Kolkata: The Nepali-speaking ethnic Gorkhas of West Bengal were on Monday granted more autonomy in the administration of the hills in the northern parts of the state.
The move aimed at ending their demand for a separate state could, however, stir more political unrest, this time by the non-Gorkha tribal population of the region.
“We are not dividing Bengal,” chief minister Mamata Banerjee said moments before the tripartite accord was signed between the Centre, the state government and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) at Pintail village near Siliguri town on Monday.
Under the agreement, an autonomous body called Gorkha Territorial Authority (GTA) will be formed to manage with a “greater degree of autonomy” the affairs of some 59 key government departments such as public works, social welfare, education, water resources and health.
Though the Gorkha leaders seemed impressed with the promises made by the Centre and the state on Monday, local tribal people led by the All Bengal Adivasi Vikas Parishad and seven other organizations called a general strike in Siliguri to protest the agreement. Even the Gorkhas seemed divided.
As GJM general secretary Roshan Giri and West Bengal’s home secretary G.D. Gautama signed the agreement, a section of the Gorkhas who had gathered at Pintail shouted slogans demanding a separate state.
Although GJM president Bimal Gurung did not drop the demand for a separate state, he said Monday’s initiative should have been taken place long ago. “It would have avoided a lot of bloodshed and loss of lives,” he said.
The proposed GTA would have 50 elected members. Polling to fill up its posts will be held within six months, according to Banerjee.
Though GTA wouldn’t have any lawmaking authority, it would be able to form some rules and impose fees, for instance on renewal of lease agreements of tea gardens, said a state government official, who did not want to be identified.
Banerjee also announced a host of development initiatives for the hills of Darjeeling district, where civic infrastructure is deficient.
She said the West Bengal government will set up a large number of multi-specialty hospitals, at least 25 high schools, institutes of higher education, roads and a 100-acre special economic zone. These could bring about a remarkable change in the economy of Darjeeling district, where the key employment generators are tea gardens and tourism.
The financial implications of these proposed initiatives for the hugely indebted state exchequer aren’t immediately known.
Union home minister P. Chidambaram said the Gorkhas had a “stupendous task” at hand to “demonstrate (their) capacity to govern and deliver”. “It is the plurality that gives you vitality. Be kind, show love and compassion for each other,” Chidambaram said, reminding the Gorkhas of their responsibilities towards ethnic minorities of the region.
The territorial jurisdiction of the proposed GTA hasn’t been determined as yet. A nine-member committee has been tasked with deciding it, but hasn’t been given any deadline.
Besides the hills of Darjeeling district, the Gorkhas have been seeking administrative control of some regions in the plains, which have significant Nepali-speaking population. The local tribal groups are, however, opposed to the Dooars and Terai regions being put under the administrative control of the Gorkhas. They claim they dominate the plains. This isn’t first time the Gorkhas are being given autonomy in managing the administration of the hills of Darjeeling. In 1988, under an initiative of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and state chief minister Jyoti Basu, the now defunct Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) was formed, capping years of violent protests.
It, too, was an elected body with 42 members, but the state government couldn’t conduct elections to it for the past seven years. Right from its inception, DGHC was controlled by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and its leader Subhash Ghisingh, until a faction of dissident leaders led by Gurung broke away and formed GJM.
There was growing discontent about Ghisingh’s administration and the state government’s patronage to it that eventually led to the split within the GNLF in 2007 amid allegations of corruption and nepotism. “DGHC was a big mistake committed by the Left Front government,” said Mukunda Majumdar, a local leader who represents the ethnic Bengalis of the region. “This new experiment is not going to be any different. Our movement will go on.”
There is, however, one striking difference between the 1988 accord and now, pointed out the state government officer cited above. At the time of formation of DGHC, the Gorkhas had given up their demand for a separate state, but the GJM hasn’t done so.
“The agreement clearly says they aren’t giving up their demand for Gorkhaland,” he said.