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How Bengal mismanaged Darjeeling and made demand for a separate state inevitable

The competitive indifference by the Centre and state has sidelined the Gorkhaland leaders, while the people have taken over the demand for justice and statehood

opinion Updated: Jul 25, 2017 22:43 IST
Mahendra P Lama
Mahendra P Lama
Bengal,Trinamool Congress,Darjeeling
The Gorkhaland movement today is much fiercer and national where people have withstood 41 days of bandh, without Internet and cable connections and no food and basic necessities in sight (File Photo)(AFP)

It took three decades, reportedly more than 1,200 deaths, huge destruction, unprecedented public suffering, uprooting of traditional livelihoods, demolition of well-founded institutions, severe ecological dislocations and loss of two generations to declare that the much-trumpeted Darjeeling model has failed.

The Gorkhaland movement today is much fiercer and national where people have withstood 41 days of bandh, without Internet and cable connections and no food and basic necessities in sight. The Trinamool Congress-led Bengal administration’s intention to deprive and alienate the hills so much that the people will be emasculated and go voiceless has again fallen flat.

Today leaders remain sidelined and clueless as people have taken over the driver’s seat. Both the State and central governments have maintained a competitive indifference and abandoned the region despite it being in the geographical core of national security interest.

What went wrong in this conflict resolution initiative? Both the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) were institutions created to end the violent movement. They were a result of the tripartite agreements among the central and state governments with the Gorkha National Leadership Front and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha respectively. These constitutionally-excluded bodies led to semi-autonomous institutions of governance mandated by a notification of the Bengal government. This was considered both by the Left front and the Trinamool Congress as the panacea for addressing protracted injustices in Darjeeling and Dooars and their 110-year-old demand for a separate state. These institutions injected higher expectations: It started with elected members and received funds from both the Centre and state. The story, however, ended there. After these, all the principles and practices went haywire.

The state government literally duped the two inexperienced hill leaders by giving them a range of departments without any powers. Minor social activities like cattle tresspass and management of cremation grounds and non-existent fields like fisheries, lotteries, soil conservation, markets and fairs, municipality activities, and, birth and death registration were listed as departments. Major transforming projects were cleverly listed in the annexure as wish lists.

Except the first plan in 1989, both the DGHC and GTA never prepared even the blueprint of development projects. Except the few individuals deputed from the state government, it had no technocrats and experts who could think big and link it substantively with the national agenda and global systems. More critically, it got entangled in the worst quagmire of Bengal’s bureaucracy. There are umpteen examples. The famous Sadar hospital was under the DGHC but the chief medical officer came from the government; the tourism department remained with the DGHC and the revenue fetching tourism corporation with Kolkata. Operations of the forest development corporation, a kingpin in the unscientific exploitation of hill and terai forests and a huge revenue source remained with the government. For every small project, the investment proposal and plan allocation officials had to go to Kolkata. There was a literal ban on private and international development agencies. Schools and colleges remained without permanent heads. Both the DGHC and GTA euphemistically became ‘helicopters with tractor engines’.

In order to have absolute political control, leaders systematically demolished institutions and took shelter in a wrongly inserted constitutional provision in 1992 to discard the crucial three tier-panchayati raj. The delivery system just collapsed. Most of the centrally-sponsored projects stopped at Siliguri. The hill people for generations together continued to drink scarce spring water. Bengal’s usual excuse that these places are inaccessible because of the rugged terrains is now questioned by common folk. They wonder how Coco Cola, Uncle Chips, Pantene and Vodaphone reached there.

In critical areas, like the Gorkhas’ Indian identity, Darjeeling’s membership in the North Eastern Council, bringing foreign direct investment and international development agencies, constitutional sanction to the GTA, devolution of the state’s planned resources, minimum wages to tea workers, setting up of panchayat and newer institutions, and the scheduled tribe status, the Bengal government just did not move. The national highway that got damaged in 2010 remains unattended. The state government consciously injected a perceptible demographic shift in the plains and ghettoised the three hill sub-divisions. The idea was to limit the statehood movement to a segregated geography. It is so today as well.

The historical hill towns witnessed mushrooming of concrete structures, a collapse of educational and heath amenities and a sharp increase in political crimes. ‘No system’ actually became the system. In the absence of accountability, audit and evaluation in both the DGHC and GTA, the government concentrated more on assuaging the leaders rather than addressing the plight of people. Leaders became a source of terror and public apathy. Hunger deaths in tea gardens coexisted with the ill-gotten opulence of these leaders. The Trinamool government unabashedly went a step further and created and funded several ‘caste-based development boards’ and registered them under NGOs. This ‘divide and rule’ policy was another ploy to protract internal colonialism. Today it has boomeranged on its architect.

Bengal has lost the rare opportunity of proving the Darjeeling model as the celebrated instrument of conflict resolution. Its leaders have been warned not to compromise this time. The statehood status to Darjeeling and Dooars is inevitable today.

Mahendra P Lama is professor, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies and former member, National Security Advisory Board

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 25, 2017 14:22 IST