When TV camera crews converged on Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to cover a protest against the land acquisition bill, few noticed the dozens of men and women participating in a nearby demonstration to press for carving Gorkhaland out of the hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling in West Bengal.
In a way, the lack of focus on the protest by the Nepali-speaking people from eastern India is reflective of how the Gorkhaland has slipped from the public consciousness three decades after it was first raised by Shubash Ghishing.
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung, in Delhi with 150 leaders and elected representatives of his party, said, “We have brought our fight to Delhi’s doors. The agitation for a separate Gorkhaland will now be Delhi-based.”
Many Gorkha groups that backed the Bharatiya Janata Party during last year’s general election are now looking to the National Democratic Alliance government to give them a separate state, a demand that continues to be vociferously opposed by all political parties in West Bengal.
“It is time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fulfill his assurance given to the people of Darjeeling,” Gurung told Hindustan Times, referring to Modi’s pledge at an election rally to “sympathetically consider” the demand for a Gorkhaland.
“After Modi said he would sympathetically examine the demand, we had supported the BJP’s candidate from Darjeeling, S S Ahluwalia,” added Gurung, who has been spearheading the movement for a separate state since 2000.
The campaign for a separate state was started in the early 1980s by Ghishing, a former soldier of the Indian Army who joined politics and formed the Gorkha National Liberation Front.
The 28-month bloody movement led to the loss of many lives over two decades, besides hitting hard the region's economic mainstays of tea, timber and tourism.
The formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council gave Gorkhas considerable autonomy and brought the movement to an end in 1988. In June 2011, Gorkha leaders signed a deal with the central and West Bengal governments for greater autonomy that paved the way for setting up the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, an elected body for the Darjeeling hills.
But five years ago, the movement was resumed by Gorkha hardliners, who had by then reduced Ghishing to a non-entity, saying the autonomy arrangement was insufficient. Ghishing died last month in a Delhi hospital after a prolonged illness.
GJM general secretary Roshan Giri said: “Our demand for Gorkhaland is an old one and generations of our people have fought for it. Now we want it because we see no future for us in West Bengal."
The Gorkha leaders who joined the nine-day protest in Delhi, are quick to point out that any future campaign will be peaceful as any disruption of life in the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong could affect tourism and tea gardens.
Gurung, who has the backing of elected representatives of the three-year-old Gorkhaland Territorial Administration and hill civic bodies, said: “We don’t want the economy of the hills to suffer. Our fight is no longer with the West Bengal government. Bengal has given us the Gorkha Territorial Administration.”
The GJM now runs the GTA after sweeping its maiden elections in 2012.
The Gorkha leaders are expected to meet BJP chief Amit Shah on Wednesday and have sought appointments with the Prime Minister and Union home minister Rajnath Singh.
“We won't sit idle. We will start a full-scale movement in the hills but it will be a peaceful agitation," Giri said.