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Debating freedom

Debating freedom

The political demand for a Gorkhaland state to be carved out of West Bengal is back on the streets of Darjeeling hills. The period of apparently peaceful coexistence between the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha-led Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) and the West Bengal government has come to a halt. When the West Bengal government ordered a financial audit of the Gorkha Territorial Administration during it's Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling to look into financial transactions, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha raised the issue of a separate Gorkhaland state again. The official reason was- making Bangla a mandatory language in schools of West Bengal- though Mamata Banerjee has since clarified that this does not apply to the Darjeeling hills. There was Kashmir-style stone-pelting and extensive damage and arson of government properties including police posts, government vehicles, private vehicles, panchayat offices, and so on. The West Bengal government responded in an extremely unfortunate "law and order" maintenance mode by deploying security forces, which has resulted in multiple deaths of Gorkhaland protesters. The impasse is still on amidst some hope of talk and negotiations.

There is an immediate political context to this. Gorkha parties have for long dominated the politics of the Darjeeling hills. In the past couple of years, Trinamool has been making some limited inroads in the area. In the 2016 West Bengal Assembly election, it increased its vote percentage all across the Darjeeling hills, though the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha still has huge dominance. Then, earlier this year, in the municipal elections to the 4 municipalities, the Trinamool got another boost when it actually won Mirik, one of the 4 municipalities and got the kind of vote percentage elsewhere in the hills that is rarely associated with a "Bengali" party. However, this limited success of Trinamool was not based on some Bengali resurgence in the hills, but by Trinamool's consolidation of non-Gorkha/Nepali hill groups like Lepchas, Bhutias, etc. This brought into forth that there was more to the Darjeeling hills than Gorkhas/Nepalis. This happened in May 2017. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha protests started next month, in June 2017.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted on June 18 that "in a democracy like India resorting to violence would never help in finding a solution. Every issue can be resolved through mutual dialogue. All concerned parties and stakeholders should resolve their differences and misunderstandings through dialogue in amicable environment". This is an extraordinary statement coming from a person who called for no such "mutual dialogue" when protesting stone-pelting crowds in Kashmir were met with much, much greater security force violence. Also, by making a comment on what stakeholders 'should' do, he is in effect saying what the West Bengal government "should" do. Law and order is a State subject in the same Constitution under which he is the Union Home Minister. Has the West Bengal government asked for advice on what it 'should' do? No. Whether what it is actually doing is right or wrong is a different matter. This is a question of federalism – arguably the most sacred part of the Indian Union Constitution. Thus, such apparently 'innocuous' encroachments in State government affairs either shows, at best, a lack of knowledge about the federal structure, or at worst, a lack of respect for it.
Mamata Banerjee has already announced that Bangla will be optional in the Darjeeling hills. In spite of this, New Delhi media houses have been repeatedly misrepresenting this issue. In stark contrast to this, Kolkata-based media, that works more on facts on Bengal and less of nostalgia and hear-say about a land they don't inhabit anymore, has clearly pointed this out. Perhaps Delhi took Mamata Banerjee's Bangla optional in the Darjeeling hills declaration in the spirit of the Union government's Aadhaar "optional" declaration because in New Delhi speak, optional Aadhaar means mandatory Aadhaar. West Bengal happens to be a state whose own education board offers the largest number of languages as school education medium – Nepali, Santhali, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and English. These are schools which are funded solely by the West Bengal government. The state also has six more secondary official languages apart from Bangla, the state official language. Any language spoken by more than 10 per cent people of a district are accorded that status in West Bengal – something unparalleled in the Indian Union and something unthinkable by the Hindi imposing Union government at Delhi. The Anglo-Hindi yuppiedom that wrings its hands at the supposed Bangla imposition tends to mysteriously forget that in CBSE schools run by the Union government's MHRD, there is no option for a Bengali to study in Bangla medium or a Gorkha/Nepali to study in Nepali medium. Can anyone point out one school run by the Union government's agencies where Hindi is not mandatorily taught? Darjeeling Hills have long had CBSE schools that offer no Nepali medium and mandatorily teach Hindi. Have there been any protests against this marginalisation of Nepali and imposition of Hindi? No. One wonders what is this selectivity in protests – where Bangla "imposition" is protested in spite of Nepali medium being offered when the agency is West Bengal government, but the blatant Hindi imposition and lack of Nepali medium is not protested when the school belongs to a Union government agency. Reorganisation of States in the Indian Union have primarily happened along the axis of language – hence, the term linguistic reorganisation of states. Let us not forget that West Bengal is fully within its right to make Bangla mandatory in its territorial limits because it is a linguistic state. Let us also not forget that the Indian Union has no right to make Hindi mandatory in its territorial limits because it is not a Hindi linguistic nation, unlike West Bengal, which is a Bengali linguistic state.
One also needs to examine the central issue here – the Gorkhaland state demand. Language is the basis of all real nationalities. Every linguistic group has the right to self-determination. This right of self-determination can span from being a sovereign nation, or in the Indian Union context, a linguistic state or partially autonomous entities to which some powers are devolved, within a state. No other linguistic group has the right to dictate to any other linguistic group what the limits of its autonomy aspirations ought to be. In fact, before partition, there was the demand for Gorkhasthan, an independent nation comprising of present day Nepal, Darjeeling hills, and Sikkim. Using the Darjeeling hills as its base, Indian Union-sponsored Nepalis created the protests in the independent kingdom of Sikkim, thus creating the pretext that New Delhi needed to unilaterally swallow an independent entity. Indians do not remember this chapter because Indian nationalism airbrushes its crimes out of its history, but neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh remember this very well. After the Sikkim episode, the king of Bhutan drove out many Nepalis from Bhutanese territory. Bhutan naturally didn't want to become another Sikkim ultimately.
The present demand is for a Gorkhaland state within the Indian Union. Let us revisit the Constitution since that is the sole and the highest guide in all such matters. Can the West Bengal government veto the formation of a Gorkhaland state? No. Does the West Bengal government need to agree to the division of its territory in order for the Gorkhaland state to be formed? No. Then why are demands for the granting of Gorkhaland state being pursued in the form of protests against the West Bengal government? Only the Gorkhaland state demand forces can answer this. As per the Indian Union Constitution, the Centre can make new states. That power solely lies with the Centre. If West Bengal does not agree for the Gorkhaland demand, the Centre can still create a Gorkhaland. If West Bengal Assembly opposes the Gorkhaland demand or does not even take it up for discussion, even then the Centre can go ahead and form the Gorkhaland state. The Union government is led by the BJP which enjoys an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supported the BJP candidate SS Ahluwalia – he is the one who represents Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha. The BJP's national manifesto voices support for the Gorkhaland state demand. The BJP's Hill committee has taken part in the present protests with the BJP flag. So, if anyone stands between the actualisation of the Gorkhaland state demand and its supporters in the Darjeeling hills, it is the BJP dominated Union government. Then why are demands for the granting of Gorkhaland state not being pursued in the form of protests against the Union government? Again, only the Gorkhaland state demand forces can answer this.
In this fiasco, the West Bengal branch of the BJP is playing the most dubious role. In Kolkata, it maintains that it is against the demand for Gorkhaland. When SS Ahluwalia, the BJP MP from West Bengal, openly supports Gorkhaland, it does not protest. When BJP's Hill committee leaders march with BJP flags in support of Gorkhaland, its affiliating branch, the West Bengal BJP does not protest. Gorkha Janmukti Morcha's leaders come down to Kolkata to consult with West Bengal BJP leaders. Never has West Bengal BJP addressed the press and the people of West Bengal with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders on its side and said that they are against Gorkhaland. Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee has done that multiple times, including instances when the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supremo Bimal Gurung was present. When BJP's national manifesto supports the Gorkhaland demand, the West Bengal BJP does not say that it opposes its party's national manifesto while taking people for a ride when it still maintains that it is against Gorkhaland. West Bengal BJP probably thinks that this speaking in one voice in Kolkata and another voice in Darjeeling is something that the people of West Bengal cannot see through. What it fears is the decimation of the BJP in West Bengal if the Gorkhaland state is granted by the Centre. The fact that the BJP's national manifesto supports the Gorkhaland demand shows how irrelevant West Bengal is to BJP's national leadership's political calculation.
Finally, one factor that can never be forgotten in any issue that concerns the Darjeeling hills is its geopolitical location. When Mamata Banerjee made allegations (without offering much proof as is sadly the case for all such "terrorist" type of allegations) about cross-border terrorist/insurgent links of some Gorkha outfits, what came into focus was a strange reality. In West Bengal, Bengali speakers from the other Bengal cannot enter freely and the whole border is fenced, while in the same West Bengal, Nepali speakers from Nepal can enter West Bengal freely. This is odd indeed and goes against the interest of the state of West Bengal. This cross-migration from Nepal is an issue that anti-Gorkhaland secession forces of West Bengal have been using to show, with some but not fully convincing justification that the Gorkha dominance of Darjeeling is a result of migration from Nepal. This is true but then this migration started much before the formation of the state of West Bengal, and it is also true that the Indo-Nepal border in West Bengal still remains an open border. This feeds speculation about extra-territorial support. This can simply be put to rest. As far as West Bengal is concerned, the Nepal border is an international border just like the Bangladesh border. It ought to be sealed similarly. If "national security" is the issue, there can't be double standards.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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