emotional plank that it cannot suffer another “partition”. This can only be a facetious argument. Gorkhaland is not going to be separated from India. It will be a neighbor state of Bengal. This can best be seen as a spurious proprietary claim by Bengal on Darjeeling that is reflective of a colonial mindset. Bengalis will always be the first to “enjoy” Darjeeling as they are the closest. Historically though, Darjeeling hills was never a part of Bengal. It see-sawed between Sikkim and Nepal until the British intervened in the backdrop of the Anglo-Nepalese war. Then Sikkim leased the entire Darjeeling tract to the British in 1835. 

Viability: Tea and Tourism are the big money spinners of Darjeeling hills and the revenue earned from these two sectors is subst. Darjeeling Tea earns a gross revenue of around Rs 600 crore annually, which is said to multiply at least thrice after passing through marketing arms. Actual figures are kept under wraps as much of the premium tea is sold directly to foreign buyers without going through auction process. Tourism is the biggest draw for Darjeeling and Sikkim. Studies sponsored by Tourism ministry have shown that a tourist spends Rs 2000 per day on domestic trips. Last year, 20 lakh tourists visited Sikkim. Figures for Darjeeling are slightly less. But once statehood is given and peace is restored, the flow would drastically increase. Floriculture and Agri industry besides hydro power projects are other areas that generate substantial revenue for the region.

Development Sham: The development narrative is a skewed one in Darjeeling hills. Adjoining Sikkim, with a mere six lakh population, had an annual budget of Rs 6220 crore for 2017-18. It has one of the highest per capita income. Its revenue is nearly Rs 1100 crore and state’s share of Central taxes is Rs 2477 crore. Infrastructure activity hasn’t seen any dip in Sikkim in last several years, an indication of the sound health of the state. In comparison, Darjeeling hills or the GTA, with a population of about 14 lakhs, is grossly under-funded. The GTA gets less than Rs 900 crore annually, of which the major chunk is in the form of salaries. Non-plan funds stand at an annual Rs 580 crore. State plan funds have never exceeded Rs 100 crore annually even though allocation was Rs 130 crore in 2015-16 and Rs 132 crore in 2016-17. A separate central package for only three years at Rs 200 crore annually was allotted after the GTA accord was signed. Out of this, only Rs 465 crore has come so far (out of Rs 600 crore) with Rs 135 crore being withheld. Many proposals outlined in the Tripartite Agreement including medical colleges and central university are still only on paper or never took off. 

Right to self-determination: I use this phrase in a limited context within framework of the Constitution of India. Gorkhas seek the right to determine their own future in terms of economic, social and political development in a new state of Gorkhaland. Living under Bengal’s domination, Gorkhas have always suffered step motherly treatment. A Gorkha cannot ever hope to become a chief minister of Bengal so political empowerment will always be incomplete. In seventy years, there has not been one Gorkha cabinet minister with a meaty portfolio in Bengal. Since Independence, there has been just one Gorkha high court judge in Bengal and so is the case with Gorkha IAS and IPS officers, who are just a handful. Creation of a separate state will, therefore, help in building our own human resources, promote language and culture and put economic development on the fast track.

Small is beautiful: One of the oft repeated arguments against Gorkhaland is that it is very small. The answer to this is simple. Nine out of 29 states have one or two parliamentary seats. Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram and Pondicherry have one parliamentary seat while Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh have two seats. In terms of geographical area too, proposed Gorkhaland would be larger than Sikkim, Goa, Pondicherry and Delhi.

In conclusion, the region has a distinct socio-cultural background that is different from mainland Bengal. From language to culture to social system and ethos, Gorkhas do not identify with the Bengalis. Identity and self-determination is the basis of the demand. There are no constitutional hurdles in creating a new state. So why not statehood for Gorkhaland that will bring permanent peace in the region? 

(Disclaimer: The writer, a former journalist, is with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha)

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