How to tackle statehood demands has been a major challenge for statecraft in post- Independence India. The first reorganization of states in 1956, on the basis of language, gave the Union government only a reprieve. Many more states were created in the subsequent decades. But demands for even more never quite died down. A new state in one part of the country would inspire statehood demands in other parts. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Centre’s reported move to create a Telangana state has re-ignited the old statehood demand in Darjeeling. Historically, though, the demand for a separate state comprising the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling dates back to pre-Independence days. The Gorkhas, who form an overwhelming majority of the population in the hills, have always claimed that their language and ethnic identity entitles them to a state of their own. Governments in New Delhi and Calcutta felt, however, that special administrative arrangements were a better way of helping Darjeeling than separating it from West Bengal. This was the rationale behind creating the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988 and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration two years ago. But the campaigners for a separate state accepted these only as temporary steps.
For New Delhi, Darjeeling’s demand for statehood has always posed more critical issues than similar demands elsewhere. It is not simply a question of possible political repercussions in a truncated Bengal. The creation of smaller states has always had some political impact in the parent states. In Bengal’s case, history, too, complicates matters for New Delhi. West Bengal itself is the result of a partition of old Bengal at the time of Independence. Another partition of the state is the last thing that its people — and politicians — would want. But there is another reason why New Delhi has been wary about the statehood demand for Darjeeling. Its location, on the border with Nepal and not far from the frontiers with China, makes Darjeeling a rather special place in India’s geopolitical scheme. But the overriding concern for both the Centre and the state government should be the welfare of the people in the Darjeeling hills. An economic approach alone may not satisfy the local aspirations. The challenge in Darjeeling needs to be handled cautiously. False steps in a border region can be costly for the country.