Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would like to believe that the Sixth Schedule status is a panacea for all existing problems in the Darjeeling Hills. His desperation to get the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2007 passed in Parliament underlines this belief. However, given the present political scenario in the hills and the support that the anti-Sixth Schedule voices is gaining in the region, it is time for Bhattacharjee to take stock of the ground realities if unrest is to be avoided in this volatile part of Bengal.
The chief minister was partly right in bowing to Subash Ghisingh’s diktat in 2005, when the Gorkha leader seemed to have some sway over the hill people. But keeping the bill hanging for almost two years was a blunder of sorts. Things have changed in this period and Ghisingh now faces the biggest challenge of his political life after the Gorkhaland agitation in the mid-Eighties. The Gorkha National Liberation Front leader’s undoing has been his belief that his commands would be the people’s wish. The state government has aggravated the crisis by blindly toeing his political line. The draft of the bill which was circulated among members of Parliament only in November this year — a full two years after the memorandum of settlement was signed in 2005 — only echoes the insensitivity of the state government.
The seeds of discontent were first sown when both the state government and Ghisingh refused to address the grievances of the scheduled castes which constitute 9.75 per cent of the hill population. Although the Constitution has laid down provisions to safeguard the interests of this community, this has not been reflected in the proposed Sixth Schedule status for the Darjeeling Hills. From the very conceptualization of the special status for Darjeeling, the SCs have been demanding that three seats in the proposed 33-seat Sixth Schedule council be reserved for them. The state government is yet to accept this demand.
Ghisingh believes that the special status is “first class and the fittest” (sic) for the hill people and even Bhattacharjee seems to think so. There has been no effort by the state government to make the Gorkha leader see sense and propose an arrangement that is acceptable to the entire hill population. For the 60 per cent of the population who live in the tea gardens and the cinchona plantations, there is nothing to cheer about in the bill. Issues such as land rights for them have been ignored. However, provisions like the non-implementation of the state’s excise law in the hills have been given precedence.
After the bill was shelved following opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bhattacharjee maintained that his government was merely looking at providing “a constitutional guarantee” to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council which was set up through a State Act in 1988 after a violent 28-month agitation. If the chief minister is only looking at constitutional safeguards, why were there no concrete efforts by the state government to incorporate the new status under Article 371 of the Constitution? If the state government were really sincere in addressing the grievances of the hill people, it could have replicated the provisions of Sixth Schedule under Article 371 (which has been used to provide special provisions to Sikkim, for instance) and provide the council with greater control, including legislative powers, as enshrined in the Sixth Schedule. The state government stopped at making a perfunctory proposal to this effect.
The Sixth Schedule status is meant for administration of “tribal areas” and it is now a well-known fact that tribals are a minority in the Darjeeling Hills. The Centre and the state have argued that even in the Bodoland Territorial Council the non-tribals are in a minority. But BTC was an “exception” (as mentioned in the amendment bill), and should be treated as such.
Moreover, unlike the Gorkha community, the entire Bodo community in the BTC enjoys scheduled tribe status. The most serious drawback of the Sixth Schedule status in the hills is that it has already polarized the tribal and non-tribal Nepali-speaking community, unlike the Bodos. The proposed reservations for tribals and non-tribals only threatens to widen this rift. A replication of the Sixth Schedule provisions without distinguishing between tribals and non-tribals through Article 371 could have salvaged the situation.
The alienation of different communities could snowball into a civil strife in the hills. The only solution at hand is to provide tribal status to the entire Gorkha community as done to the Bodos. This too seems difficult given the numerous communities vying for tribal status across India.
It is time to mull whether the Sixth Schedule status — the provisions of which have not been clearly explained to the people — is really appropriate for the region. The possibility of unrest regarding the special status in Bengal is real. So far, the Sixth Schedule status was confined to only four north-eastern states. However, if the Constitutional Amendment Bill 2007 does get notified, even West Bengal would be incorporated within the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, by default.
There is every possibility of other tribal-dominated areas in Bengal raising the demand for autonomy. Bhattacharjee could well be forced to make too many exceptions. The Congress, which is looking for a toe-hold in the state, might be the only winner at the end.
Bhattacharjee is largely responsible for the recent spate of unrest in the hills. For years, he indulged Ghisingh’s whims and fancies and let him be the caretaker administrator of the DGHC for the past three years without holding an election. So much for the Left Front’s pro-democracy stand in the hills. The disillusionment over the implementation of a vague provision, coupled with the anti-incumbency factor and Ghisingh’s interference in every aspect of life in the hills, has given rise to a strong pro-Gorkhaland voice.
People in the hills no longer want to hear Ghisingh speak on issues like the curative powers of bougainvillea flowers or the weight of Lord Buddha’s ears. They want the provisions of the special status to be clearly explained. With neither Ghisingh nor Bhattacharjee making any effort in that direction, the people in the hills are ready to take to the streets again with the Gorkhaland slogan.
The support for the slogan is such that, irrespective of whether the Sixth Schedule gets implemented or not, the aspiration of the hill people can now only be fulfilled by a separate state. Sections of the political leadership in the hills have begun to believe that Bengal is preparing to part with its crown. Perhaps a referendum on the Sixth Schedule status is the only sensible step at this point.