Darjeeling will remain in India; Bengal must dump opposition to Gorkhaland
Ask any average Bengali and they will tell you that they are dead against Gorkhaland. Their primary objection to the creation of a separate state is essentially the possible loss of the hill resort of Darjeeling to the new entity.
This makes their visceral opposition also frivolous. When East Coast Railways was carved out of the behemoth South Eastern Railway as a separate zone in 2003, the Bengali bhadraloks were equally mortified. The Odiyas wanted it to redeem their regional pride that they suspected was being subsumed to the interests of neighbouring Bengalis. But just as they are ranged against Gorkhaland now, Bengal politicians including current chief minister Mamata Banerjee, were opposed to the move then.
The similarities do not end there. Just as we Bengalis are outraged at the very thought of losing Darjeeling, we were equally shocked at the prospect of not being able to visit our favourite holiday destination of Puri on Odisha’s coast.
A decade and a half later, our misgivings about Puri have proven to be misplaced. Tens of thousands of Bengalis still visit the seaside town round the year, riding trains run by the East Coast instead of Southern Railways.
Likewise, Darjeeling too will not lose any of its lustre if it is to become the seat of administration for a new state. Budget Bengali tourists in all probability will continue to make a beeline for it.
So it is about time Bengalis should set aside their emotional opposition and weigh the demand for separate Gorkhaland for whatever its worth. During its peak in the 1980s, the Gorkhaland agitation had cost 1,200 lives. The revival of the protests since the past week has already claimed several lives and is threatening to spiral further. All this and more make it imperative for Bengal and its leaders to have a rethink on the issue.
True, strong arguments can be made both for and against the creation of Gorkhaland. Gorkhas suffer from an identity crisis among a sea of Bengali-speaking population and a new state will address their alienation. Darjeeling is some 600km from Kolkata and there is no harm in bringing the state administration closer to the people of the hills. More importantly, the new state, including Darjeeling, will remain part of India. It is not that the hills, Darjeeling included, will fall into somebody else’s lap.
The arguments against the new state can be equally compelling. Nepali-speaking Gorkhas are present in huge numbers but are not necessarily in majority in many of the areas that proponents of statehood want as their territory. Gorkhas are also not the only voice to reckon with the hills of north Bengal and the other communities such as the Lepchas and Tamangs may not be on board with the demand for Gorkhaland. Hiving off Gorkhaland known for its tea, timber and tourism will leave West Bengal financially poorer. Furthermore, creation of a new state may trigger more copy-cat demands elsewhere.
Whatever the pros and cons, redrawing state boundaries do not imperil India’s future, though it might serve a huge political setback for certain individuals in power in West Bengal. But political considerations of a few should not colour the collective view. The issue of Gorkhaland needs a practical solution grounded in reality, not an emotional response. Let the talks begin.