Election in DarjeelingFreedom to use terms like ‘identity’ and ‘Gorkhaland’ was confined to the local level
Election fever has once again gripped the violence prone hill town of Darjeeling. For the next one month, large-scale manipulation, ‘purchase of seat’, backroom defections, false promises and casteist and communalist agendas will mar this otherwise famous tourist destination. It was never like this till at least the mid-1980s when the fierce Gorkhaland movement changed the entire landscape and contents of hill politics. Despite far reaching objectives and modest achievements, this movement brought unnervingly vicious trends.
Firstly, the dominance of one political party with heinous violence became the rule. With survival as the only objective, these political parties consistently compromised on all demands and aspirations of the hill people. Secondly, institutions including schools and panchayats were systematically demolished, and a relatively high standard governance system that prevailed since the colonial days were steadily uprooted. Thirdly, in order to crush the locals, these political parties started bringing paratroopers from Delhi as candidates to contest the parliamentary election. Fourthly, large-scale migration and settling down of people ‘from nowhere’ happened in the plains. This changed the arithmetic of vote counts as people in the hills were bundled into a poor minority.
Fifthly, the economic and employment situation in the hills deteriorated so acutely that people started taking governmental projects as ‘favours’ rather than ‘rights’. Sixthly, political parties cultivated a new crop of parasites from across the professions as a tool to prolong their rule. And finally, the West Bengal government became hill leader-centric and ignored the general mass. To tame the leader, the government adopted a simple PP model (Paisa and Police). Under this model, adequate money was given to the leaders without any transparency and accountability, and the freedom to use terms like ‘identity’ and ‘Gorkhaland’ was confined to the local level.
The moment these leaders moved away from this collaboratively decided path, the Bengal administration used police and force to uproot them and their parasitic cohorts. So promoting ‘bogus leaders’, buying talkative hollow intellectuals, asking people to beg for development, keeping the common folks truly under official mercy and enticing professionals with petty gains and keeping the folk divided and confined to above the Sukuna range actually became the standard operative procedure.
When we contested the last parliamentary election from the hills in 2014, we could actually unravel the mysteries of election games. We could see how national and regional political parties earned their doctorate degrees in sophisticated manipulation of finances, manpower and other machineries. This is despite the elaborate code of conduct publicised by the Election Commission. When we were asked to explain who paid for the five bottles of mineral water at our campaign in a village, the national political parties hired hundreds of vehicles to gather at a huge playground in the plains, fed the people expensive packed lunches, mineral water and tea, and gave them T-shirts and also attractive pocket money. Each of the 1,200-odd polling booths was literally a food court with the choicest beverages. Some polling officials were enjoying the offerings too. When we protested, we were dragged to court. This was our first but ever memorable crash course in grassroots democracy.
The mantra of the election game is just promises and fake assurances. The then would be Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Darjeeling in March 2014, and murmuring the caste names he promised scheduled tribe status to the 11 Gorkha tribes. Hinting at the issue of Gorkhaland, he said, “The dreams of the Gorkhas are actually my dreams too.” He was campaigning for a never known and seen candidate MS Ahluwalia of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. The candidate won the election, and both him and the people just forgot each other. Earlier, when Telangana reached a crucial phase of being declared the 29th state of India in 2013, Darjeeling was once again in turmoil. The then paratrooped heavy weight candidate of the 2009 election Jaswant Singh from the same Bharatiya Janata Party had categorically told us that the party would not like to listen to the word Gorkhaland. If he utters it in Parliament, he will be expelled by the party; and if the people of Darjeeling want, he can even resign.
We did mention all these things during our campaign in 2014. But still people voted for a paratrooped candidate once again. In the 1990s, it was another paratrooped candidate Inder Jit brought by the Gorkha National Liberation Front who vociferously argued in Parliament against the constitutional recognition of the Nepali language. The Trinamul Congress was no less in this model when it brought Bhaichung Bhutia all the way from Sikkim as its candidate.
Where are those promises now? When Narendra Modi said that if a Gorkha was standing outside as a guard at your home, and you could use a lock costing Rs50 and sleep tightly and safely, all the Gorkhas at that campaign meeting jumped and applauded. Were they so amused and elated with the ‘security guard’ identity? When the winner Ahluwalia emerged out of the vote counting hall at Bhanu Bhawan in Darjeeling, we saw the Gorkha leaders dancing in joy. However, when a 105-day bandh in 2017 literally made Darjeeling a condemned outpost, and when the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leadership was vanquished and their houses were inhumanly raided under ‘Kudki law’ by the Bengal police, Ahluwalia failed to even once visit the hills. What a travesty of destiny for the hill folks whose issues of identity, Gorkhaland and development are now in total oblivion.
Basic demands like fixing minimum wages for tea workers, extending the central government projects and panchayat system, rejuvenating the Cinchona plantation, repairing the national highway, giving a national institution like university, making Darjeeling a member of the North Eastern Council, and also repositioning Darjeeling on the tourism map by declaring it a smart city could have been easily done by the powerful Bharatiya Janata Party government. Even if Ahluwalia had given something to his constituency out of his several ministerial portfolios, there would have been something to demonstrate as actions.
Taking full advantage of the faceless, purchasable and saleable Gorkha leaders, the Bengal government capitalised on the caste and ethnic divisions among the Gorkhas by giving them unparalleled individual development boards. This divisive trend of dividing the Indian Gorkhas actually came from Sikkim where, in order to oust the NB Bhandari government, the now ruling party actually advocated, practiced and flourished on casteist divisions and decomposition of the Sikkimese Nepalis.
Lama is a senior professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.