A tea garden in the Dooars
Gorkha, Adivasi, Bengali or Bhutia, they have lived side by side for generations in the Dooars and Terai since their forefathers migrated in colonial times to this sub-Himalayan region of north Bengal to work in tea gardens, railway hubs and business towns, if not always without misgivings.
Old-timers recall how the Independence movement and the advent of democracy and Left politics had shaped the political aspirations of communities and classes, cutting through the rough edges of ethnic identities. Even the Darjeeling hills witnessed all-community farmer and labour movements.
But the misgivings of old have morphed into fear and suspicion and split communities along ethnic lines in recent decades, threatening to unsettle the social equilibrium in a region dubbed a “mini-India” because of its demographic and linguistic diversity.
Local people across communities rue the latest rupture in the socio-cultural landscape following the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s claim on a substantial area of the Dooars and Terai for the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA).
A blame game, however, continues among the politicians and community leaders.
Factions of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad are at loggerheads over the Morcha demand and its impact on inter-community relations.
Rajesh Lakra, the Nagrakata-based secretary of the Parishad’s Doors-Terai regional committee, blamed the Morcha and the pro-Morcha Parishad leaders.
He said his outfit would have collaborated with the Morcha “on issues of regional development” had the Morcha dropped its demand for a Gorkhaland state and renamed the GTA that denotes “domination of Gorkhas”.
“We have experienced Bengali domination. Why another?” he said.
He is also angry with the Morcha for demanding tribal status for all Gorkhali-speaking people, which “is aimed at taking away our constitutional rights and facilities”.
“It’s a fight for our existence as the Morcha is claiming a large part of the Dooars, We have cordial relation with the Gorkhas at the tea gardens but the hill leaders are vitiating the situation.”
The Banarhat-based John Barla, leader of the pro-Morcha Parishad faction, said he had opposed the Gorkhaland demand but now wanted inclusion of tea garden areas in the GTA for “speeding up development for the tribals”.
He said he had entered into an agreement with the Morcha after chief minister Mamata Banerjee ruled out a demand for a separate development council for the tribals in the Dooars and Terai. “Our support for the Morcha has brought back peace between Gorkha and tribal workers,” he claimed.
Referring to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader Shibu Soren’s meeting the Morcha leadership and subsequent opening of a JMM outfit in north Bengal, Barla warned of an agitation for a separate tribal homeland in the Dooars and Terai if the government failed to implement the GTA agreement.
Lakra accused the GTA agreement of lacking provisions for reservation of seats and jobs or land rights for the tea tribals while Barla claimed to have an agreement with the Morcha on these issues but would not reveal details.
Morcha leader Harkabahadur Chhetri said his party would stand by the constitutional and legal provisions for the tribals but the details would be sorted out after the GTA territory was finalised.
He dismissed the fear of Gorkha domination. “If that is true, why are so many adivasis supporting us,’’ he said referring to the Barla group.
While both Parishad factions claim to be representing the majority of the tea tribals, ordinary villagers and tea workers are perplexed.
“Adivasis are divided on the question of inclusion in the GTA. We are in two minds as we know little about its possible impact on our daily lives,’’ said Ajit Chickbaraik, a worker at Trihannah tea garden and Congress member of the Maniram panchayat in the Naxalbari area.
In Birpara, the elderly Shera Minj from Nangdala tea estate shared the complaint of a young Gorkha student about the rounds one needed to make of the panchayat and block offices to get a caste certificate issued, thanks to the babus.
“Yes, we live together in the gardens and suffer in the same ways. But I am not sure things would be better for tribals under the GTA,” he said.
Smaller communities have little choice. In the Gorkha-dominated MM Terai village of 250-odd families close to Siliguri, 30-40 households of Bhutias, Odiyas and plains tribals have settled recently. Nobody bothered to ask their opinion.
“We too aspire to the recognition of our identity,” the middle-aged Sonam Pincho Bhutia said.
Bengalis in the Dooars and Terai are generally averse to inclusion in GTA areas. “Both Bengalis and Gorkhas are getting more jobs and other facilities in comparison with the smaller communities. But Gorkhaland and later the GTA issue have created unnecessary fissures among us,’’ Gouranga Bhattacharya, a middle-aged businessman and RSP supporter in Rajabhatkhawa bazar said.
Not every Bengali sees it the same way, though. “I have no problem if my area becomes part of GTA territory,” said Ranjit Sarkar, a teacher at the Hindi-medium Naya Basti SSK in Buxa.
Politicians from mainstream parties consider the Morcha claims on the Dooars and Terai as a source of social tension.
“There was hardly any ethnic tension during the GNLF movement since it was limited to the hills. But social relations have deteriorated after the Morcha began demanding the Dooars and Terai,” former CPM minister Asoke Bhattacharya said.
Recalling how he had taken the initiative to transfer 18 mouzas close to Siliguri to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 2000, he said he wouldn’t mind if some more mouzas were added to the GTA. But, he said, even some Gorkhali-speaking people in Purba Kalaibari, Samsing and Chalauni, among the five mouzas recommended by the Justice Shyamal Sen Committee for inclusion in the GTA, were averse to it because of the inconveniences they would face in their daily lives.
Bhattacharya joined Lakra in accusing the Mamata Banerjee government of allowing “the social tension to linger” by forming a fact verification committee following the Morcha’s rejection of Sen’s recommendation.
Debaprasad Roy, veteran Congress MLA from Alipurduar, insisted that the “multi-ethnic character” of the Dooars and the Terai be retained.
Ethnic relations in north Bengal have been further vitiated by politics over the alleged influx from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh over the decades. Bengali-specific groups are worried about the “huge demographic destabilisation following infiltration of Gorkhas and Bhupalis” (Gorkhas ousted from Bhutan) and “its geo-political impact in border areas”.
But they refuse to see the Bangladeshi inflow through the same prism when their critics from other communities complain about it.
“We have filed a petition in the high court seeking a review of the India-Nepal treaty and checks on the influx from Nepal and Bhutan. However, we consider migrants from Bangladesh as refugees,” Debaprasad Kar of the Siliguri-based Jana Chetna said.
Bhattacharya and other Bengali mainstream politicians such as the Congress’s Roy mentioned the “huge growth in the Gorkhali-speaking population in comparison with the decline of smaller communities”. But they distanced themselves from these smaller groups.
“We can’t be irresponsible like these groups. But the situation may deteriorate if the Morcha strengthens its campaign for the inclusion of more areas,’’ the Trinamul minister for north Bengal development, Gautam Deb, said.
“At the same time, we don’t want the Morcha to accuse us of denying justice to Gorkhali-speaking people. That’s why the chief minister is continuing the political process with them along with development projects,” he added.