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Rolling down the hills

At best, Subhash Ghisingh had become redundant to the aspirations of the people of Darjeeling and its adjoining Dooar areas of northern West Bengal, writes Mahendra P Lama.
None | By Platform | Mahendra P Lama
UPDATED ON MAR 12, 2008 10:42 PM IST

Subhash Ghisingh paid the price for sleeping with the enemy

At best, Subhash Ghisingh had become redundant to the aspirations of the people of Darjeeling and its adjoining Dooar areas of northern West Bengal. At worst, he was an obstacle and was perceived to be ‘sleeping with the enemy’, the Left Front government. So very few will be disappointed as the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) chief, literally hounded out of Darjeeling by the Gorkha Mukti Morcha (GMM), resigned as administrator of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) on Monday.

Over the last few months, the violence of the Gorkhaland agitation that affected Darjeeling in the mid-1980s seemed to be re-emerging. Ironically, this time the GNLF and the state government, which were at loggerheads then, were pitted against the people of Darjeeling. The GNLF that spearheaded the movement for separate statehood has been in tatters for some time now — the baton being taken by the DGHC. The immediate cause for this has been the way the DGHC, set up in 1988, was being brought under the purview of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The real resentment was against the Sixth Schedule Amendment Bill, 2007, that is based on the ‘in principle’ tripartite Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed on December 6, 2005, by Ghisingh, the Union Home Secretary and the Chief Secretary of West Bengal Government. The GNLF chief, after losing his political clout, negotiated the MoS and signed it as an DGHC ‘administrator’, not as an elected representative or even as president of his party.

The fragile situation in Darjeeling today is largely due to the cascading effects of the Left Front’s step-motherly treatment of the hill people. The signing of the 1988 accord and the poor running of the DGHC by the GNLF only consolidated what civil society in the hills called ‘internal colonialism’ practised by the state government. People were worried that the agitation this time was going to be more violent and protracted as the levels of frustration have been deeper and wider.

In the last two decades of DGHC’s existence, many of the tea gardens and all cinchona plantations have closed down. Most traditional means of livelihood have been destroyed. There are incidences of hunger deaths, suicides and human trafficking. The environmental deterioration has reached its peak with the people in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong towns not getting drinking water for months

on end. The DGHC has never made any development plans except the one in 1989. It had been drawing and utilising the funds on a purely ad hoc basis. No one knows what its annual budget is. Added to these are serious issues of political violence where civil society members and councillors have been murdered, while the media have been intimidated. With great difficulty, a village-level panchayat system was introduced in the last few years. It remains non-operational today. This is the ninth year that the DGHC elections have not been held.

The West Bengal government remained quite content with this arrangement as Ghisingh surrendered the demand for separate statehood and compromised on all the major aspirations of the hill people. It was a win-win situation for the government as it did not need to share any development resources and authority, as it functioned with a weak DGHC. It only required to oil the latter’s creaky and corrupt machinery as Ghisingh was allowed to run the DGHC like his personal fiefdom. For years together, the Left Front maintained that there are no opposition parties in Darjeeling. In the process, it lost support in its traditional bases and among its hill cadres.

In order to escape this deteriorating situation, Ghisingh had come up with the Sixth Schedule idea. He never consulted the people, political parties, social organisations or any civil society organisation. He assured that the entire hill people, including the scheduled castes, will get the Scheduled Tribes status under the Sixth Schedule. Remember, he’s the same man who had misled the people by announcing that the fate of Darjeeling was in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, by stating that Darjeeling was a ‘No Man’s Land’, by inciting people to burn the India-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950, and by taking the case of Darjeeling’s ‘sovereign status’ to the Supreme Court. As recently as in 2005, Ghisingh had declared that the entire district was in the grip of Pakistan’s ISI. It was the fear that the Sixth Schedule status in its present form will not bring anything substantive to the people that cooked Ghisingh’s goose.

Till the Darjeeling hills and the adjoining areas of Dooars are given the status of a full statehood, people want a new and amended tripartite MoS among the West Bengal government, the Union government and elected representatives of the hills. This amended MoS must be the basis of including the Darjeeling hill region in the Sixth Schedule. The alternative is to hold the hill council election in the next few months and renegotiate the Sixth Schedule status with a new leadership.

Mahendra P. Lama prepared the First Development Plan of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1989

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