The mountains ablaze: Darjeeling incinerating

The mountains ablaze: Darjeeling incinerating

Writer Arun Acharya

Darjeeling hills are once again in turmoil after a decade’s hiatus when the vehement uprising against the attempt to impose the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution ended in February end, 2008 with the ouster of its misguided proponent, Subhas Ghising, who was in cahoots with and prodded by the then Marxist State government of West Bengal to stem its aspiration for separation from Bengal.

The inhabitants of Darjeeling Hills have never been happy to be tagged with Bengal and the more conscious denizens have expressed so right from the beginning of the twentieth century when the first of the many memoranda was submitted to the British ruling authorities for the hills and the adjoining foothill areas inhabited predominantly by the hill people to be separated from Bengal. Although the first grievance for its separation from Bengal was raised in 1907, the real hardball was played during 1986-88 under the leadership of Subhas Ghising who led a violent movement against the State’s repressive instruments when the hills burned for two years under an unprecedented carnage of death, destruction, mayhem, arson and untold sufferings which culminated in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council purported and intended to be an autonomous administrative body under the aegis of the state of West Bengal. When Ghising inked his signature to the accord, the more concerned people of Darjeeling hills felt let down and a section of the people alleged it to be a sellout. Brutal internecine clashes followed between Ghising’s cadres and those opposing the accord led by a splintered group raised as a fighting force of the movement and eventually Ghising’s cadres, aided and abetted by the State administration and forces, crushed the opponents in a gory stamp out. The Ghising era ensued with the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council till its nemesis in 2007 end when he elbowed to infuse the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution into the frustrated hills. By that time he had come to ruefully realize the futility of carrying on with the settlement primarily due to the insincerity and subversion of the State government to impair the functioning of the Hill Council, reluctance to release necessary funds to run the Council and its programmes and, at the same time, turning a blind eye to and tacitly encouraging conspicuously flagrant corruption in the hills to cow down the hill leadership if they raised a voice of dissent.

The importance of Darjeeling is not just tea and tourism and the newly come up mammoth Hydro Power Projects, viz. the Teesta Low Dam phases III and IV and the earlier one existing at Jaldhaka near the Bhutan border and another one at Rammom in Darjeeling Sadar but of its profoundly precarious geopolitical location amenable to international ramifications that has the potential to not only hurt but also dismember and break the body and structure of India.

After the partition of India in 1947, the main body India and the seven states in the north eastern proximity identified as the North East is connected by a thin stretch of land more famously known as the chicken neck corridor. This narrow corridor which is at one point only about 17 kilometres wide, is wedged between Bangladesh to the south and China to the north through which pass the only connecting road and rail lines between the North East and the rest of India. A Chinese military advance of less than 130 kilometres would cut off Bhutan, part of West Bengal and all the North East rendering India into an almost similar circumstance of pre-1971 Pakistan. The scenario would be worse because the entire North East is landlocked with no access to the sea, either. This situation almost arose during the 1962 India-China war.

It is baffling to even the mildly curious why the Government of India sits pretty and ensconced looking the other way or behaving like the ostrich which digs the sand and hides its head thinking that its predator does not see it just because it does not see the pursuer. Is it because the intelligence agencies or the mandarins in the Home and Defence Ministries have not been able to sensitise the political masters who rule the roost about the jeopardy the nation is put to in ignoring this facet?

While the government in the Centre is entrusted with a plethora of responsibilities for the welfare, development and good governance of the nation, core national interest should stand paramount and sacrosanct. The chicken neck corridor is India’s Achilles heel, the vulnerable spot, in its holistic structure vis-a-vis the turbulent North East and the rest of the country.

The fate of the people of Darjeeling may not be of significant interest to the Government of India but keeping the Darjeeling area and the Dooars in its adjoining plains with a similar populace constantly on the boil, and for that matter, Sikkim, too, which inadvertently gets dragged into the imbroglio, is not in the larger national interest. This disturbed area will allow for conflict to rise in the North East and the country gets another headache for maintaining order. How much darker will the scene be with the Chinese shadow hovering over as they look on with gimlet eyes from their vantage point above across the Sikkim border?

Let us not hide from the fact that the Yellow Dragon is a world power with insatiable territorial and marine ambitions and fabricates all sorts of ruses to claim its rights and legitimacy – nee Tibet, Taiwan, South China Sea. It is now an accepted economic power capable of upsetting global trade and finance and on its way to challenging the American set-up and area of influence. How reliable it is in its treaties and agreements with India is obvious. It threw off the Panch Sheel Pact with India to the winds and invaded India in 1962 and now again tries to project the same pact it rejected and accuses India of transgressing the border in Donglang that has become a new flash point of conflict and the ensuing war of words between the two Asian giants.

China’s chip on its shoulder with India is:

  • Giving refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers.

  • Allowing the set up of the Tibetan Government in Exile and its function in India.

  • Facilitating the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh that is claimed to belong to Chinese Tibet.

Whatever may be the surface courtesy in diplomatic circles or in bilateral meets between government officials and leaders of China and India, China has always been blunt in its opposition to Indian aspirations and has no compunctions about it. To drive home the nail, just ponder over (a) blocking U N sanctions against a Pak based terrorist, (b) stymying India’s aspirations to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and (c) scoffing India’s protests with regard to its belt and road initiative in the China-Pak Economic Corridor that runs through the Aksai Chin in P O K.

It may be alarming to note that the Tibetan government in October, 1947 had officially asked India to hand over a wide swathe of territory it claimed to actually belong to Tibet – Ladhak, Tawang, Sikkim and, interestingly, Darjeeling, too. This communication was made to the Government of India during the tenure of the present (14th) Dalai Lama who did not repudiate it till he fled Tibet in October, 1959 to take refuge in India. The Chinese, who have taken over Tibet and accredited themselves to the Tibetan legacy, may only assume it fair to stake the past Tibetan claim.

That the chicken neck corridor is a significantly critical stretch of territory for India need not be honed or pricked to the powers that be or their advisors and analysts and it is naïve to even think that they are not cognizant of it. But unfortunately, for the bane of the nation, the politicians and the political class in India focus their attention to ephemeral political expediency and immediate short-term gains trampling long term national interest.

For the necessary clarity in the national context, it is pertinent to state that Darjeeling has been in Bengal by a strange quirk of circumstances. The Darjeeling wilderness was overrun and taken from Sikkim by Nepal in 1789-90 and after the Anglo-Gurkha war (1814-16), was handed over to Sikkim in 1817 by the East India Company as a gesture of gratitude for its assistance in the Gurkha war and again taken by the British on lease from Sikkim in 1835 for its cooler climes to set up a sanatorium and a convalescence centre and developed into a hill station for the white masters ruling the province of Bengal. It was placed there purely for the convenience of the white rulers under an aura of imperial flamboyance with total disregard to the natives and the migrants brought in there permanently to develop the place and man the myriad tea gardens established there with the sweat of their labour. Bengali population is virtually non-existent in the hill tea gardens or the farmlands. Initial attempts in its nascent stage to rope in plains labour for opening up the first road up hill from Pankhabari in 1839 ended up in a fiasco because whatever labourers cajoled and brought up from down below abandoned their camps and fled unable to bear the cold and unfamiliar mountain surroundings. Even during the British days Darjeeling was insulated from Bengal administration and kept as Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas at different points of time as a mark of differentiation from Bengal.

There is no reasonable ground why the Darjeeling Hills should be kept in Bengal from any point of view on whatever angle you look at - historically, geographically, ethnically, linguistically, culturally or demographically. The only reason why Bengal wants to retain Darjeeling in it is the carried-forward colonialist and imperialist psyche grafted to itself from the thrown-off skin of its past overseas masters. The era of colonialism and imperialism is history yet Darjeeling and the people living there are kept on reeling under it.

After the 1971 break up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, every political party ruling the State, be it the Congress, the CPI-M led Left Coalition who ruled for 35 years and now the Trinamool Congress has tacitly been encouraging the illicit infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims, accommodating and settling them, issuing ration cards and voter identity cards for vote bank for their narrow ephemeral political gains. Bangladeshi Muslims are a sizeable population in all the fringe areas of West Bengal bordering Bangladesh and they have been tacitly encouraged to settle in various North Bengal areas also including the Chicken Neck Corridor. Very recently shanty settlements were seen to mushroom along the 31A National Highway leading to Sikkim between Melli and Rongpoh in Kalimpong in an area under the forest. The nonchalant, newfangled occupants of the shanties were dark, bearded men wearing check loongis flaunting TMC banners that fluttered from above their shanties and the taller bamboo staffs erected there in a show unconcealed authority and legitimacy. Nobody had the guts or the sagacity to challenge them because of the potency of the T M C that had partially succeeded in dividing the inhabitants of the hills along caste lines by roping in greedy scroungers from among the hill people. The law does not allow the State government to use the forest area for purposes other than for forest related determinations without the permission of the Director General of Forests, Government of India. It is a sinister design of the Mamta led T M C intended to cull the Darjeeling movement. In doing so, seeds for future troubles are being sown in systematic thoughtlessness. What does an average Indian compatriot read from this? The vote bank game of the politicians puts the sensitive region in jeopardy and may in course of time bleed the nation. Why was India partitioned in 1947? Are we inviting another partition? It is for the national leaders and real statesmen of stature and true integrity to be concerned about this development and put a curb to this nefarious game of parochial politicians who are the real enemies of the Indian nation. It is high time for the saner and clearer thinking Bengali brothers and sisters whose forebears have produced such tall men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore who have made all India hold its head high to be rational and take the step of reason instead of being blind followers and cohorts of malevolent politicians who are a blot to the proud Bengali heritage.

The bitter truth is that Bengal today is a sinking ship. It lives in its past glory. Calcutta was the business hub of and the financial capital of India till independence. Mumbai has taken its place and Bengal’s slide down has been on almost all fronts right from education, industry and entrepreneurship to agriculture. Even politics in Bengal is not in tune with progress but has been self -destructive. It is essential for Darjeeling to bail itself out of the sinking ship and get into a lifeboat.

The hill people of Darjeeling, more particularly the Gorkhas, have been subjected to a racial slur, grades of innuendos, insinuations and insults by Bengal politicians from time to time and their nationality questioned every now and then. One vice president of Mamta’s T M C even had the cheeks to suggest striking off their names from the voter lists in Siliguri, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Darjeeling if their names were not featured in the census of 1931 and then one by one send them back to Nepal. Protests were raised but Mamta Banerjee chose to remain silent. It only meant that she endorsed it. Even the so-called lover of the hills, Mr. Sidhartha Shankar Ray, during his tenure as Chief Minister of the State, made sure that the lone Lok Sabha seat of Darjeeling had a non-hill people edge by gerrymandering the parliamentary seat in changing a significant Gorkha dominated area in the plains to a completely Bengali dominated enclave. Their tallest post independence leader, Bidhan Chandra Roy, had the census figures of 1961 manipulated by dividing the Gorkha people into a number of clans to prove that Nepali speaking people were a minority in the hills. Half a century later his successor to the post in her presumed and chauvinistically acclaimed political masterstroke took a step further to divide the hill people by forming caste based Development Boards to perpetually foment division among the hill people by driving wedges between them and creating inter caste and inter racial hatred among an integrated group of people who have lived as neighbours in pristine harmony for over a century. This act of hers is against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution and out rightly seditious. Thinking that she had made an inroad to the forbidden hills after wresting one of the smaller municipal boards in a recent election, the lady went for an overkill and declared the Bengali language to be made compulsory in the non-Bengali populated hills. This was too much for the browbeaten hills that exploded in an unprecedented opposition against the intended imposition. The damage control deflection after the unanticipated reaction of the entire hills came to no avail. Then the West Bengal government tried to quell the protests by using force. Police firing and killing a few protesters did not work. Hill people rose in revolt against the sinister killing setting the hills ablaze in retaliation. Many more deaths and injuries followed and even the police and a number of the CRPF personnel had to bear the brunt of the khukuri, the Gorkha knife. A complete bandh has been going on in the hills for almost a month now. A number of government offices and police outposts have been ransacked and burned. Rallies and public processions have almost become daily features in the burning hills.

Is this state of affairs to go on in this highly volatile area? It seems that the people in the hills are fed up of the gimmicks of the political leadership in the hills where corruption, nepotism, cronyism and self-aggrandizement had been the principal activity in the GTA and there is a growing skepticism about the sincerity of the people at the helm who had taken the mantle of the fate of the people regarding the core issue in the people’s movement. There is a lurking fear that the movement may be waylaid to another temporary fruitless settlement by baiting and enticing the local leadership with more personal benefits for them. This time round it is unlikely that the hill people will acquiesce quietly and should not be taken for granted.

People gather in the continuing rallies in different areas of the troubled region on their own and messages are relayed through whatever means they have, now that the internet is off there by government order. Social networking is proscribed and so are the local TV channels that fed local news to the eager populace yet the average hill man and hill woman are undeterred. If the present turmoil is not settled in the proper perspective and if the nation’s guardians comprising of the intelligence agencies, the national security advisor, the home and foreign secretaries just convene another meeting and keep on treating this outbreak lightly as they have done in the past or guffaw over it as an extended joke over a sit in for a tea party, they may be in for rude shock and do the nation a great disservice. This outbreak is simply an extension of the many previous outbreaks and such outbreaks and protests will continue in the foreseeable future albeit with breaks, long or short, in between anytime whenever an irresponsible statement or act comes in from an obsessive politician with scant national or human regards.

Unforeseen, toxic happenings dangerous to the nation cannot be ruled out. The goings-on in the Darjeeling hill areas now is not innocuous and our cloak and dagger boys gathering intelligence are either not prudent or could be charged with dereliction of duty if they are not projecting the impending dangers. It was in the news and common knowledge that the Indian army has been deeply worried after coming to know about the use of satellite phones, not allowed to the public for common usage in the country, in Darjeeling area from where conversations were made to parties in Nepal, Tibet and China.

Recently within this bandh period, masked, tough-looking young men not known to the local populace seem to materialise and mingle with the crowd in rallies. Unfamiliar masked men are said to slither from the spots vandalised or under arson. People are being shot at purportedly by the police security personnel provoked. The police are believed to have shot the agitating men in the crowd and killed them, yet weirdly they have filed an F I R against the principal party leaders in the hills. The leading party chief wants a C B I probe into the matter. Who is behind all this? Who are these unfamiliar men? Where do they come from?

What with all this in this highly sensitive area? Will not the chicken neck, and for that matter, the nation itself be affected? Is discussing it in the corridors of power and paramount advising bodies going to be another sit in the tea party? Would China, known to have aided and fomented trouble in the North East, sit tight simply watching the goings-on. If the powers that be in Delhi choose to scoff at this growing menace again, could China not bolstering the disturbances in Darjeeling hills and the Dooars be ruled out? Would it not be damaging India more with lesser effort especially in context with the chicken neck corridor? Let us also not forget that one of the factors that led to the Chinese aggression in 1962 was the unpleasant Kalimpong situation during the latter half of the 1950s till the war when Kalimpong was the undeclared headquarters of the Khampa Tibetan Resistance forces. Gun and ammo running was rampant in Kalimpong then with whoever interested in making a quick buck being involved to be sent across the border to the Khampa fighters in Tibet. Kalimpong had been full of spies – the C I A, British spies, the Chinese Kuomintang spies, Chinese Communist spies and what not. Chou-en-lai, the then Chinese Premier, is said to have brought it to the notice of Nehru for a record five times orally and through letter asking Nehru to intervene and stop the goings-on there but Nehru chose to overlook it and the Chinese invaded India, occupied Bomdilla in Arunachal Pradesh for a couple of months and unilaterally went back across the border after giving the nation a humiliating drubbing and smashing Nehru’s self-respect. Prudence on Nehru’s part could have possibly averted the historical blot.

Keeping Darjeeling areas within the State of West Bengal under the circumstances explained hereinabove and taking into consideration the impending menace that cannot be easily ruled out, it is obligatory for the Centre to extricate it and take it under its control by whatever means it deems fit. Corruption is so deeply rooted in the Darjeeling dispensation right from the days of Ghising and nobody dares voice it for the certain ruthless backlash to follow from those involved in it in a way that crime lords do it in organised crime. The government of West Bengal is least bothered to curb it and they have been covertly and very tacitly encouraging this in order to even make the autonomous bodies grafted in here a failure. So, it is the proper time that the Central Government delves seriously into this issue in all its dimensions and come up with a permanent solution. Isn’t Union Territory status for Darjeeling is the best option in the national interest ambit? It should not hurt the ego of the West Bengal ruling or parochial dispensations because it gives them the opportunity to pat themselves on the back that the area taken out of it is not in a status at par with itself. It will definitely give the hill people a bit of the Indian sun on their shoulders and throw out the Bengal shadow that darkens their lives.

The author is an influential thinker in the hills of Darjeeling. He has fought corruption in the highest places in the North East. 

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