Chief and his forces
CPM supporters at the 10th Mile Ban Basti, a forest village of Gorkhali-speaking people, had opposed a move to include their village under the Subash Ghisingh-led Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in the 1980s.
Today, residents of this village, set in the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary close to Siliguri, have become Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters and want to be part of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). “The whole village was with the CPM. We had fought against the first Gorkhaland movement by Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front. But today we would be happy to be part of the GTA since the Left Front’s long rule did little to change our lot,’’ the elderly Gobinda Roca said.
Many of the village’s 67 families earn a living from charcoal made by burning wood collected from the forest, sometimes illegally, which they sell to Siliguri hotels and jewellery shops.
Although the Centre and the state are yet to concede the Morcha demand to include reserve forests within the GTA, the villagers believe they will eventually be included in the administrative set-up and come under its panchayat system. The village will then have to be transferred to the panchayat samiti at far-off Kurseong from the Matigara panchayat samiti close to Siliguri.
“It will cost us much more to visit the new gram panchayat or panchayat samiti office in the hills. But we won’t mind that as we shall be speaking our own language to our own people to sort out development problems,’’ Gangeswar Roca said.
Many Gorkhali speakers in the five mouzas that the Justice Shyamal Sen Committee has recommended for inclusion in the GTA too are ready to bear the inconveniences and extra expenditure the administrative change will bring.
“We cannot attain happiness without suffering pain,’’ the middle-aged Indra Singh Tamang, a resident of M.M. Terai mouza, reasoned.
He and his neighbours complained about the poor condition of the village road, lack of drinking water and denial of jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
A yearning for linguistic bonds, assertion of ethnic identity, and disappointment at accumulated development deficits seem to have triggered pro-GTA sentiments among Gorkhali speakers across the Darjeeling hills as well as the Terai and Dooars regions in the plains of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts.
Another key factor is the controversy over the citizenship rights of Gorkhali-speaking people, particularly the so-called “Bhupalis” ousted from Bhutan (on account of their anti-monarchy movement) and those evicted from the Northeast following ethnic clashes.
“Inclusion in the GTA will save us from the humiliation and harassment of being treated as foreigners despite having been settled here for generations,’’ said Meghraj Sharma, resident of the twin villages of Mirjangla and Nirpania in the Terai.
Denial of land rights to the old and new generations of Gorkhas, some of them resettled since colonial times on the government’s vested land, tea gardens and forests, has been a longstanding and emotive issue in the hills and the Dooars-Terai.
“The Morcha has promised us land rights,’’ said the elderly Ghanashyam Champagai, resettled in Nirpania by the administration after the great Teesta flood of 1968.
One part of this Gorkha-dominated village falls within one of the 18 mouzas in the Terai that had been included in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council’s area. Those left out now feel disappointed at the Sen committee recommendations.
“The committee should have visited us before deciding our fate,’’ Bholanath Sharma said.
Hope of jobs
Desire for more government jobs and better business prospects too has a role in galvanising pro-GTA sentiments despite some people’s misgivings about the Morcha’s domineering ways.
Bhaskar Rai, a physically challenged youth with a postgraduate degree in political science, said: “I failed to get a primary teacher’s job during Ghisingh’s rule. It did not bring development to my village. I don’t have any illusions about the Morcha leaders, either. One of them who lives in my area has already switched from a motorbike to a Scorpio.”
Yet the resident of Kataria, a forest village near the Nepal border, added: “Still, inclusion in the GTA will ensure our security and identity, particularly of those ousted from the Northeast and Bhutan. Besides, I hope, job prospects will increase.”
Similar sentiments are being voiced in Dooars areas close to the Bhutan border. Gautam Lama, a student of Birpara College and resident of Bandapani tea garden, wants his area included in the GTA.
“I think there will be job quotas, particularly for Gorkhali-speaking tribals like us. Also, it will be easy to get caste certificates which I am yet to receive despite repeated visits to the Madarihat block headquarters, 42km from my home.”
Pradip Gurung, a Morcha worker at Rajabhatkhawa in the Buxa Tiger Reserve, said: “We have always lived in harmony with others, but our educated youth are not getting government jobs.”
Not everyone is touched by the Morcha’s promises or the lure of the GTA, though.
Mamata Sanjel and Saraswati Chhetri, both teachers at a government-run Sishu Sikhsha Kendra, countered Gurung’s arguments. “Whether one is Bengali or Gorkha, qualification matters in jobs. How can it be any different under the GTA?’’ Sanjel asked.
The elderly Indrabahadur Rai, a Kalchini-based poet and leader of the social organisation Bharatiya Gorkha Parishad, favours the creation of a Gorkhaland state in the hills “to get rid of the foreigner stigma on Indian Gorkhas”.
But he opposes the inclusion of the Dooars and the Terai in the GTA despite grievances over lack of development and inadequate educational infrastructure and job opportunities.
“The Dooars is known as a mini-India. Our multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society has already suffered fissures because of the Morcha’s movement. Its inclusion in the GTA would tear its social fabric apart,’’ he said.
Some Gorkhas who don’t support the Morcha said the apparent backing for the statehood movement is not always spontaneous.
A Gorkhali-speaking RSP leader from Kalchini recalled Morcha-led community boycotts of marriages and other social events at party workers’ homes, many Gorkhas’ refusal to send their children to a nursery run by the party, and threats issued to RSP supporters.
“They accused us of betraying the community’s cause,’’ he said.
Another Gorkha activist from Garo Basti in Rajabhatkhawa too accused the Morcha of imposing its hegemony.
“Morcha leaders have become a law unto themselves. It will be impossible to work independently under their one-party rule once they come to power,’’ he said. Both wished to remain unnamed fearing trouble.