At home in the hillsSubhash Ghisingh’s life has much to tell of the politics of federation in India.
Ishingmishing Subhash Ghisingh
Kalimpong e, Kurseong e
Recently, the very person whose name provided kids with interesting rhyme possibilities passed away. But to those who grew up or lived in Darjeeling in the 80s and 90s, the name of Subhash Ghisingh is perhaps not synonymous with a children’s rhyme, as it is to my friend who did not grow up
Subhash Ghisingh commanded the militant movement for the separate state of Gorkhaland in the late 1980s and later headed the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), an autonomous body for the local governance of the Darjeeling hills. Many in Darjeeling continue to recall traumatic experiences of violence during Ghisingh’s rule in the hills. Besides the violence of regional politics, Ghisingh’s career also tells us much about the paradoxes of the politics of federation in India in the 80s and 90s.
Ghisingh was an army man who left the army in the late 70s to start a writing career, only to find his way into politics. He had served in regions wrought with ethnic conflict, including Kashmir and the Indian Northeast, before turning to ethnic politics. In an autobiographical account, Ghisingh explained that he had the desire to quit the army after an encounter with the Nagas, where he recognised the legitimacy of the territorial demands of different ethnic groups.
By 1979, Ghisingh had decided to return to his literary pursuits and give up politics, but his plans were interrupted when Morarji Desai claimed that the Nepali language was a foreign language and its speakers were foreigners. Ghisingh explained that his rage at being labeled an outsider was crucial in his decision to be part of a campaign for separate statehood. In 1980, despite the failure of his previous party, Ghisingh started the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).
As is evident, Ghisingh’s organisation drew its name from its Assamese counterpart, the Assam National Liberation Front. This was not a coincidence. Ghisingh had visited his elder brother, who worked in Assam, to understand the situation there. He explained that he “went there to get a deeper insight” and that by the time he returned to Darjeeling, he “found there could be no alternative to our [the GNLF’s] demand for a separate state”.
Later, he would constantly remind his followers of the expulsion of Nepali-speaking populations from Assam and Meghalaya after ethnic strife in the region. It would allow him to argue that without a separate homeland for the Gorkhas, they would be vulnerable. The exodus of Nepali speakers from the Indian Northeast would be etched in the psyche of the people of Darjeeling for a long time and would contribute to feelings of insecurity that Ghisingh would go on to fan in his speeches and interviews.
The period of the 1980s, when Ghisingh started his political career, was an interesting period in larger Indian history. This period saw an intensification of ethnic struggles for separate homelands across the country. There was renewed militancy in Nagaland and Manipur. Members of Phizo’s Naga National Council sought connections with Kashmiri separatists, and Sikh leaders. India, in this same period, witnessed the Khalistan movement that Indira Gandhi sought to contain through ‘Operation Blue Star’. This was also the period when Assamese students mobilised and pushed the government to expunge Assam of
The larger public discourses in the centre portrayed these ethnic movements as anti-national, divisive, and dangerous. The representation of the Gorkhaland movement did not differ. Ghisingh and his allies were tuned into these discourses and made attempts to redefine their politics through a constant affirmation of their loyalty to the Indian Union and a constant reaffirmation of the Indian-ness of the Indian Gorkhas.
In an attempt to differentiate their community from the Nepali citizens across the border, Ghisingh and the Gorkhaland movement defined Indian Gorkhas as an ethno-linguistic group. In doing so, their assertion was that their own politics did not deter from the constitutional provisions for the creation of ethno-linguistic states in India. In other words, the ‘Indian Gorkhas’, as the Gorkhaland proponents asserted, were like most other ethnic groups in India—they had participated in the history of India, aspired to participate in Indian democracy, and wanted to be recognised by the state. It was their cultural difference from Bengalis and oppression under the state of West Bengal that warranted them a separate federal state of their own.
At the same time, Gorkhaland supporters made particular efforts to distinguish their own movement from secessionist movements that sought separate nation states of their own—particularly the movement for Khalistan. Gorkhaland supporters took pains to delineate the differences between their own interests and that of the Akali dal. Equally crucial was their attempts to distinguish themselves from movements in the states of Assam and Nagaland. Ghisingh would continually assert that he was not a Bhrindanwale or a Phizo but a Gandhian.
Not quite a Gandhian
His claims of being a Gandhian were, of course, unfounded. Ghisingh’s movement relied very much on violence. At least 1,200 people are known to have died in the violence between 1986 to 1988—most of them GNLF and CPI-M cadres. In a letter to Rajiv Gandhi, Ghisingh claimed that the violence of his movement was a way to negotiate democracy in the central government-dominated Indian political process. This is a crude reminder of the paradox of a nation-state where despite democratic processes and constitutional provisions, political legitimacy is defined by the exercise of violence.
The movement for Gorkhaland has also been deemed as a part of the Congress-led central government’s machinations to uproot communism from West Bengal. However, to read Ghisingh’s movement as such would be to undermine some critical questions about the recognition of minorities that Ghisingh’s politics raised in the course of the movement.
Ghisingh’s political iterations during the course of the Gorkhaland movement are reminders that regional politics are imbricated within the politics of the nation. In India, the discourses at the national level feed into the ways in which communities define themselves and frame their claims on the resources of the nation. Ghisingh’s sensitivity to these discourses was critical to his politics.
Ghisingh’s movement in the late 1980s led to the establishment of the autonomous hill council in Darjeeling. The establishment of this body was followed by a period of corruption, mismanagement, and political stagnation—much of which is credited to Ghisingh’s autocratic and undemocratic practices within the body.
Decline and death
By the early 2000s, Ghisingh had fallen out of favor in the hills. Understanding this, Ghisingh had made attempts to negotiate a Sixth Schedule (tribal status) for the Darjeeling hills that would give them some provisions for autonomous legislation and governance.
However, his calls to the people of the hills to ‘return to’ their tribal practices—to give up the worship of idols and return to animistic practices and to wear the Gorkhali (Nepali) dress on festivals and special occasions—was met with resistance. Ghisingh’s political maneuvering had become an issue of disdain in the hills. The voices against him were rising by 2007.
The ascendancy of Bimal Gurung and the second movement for Gorkhaland, predicated much on Ghisingh’s unpopularity in the hills. With Gurung’s ultimate negotiation with the West Bengal government in 2011, Ghisingh had largely been sidelined from the politics of the hills. Nevertheless, his party, the GNLF, had remained a voice of opposition to the Gurung-led Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM).
While his life has much to tell us of the politics of federation in India, the leader’s death cannot be taken to be insignificant either. For many, the movement led by Ghisingh was the first time that the question of their identity was raised in the political mainstream and to them; Ghisingh’s death was the death of an important leader.
The question as to what will happen to the party he founded, given that he ran it as an autocrat and did not establish a second-in-line remains to be seen. How the demise of Subhash Ghisingh will affect the power balance between the parties in Darjeeling is another question that has yet to play out.
Sharma is a student of modern Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University