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Lepchas itch for own council after year's wait - Original residents of hills want funds to go directly to tribal panel, not to GTA

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  • Published 6.11.12
A Lepcha in Darjeeling. File picture

Kalimpong, Nov. 5: The Lepchas, one of the indigenous tribes in the hills, have become restive after over a year’s wait for their own development council outside the GTA.

Lepcha leaders said chief minister Mamata Banerjee had assured them of the formation of their development council last year but the state is yet to implement it, apparently because of sensitivities of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

Lyangsong Tamsang, president of Kalimpong-based Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association, said the chief minister had announced her plan to form the Lepcha council in the Assembly in September last year after dharnas by people of the community in Calcutta.

“The meeting resulted in the signing of a draft agreement between the government and us on the formation of the LDC. But nothing tangible has come out,” Tamsang said. “Our youths are getting frustrated. I don’t know when they will erupt in anger,” he added.

Sitting in a community hall in a compound in Kalimpong that houses the Lepcha museum and a dormitory for poor students, Tamsang said: “The government always thinks of the majority people and wants the smaller communities to die.” He did not give a direct answer when asked if he was accusing the government of trying to please the Morcha at their cost.

The Lepchas in Bengal are mostly settled in and around Kalimpong subdivision. They added up to about a few thousands in the latest census in Bengal. “Our demand for the development council is non-territorial. Its members will be elected by Lepchas of all faiths and focus on delivering development to our people and preservation of our language and culture. But the funds should come directly to the Lepcha Development Council, not through the GTA,’’ Tamsang said.

He contested the census figures, saying the enumerators did not try to reach out to all the people in his tribe, most of them settled in far-flung hill hamlets. He put the Lepcha population at 1.2 lakh.

The Morcha is non-committal on the demand for Lepcha Development Council though not opposed to it per se. “We have not opposed the chief minister’s announcement. But we are yet to fine-tune our position on its modalities,’’ said Roshan Giri, the Morcha general secretary and GTA executive committee member.

Trilok Dewan, the Morcha MLA from Darjeeling, admitted the plight of Lepchas but said the government was to be blamed for this. “Yes, Lepchas are the indigenous people of the hills. But all the people of the hills were neglected by the erstwhile Left Front regime,’’ he said at a discussion on hill issues organised by Calcutta Research Group at Darjeeling earlier this month. Dewan said the GTA had allotted a piece of land in Darjeeling town to built a Lepcha house. An amount of Rs 40 lakh, including Rs 20 lakh from Darjeeling BJP MP Jaswant Singh, has been sanctioned for the project.

But the MLA kept mum on the demand for the Lepcha Development Council outside the GTA. Morcha insiders indicated that the party may warm to the Lepcha demand if the GTA gets areas from the Dooars under it.

Lepcha leaders stressed on their son-of-the-soil status.

“We are the original inhabitants of the Darjeeling hills. The Raj brought in Nepalis and others to work in tea and timber plantations since Lepchas declined to do it. Later, we were largely uprooted from rest of the Hills and goaded to settle in and around Kalimpong,” Tamsang said.

Padam Nepal, a teacher at St Joseph College in Darjeeling and researcher in Lepcha history pointed out that the deed of grant of Darjeeling between the king of Sikkim and British government was written in the Lepcha language.

Octagenerian Sonam Tshering Lepcha, the curator of the Lepcha museum, also complained about the neglect of his people by the successive state governments.

“We hardly got any support from governments to run the museum and related efforts,’’ the Gurkha rifles jawan turned Padmashri- recipient said.

His toothless smile widened as he sang a Bengali song strumming a traditional musical instrument. “We have translated some poems of Tagore’s Gitanjali to Lepcha. But what about translating Lepcha songs into Bengali?” he asked.

Tamsang said he heard about a recent government notification introducing Lepcha language at primary and secondary schools in the hills, a longstanding demand of the community. But the effective steps are yet to be taken, he complained. The erstwhile Left Front government set up a curriculum committee for Lepcha medium schools but “nothing came out of it”, he said.

A visit to Takna village, around 25km from Kalimpong, reveals the community’s socio-economic marginalisation. Mostly among the poorest of the poor in the hills, the 48 Lepcha families live here in dilapidated wooden homes. Dependent on cultivation of maize and cardamom on the slopes of the hills and minor forest produce, the residents of this hill hamlet lack basic amenities such as clean drinking water and medical facilities.

Children attend a nearby primary school where a mid-day meal is available but most ultimately end as dropouts. Few families can afford to send their kids to high school in Padong which is far away because of financial and logistical difficulties.

Nevertheless, village youth Penlop Lepcha reflected his own as well as his community’s aspirations. The graduate in political science wants to a teacher. “I want to serve my people by teaching the new generation about our traditions as well as the modern world in our own language,” he said.