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Way Forward on the Gorkhaland Issue

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • June 29, 2017

    Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts, particularly the hill portion excluding the southern tehsils of Phansidewa, Kharibari, Siliguri and Matigara, have been in a politically driven near-total civic upsurge since June 12. The provocation was the May 16 decision by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) controlled West Bengal government to institute a three-language formula in school education throughout the state. Under the formula, Bengali will be compulsorily taught up to Class X, although students would not have to take an examination in the subject. The Bimal Gurung led Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which wields substantial political influence over the nearly five lakh Nepali-speaking Gorkha people inhabiting the two districts, is spearheading the ongoing protests. It considers the West Bengal government’s decision a threat to the Gorkha ethno-cultural identity and socio-economic interests.

    Although the West Bengal government has now withdrawn the controversial order, the GJM has revived an earlier demand for statehood for the Gorkha people. Further, GJM members have not only resigned from the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) but the party along with 12 other Gorkha outfits has also decided to render the institution of the GTA non-functional by preventing the holding any further elections to the body.

    In the above context, it may be worthwhile to note that the 8th Schedule of the Constitution lists Nepali as the official language of Darjeeling district as well as of Sikkim. In other words, there has existed a decades-long constitutional provision for education and public transactions to be conducted in Nepali in Darjeeling, without the compulsion to study and be proficient in Bengali at the official transactional level. However, the fact of the matter is that the Gorkha inhabitants of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts have been willingly acquiring a working knowledge of Bengali to facilitate transactions both at the state government level and with the plains people (mostly Bengalis, but also Koch-Rajbanshis and Santhals) residing in these districts. Nevertheless, the attempt to impose Bengali in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts has angered their Gorkha inhabitants.

    Darjeeling is West Bengal`s northern-most district and is strategically located at a distance of 441 kms from the Sino-Indian border. Earlier, during 1986-88, it had experienced another critical phase of public unrest on the Gorkha statehood issue. After a lot of internal violence and protracted negotiations among the Centre, state and the former Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) led by Subhash Ghising, a Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) was formed with autonomy over 19 functional areas devolved from the State List. Subsequently, after the TMC government came to power, a revamped autonomous entity – the GTA – was constituted under the GTA Act, i.e. West Bengal Act-XX of 2011, with control over 59 departments including education and agriculture.

    There have, however, been inadequacies in the functioning of the GTA because substantial administrative and fiscal authority has remained with the state government`s district heads, i.e., district magistrates, instead of being delegated to the executives under the GTA. Moreover, the entire resource allocating authority and a broad spectrum of fiscal powers have continued to remain vested with the state government headquartered at Kolkata. This hiatus in authority has been one among several factors affecting developmental activities in the area, and in triggering the recent agitation. This is despite the allocation of Rs. 200 crore per year in the initial three years to the GTA, and 21 projects and schemes being assigned to it for execution.

    The present agitation for Gorkhaland and the accompanying demands for scrapping the controversial Bengali language related order, withdrawal of all Central security forces from Darjeeling-Kalimpong, and the threat of a prolonged agitation have put the central and state governments in a serious bind. Prima facie, acceding to these demands is likely to have implications in other parts of the country. Already, some outfits such as the Bodoland Tribal Area Districts of Assam and the Indigenous Peoples` Front of Tripura, which too demand statehood for the groups they represent in Assam and Tripura, respectively, have extended support to the GJM. In addition, other factors also need to be taken into account including the geographical contiguity of Darjeeling and Kalimpong to the border with China, the region’s backwardness, and the base it provides for the recruitment of local Gorkhas in the Army.

    The arrangements for partial self-governance under gubernatorial aegis within the ambit of the 6th Schedule of the Constitution in many of the autonomous council areas of the north-east have not worked satisfactorily in terms of serving the interests of the targeted populace. This holds true for the GTA too as pointed out earlier. Notwithstanding that, it may still be judicious to try out various political alternatives in a graduated but decisive manner to address the Gorkhaland demand. Subject to a political consensus among Delhi, Kolkata and the local Gorkha leadership of Darjeeling-Kalimpong, there may still be some scope for a solution short of a full-fledged Gorkhaland state, provided the lacunae observed in the functioning of the GTA can be overcome and the governor`s role is made more substantive and direct in respect of the devolved functional areas, and operated as such.

    A more effective autonomous institution could also be considered in the form of an empowered body statutorily on par with 6th Schedule areas and assigned, say, all the functional areas under the State List except law and order, maintenance of infrastructure like national and state highways, power transmission networks and disaster relief establishment. Incidentally, the purview of the existing GTA Act also provides sufficient flexibility to include a wider range of subjects under Article 31 thereof. Concomitant revenue raising powers may also be devolved to such an autonomous institution to avoid its undue financial dependence on the state government. Another issue would be the provision of legislative authority to this entity vis-a-vis its functional and territorial jurisdiction. If such a provision existed, the state government would not have been able to implement its controversial decision on the Bengali language in the school curriculum.

    Such a restructured autonomous entity may be acceptable to the Gorkhas of Darjeeling-Kalimpong. It is for the Centre and West Bengal to act with foresight and devise an arrangement that gives a sense of ownership to the Gorkha stakeholders in the overall national interest. Without suitable empowerment and effective operation of the empowered institution, the Gorkhaland issue may not be susceptible to a satisfactory resolution.

    The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government. The views expressed are the author`s own.