Gorkhaland and beyond
15 December 2014
Responses to the Gorkhaland agitation demonstrate the one-size-fits-all policy identity movements in India encounter.
The West Bengal government’s response to the Gorkhaland movement follows the same predictable pattern we have seen in Jharkhand, Nagaland, Kashmir and elsewhere. Attempts to resolve ethno-regional conflicts in India have a long history, and have coalesced into a single approach that presupposes the conflicts as being purely political phenomena. It is ironic, then, that the substance of this ‘political approach’ generally involves the use of punitive measures by state governments to compel contending groups to engage in negotiations. Within this framework, the recurring need is to discipline and punish unruly subjects. Those struggling for Gorkhaland know this well.
The state’s response was predictable and involved the deployment of paramilitary forces, the reviving of all pending cases against GJM party workers and leaders, and mass imprisonment.
The desire for self-governance in the Darjeeling hills is centred on two major claims. The first is the recognition of the collective social and cultural rights that earmark their distinctiveness from the Bengali ‘other’. The second is the aspiration to achieve self governance without jeopardising the sovereignty of the nation state. The contours of the Gorkhaland movement, which is over 100 years old, have been defined by the conflation of these positions – the politics of identity on the one hand, and the realisation of this identity through the politics of self-rule on the other. The movement has mobilised issues of ‘primordiality’ (language, culture, race, shared history, dress) and civility (nationality and citizenship) as important bases of articulation.
A long time coming
A separate administrative system for the Gorkhas of the Darjeeling Hills was first proposed in the early years of the last century, although it was not until the 1980s that the Subhas Ghising-led movement for a separate state reached its violent and vocal apex. In August 1988 the agitators accepted the provision of a Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which although falling short of complete autonomy, went some way to devolving power to the hills. Ghising took charge of the new Hill Council and became the figurehead of peace and governance, along with his party men. Outside the Sixth Schedule areas of the Northeast, the DGHC was the first sub-state, local administrative arrangement of its kind in India, and was later used as a post-conflict mechanism to restore normalcy in Ladakh, Jharkhand, and Bodoland. The enthusiasm and hope at the initiation of the Hill Council soon dissipated, however, and the DGHC has since shown itself to be a storehouse of corruption, political high-handedness and nepotism. As Ghising’s popularity waned, his authority was challenged by one of his close associates, Bimal Gurung, who founded a new platform, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), in October 2007. Gurung usurped his former political boss in 2008.
With a new leader and political platform, the Gorkhaland movement received a new lease of life. Noticeable in the GJM’s approach was a decrease in conflict, and the presence of a peculiar blend of Gandhigiri and non-violence. The possibility of recourse to force was nonetheless implicit. On the whole, the movement remained largely peaceful in its new avatar compared to the struggle of the late 1980s. Still, the daylight killing in May 2010 of All India Gorkha League chief Madan Tamang sent shockwaves through the hills.
Gurung and his GJM have opted to follow ‘procedural’ democracy at the cost of ‘substantive’ democracy, and instead of boycotting parliamentary and Assembly elections (which Ghising and his GNLF repeatedly did), the GJM has used them as an opportunity to flex their electoral muscle. In parliamentary elections in 2009, and again in 2014, the GJM supported the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead of promoting its own candidate. It is not Hindutva ideology that enabled the BJP to repeatedly secure the single parliamentary seat earmarked for the district; rather, the GJM backed the BJP candidate Jaswant Singh (in 2009) and S S Ahluwalia (in 2014) – decidedly outsiders – and campaigned for them in the hope that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, they would fulfil the promise of considering the Gorkhaland issue made in their Lok Sabha manifestos.
Electoral politics in the Darjeeling hills is dominated by the Gorkhaland issue, and this focus is only likely to continue. There will be no break from this trend in the future unless the culture of ethnic bloc-voting changes. The incentives to do so are slim. The ascendancy of the GJM was founded on the strategy of bloc-voting, achieving significant results: as soon as the 2011 Assembly elections were over and the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee sworn in as Chief Minister, the process of reconciling with the aggrieved hill leadership was initiated. The GJM initially welcomed the new state government, and a Gorkhaland Territorial Agreement (GTA) was signed between Trinamool and the GJM in July 2011.
When the central government gave the go-ahead for Telengana, and the Trinamool in Calcutta showed no signs of doing the same for Gorkhaland, Bimal Gurung resigned from his post as chief executive of the GTA on July 30 and began the ‘final struggle’ (antim larai). Besides mass rallies, the series of no-compromise protests involved road-rolling by naked youths, hair tonsuring by women and the etching of Gorkhaland slogans on naked bodies, among other symbolic gestures. The precipitating factor for the antim larai was the act of self-immolation that killed one protester (Mangal Singh Rajput – projected as the ‘war hero’ and the ‘only martyr’ in the recent Gorkha agitation – was born out of a ‘Gorkha mother’) in Kalimpong in July.
The state’s response was predictable and involved the deployment of paramilitary forces, the reviving of all pending cases against GJM party workers and leaders, and mass imprisonment. Though the state government had earlier agreed to make efforts to release persons in custody (except those charged with murder) as per the provisions of the GTA tripartite agreement of July 2011, mass imprisonment emerged as a tool to exert pressure upon the movement’s leadership and rank and file. Over 1000 men and women who had joined the GJM’s programme were imprisoned.
Facilitated by the High Court’s verdict in Rama Prasad Sarkar vs The State of West Bengal, the state government adopted a ‘rough and tough’ approach, declaring all strikes ‘illegal’, and issuing an ultimatum to the GJM to withdraw within 72 hours or face dire consequences. The strikes continued in different forms, including a janta curfew – a novel form of protest in which people registered their dissent by remaining indoors and away from the danger of arrest. In response, the state government began withholding the salaries of government employees who remained absent from their duties on strike days, and ordered ration dealers to open their shops or have their registration cancelled. As part of the mass imprisonment, the state government also jailed a number of business scions for their alleged role in supplying the money and foodstuffs necessary to run the movement during August and September.
The Joint Action Committee (JAC), a new pressure group comprising all political groups active in the hills, was formed in mid-August to determine the future course of the renewed agitation. The JAC ruled out negotiating with the state government, instead insisting on the Centre’s intervention to which the state government was opposed. The central government’s attitude regarding Gorkhaland was ambivalent, despite its positive stance on the Telengana demand. This added fuel to the burning cauldron of the hills. All other political parties in West Bengal refrained from directly criticising the steps taken by the state government to dissipate the most recent Darjeeling crisis, although organisations such as the Bengal-based Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), All India Students’ Association (AISA), Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh (BGP) and Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) did raise their voices against human-rights violations committed by the state.
In deploying the ‘state of exception’ model in the recent past, the state has tried to ‘set apart’ the citizens of the Darjeeling hills and deny them a politicised form of life.
State of exception
The response by the Indian state to the agitations in the Darjeeling hills during the past thirty years reflects the implementation of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has referred to as a ‘state of exception’. In order to maintain the normative aspect of law in Darjeeling, the state in all sincerity has obliterated, contradicted and suspended the law itself. During the agitation in the summer of 2013, Darjeeling temporarily became, as Agamben puts it, a space “devoid of law, a zone of anomie in which all legal determinations were deactivated”. Life remained paralysed throughout the months of August and September. Offices, educational institutions, markets and shops were shut down; roads were deserted. Myriad security forces including the Rapid Action Force (RAF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), as well as the police patrolled the streets day and night while many of Darjeeling’s Muslim inhabitants stayed away from Eid-Ul-Fitr celebrations in support of the antim larai for Gorkhaland. The indiscriminate arrest of GLP volunteers, including women and top brass GJM leaders such as Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa, continued. Television stations covering the protests were closed down at short notice, and bandhs were declared illegal.
The ‘state of exception’ perspective provides us with an opportunity to make sense of the Darjeeling situation, and the central and state government’s responses to what are perceived as challenges to its hegemony and the body of the union. Post-independence, the deployment of the ‘state of exception’ has been common in India during times of both war (in 1962, 1971 and 1999) and peace (during Indira Gandhi’s 1975 State of Emergency). In the absence of an actual war, ethnic movements demanding new homelands or states appear to the disciplinary gaze of the government as something of a ‘miniature war’, which justifies deploying the ‘state of exception’ model before the situation gets out of control. Declarations of loyalty to the Indian Union that are made at the same time as demands for reconfigurations within it are generally ignored by the state and media, especially when any proposed realignment will take place in sensitive border regions.
In deploying the ‘state of exception’ model in the recent past, the state has tried to ‘set apart’ the citizens of the Darjeeling hills and deny them a politicised form of life. The hill people – the citizens – are reduced to a ‘bare life’ common to all living beings; one which lies beyond the reach of political interference. Attempts to normalise the hills by employing abnormal measures stand justified within this reasoning, simply because the state has intended to invest in the body of the Gorkha law-abiding qualities, albeit by outlawing them. During the months of August and September 2013, the ‘rough and tough’ approach of the state government culminated in the successful deployment of the ‘state of exception’ and prescribed the agitating Gorkhas this ‘bare’ life common to all living creatures, and demanded that they remain busy within the privacy of their home. They should eat, propagate, educate, entertain and fulfil all other mundane needs, but should refrain from raising the cry for Gorkhaland, assembling for political meetings or processions, or participating in any political programme of action.
Similar scenarios have unfolded practically every time demands for statehood have been raised by ethno-regional outfits in India since Independence. Across the spectrum, the political parties in power at the central or state level have, generally, been at the very least suspicious of aspirations to carve out new states. Consequently, the reliance upon the ‘state of exception’ framework has become the rule rather than the exception. In other words, the suspension of the rule of civilian law and the framework it provides for citizens to engage in democratic discussions and processes is seen as the best tool in the state’s armoury to meet challenges posed by ethnic or linguistic demands. Such an approach, as Agamben reminds us, renders citizens as outlaws, who have no recourse to law other than that of the sovereign’s power over life and death.
Ethnos vs polity
From a legal perspective, one cannot invalidate ‘separate state’ movements in India by simply terming them ‘anti-constitutional’. Article 3 of the Indian Constitution, for example, maintains in unambiguous terms that Parliament may lawfully create a state. The meaning of this for state governments that do not wish to see their borders redrawn is that if the demand for a separate state is not from the outset anti-constitutional, then there is a need for an alternative code of politics that will complicate and derail the whole process to ensure that the integrity of the Union (and the ambit of any particular state government) is left intact. That the Darjeeling situation has been temporarily normalised only by the preventative mass-arrests and police violence that go along with a ‘state of exception’, makes clear that the protesters’ demands have been put on the back burner at best.
When people consider the merits of ethnic group loyalty, there is a tendency to view this loyalty as autonomous of the state and polis, and inherently dangerous, irrational and unpredictable – particularly so in sensitive border areas. The noted Darjeeling-based writer Indra Bahadur Rai counters this perception in a 1994 essay titled ‘Indian Nepali Nationalism and Nepali Poetry’, where he writes: “One can finally emerge as a pan-Indian nationalist by inductively working one’s way up from premises of patriotically loving your own national people and serving one’s own national community.”
The state, however, superimposes national loyalty above everything else, and continues to view ethnic loyalty as disruptive to the unified logic of a homogenous nation state. Time and again in India, when it comes to working out policy measures for restoring peace and normalcy in conflict zones, the ‘agitating’ ethnic groups remain at the receiving end of a process which reduces the pre-existing linkages between ethnic loyalty and national loyalty to its own often dictatorial terms. The state’s policies in Kashmir and Assam reflect this. That is why the inclusionary measures of the state have an innate tendency to reinforce the forceful assimilation of the dissenting parties within the body of the liberal democratic set up.
The Gorkhaland movement has defied the expectancy of the liberal nation state’s political scientists (usually residing at the nation state’s centre).
In societies like India’s, which have a richer cultural and civilizational understanding of the ‘nation thing’ (to use Spivak’s provocative attribution) than simply as a politically cultivated nationalism, issues of ethnic and national loyalty need to be viewed as social processes which interact continuously with each other. When viewed in this way, ethnic movements appear as processes – products of historical and social forces through which the linkages between the two types of loyalties are not only established or expanded, but can also be discursively strengthened. Ethnicity in this sense need not necessarily counter national loyalty. Unless these conceptual issues are appreciated beforehand, any attempt to devise policy measures to effectively address regional demands for autonomy is bound to fail.
Conspicuously enough, this perception is totally missing in the way the Gorkhaland movement has been handled by the state over the years. Instead of disciplining and punishing those who superpose ethnic loyalty over national loyalty, the state should concern itself with making provisions (and not merely in the form of liberal accommodation) to enable the supporters of Gorkhaland to receive positive recognition in the eyes of the mainstream. Conflict resolution measures thus should not aim at forced assimilation, but rather be worked out in such a manner that the contending parties can find a space in the larger body politic of the nation state wherein their voices could be heard and recognised by the ‘other’.
The Indian state’s response to ethnic movements in general, and to Gorkhaland in particular, has proved to be extremely problematic. In identity-based violent conflicts, the opposing positions of ethnic and national loyalty place severe problems in the path of working out policies and measures for their resolution as both ‘sides’ invariably see each other as ‘the enemy’. The formula that the state proposes when responding to ethnic or linguistic demands is based on the liberal expectation that the ‘us-them’ divide will eventually disappear, and be replaced by a ‘we’ through the different mechanics of inclusion offered by the state. The point here is that this formula is neither attractive to agitating groups, nor is it even necessarily desirable for the nation as a whole.
Indeed, such conflict resolution measures which have as their ultimate goal the universal ‘we’, actually result in the implementation of steps which are perceived locally as hegemonic structures of dominance and subordination, and encourage expressions of ethnicity.
It needs to be remembered that for those who are involved in such courses of action, ethnic violence and perceived oppression by the state are not intellectual questions to be solved by informed and rational understandings. Similarly, promises of increased inclusion or the addressing of grievances through ‘confidence building measures’ by the state may not necessarily result in lasting solutions to ethnic antagonism. The problem, at its core, is not in fact a lack of contact or development, but of security and trust.
Peace initiatives framed by the state with the vision of homogenising the differences between ‘us and them’ run the risk of submerging the rebel voice and reinstating the same hegemonic structure which bred the problem in the first place. This has led to the dilution of the ‘security’ and ‘trust’ components of Gorkha ethnicity. An alternative thus could be a policy that recognises the different stakeholders of the ethnic cause. Such an approach may lead towards the highlighting of shared identities and aim at strengthening ethnic identities and cultures. Peace efforts should not aim for homogenisation; rather, local cultural substances should be allowed to grow in a plural Indian society. There need not necessarily be a dichotomy between ethnic and national loyalty – indeed, it is by recognising ethnic particularities that a national loyalty can be achieved.
It needs to be stressed that while demands for Gorkhaland have remained unambiguously vocal in promoting ethnicity, they never aspired to jettison the Gorkhas’ loyalty to India. Gorkhas have fought (and died) for India in large numbers since Independence. Even a cursory glance at the literature which has emerged from Darjeeling reveals a deep patriotism and pride at being Indian. The demand for Gorkhaland is neither unconstitutional, nor anti-national. Nevertheless, such claims of self determination have been raised by the Gorkhas often by following extra-constitutional paths. The history of the Gorkhaland movement has hardly followed the trajectory of an inverse ‘U’ curve, as predicted by academics in Western universities.
In fact, the Gorkhaland movement has defied the expectancy of the liberal nation state’s political scientists (usually residing at the nation state’s centre), who ascertain that the heightened mobilisation of group identities is followed by negotiations, and eventually decline. In this reckoning, as exhaustion sets in, some leaders are repressed, others are co-opted, and a degree of power-sharing and accommodation is reached.
The Indian state has followed exactly such a policy, but the strategy has failed to yield satisfactory results in the Darjeeling hills, and elsewhere. Many Gorkha activists and their followers continue to sincerely believe that given the chance to govern their own destiny, they would be better off economically, more secure politically, and far happier socially and culturally. When such is the reality, conflict resolution strategies aimed at bridging cultural differences, eradicating specific grievances and doling out development sops will have little effect, especially in the continuing absence of communal security and mutual trust. Nor will the introduction of new administrative arrangements based on political concessions and economic subsidies be capable of establishing long-term consensus and cooperation. Although the present brand of hill leadership has recently succumbed to the state government and accepted the proposal to re-run the GTA smoothly as a ‘development agency’, one should by no means consider the present settlement as the final answer to the demand for autonomy in the Darjeeling hills.
~ Dr. Swatahsiddha Sarkar is a researcher, columnist and faculty in sociology at the University of North Bengal, Darjeeling. He has researched Gorkha identity and politics for over a decade, and has been an Honorary Fellow (2010-2011) at the Centre for Conflict Resolution and Human Security (CCRHS), New Delhi. Gorkhaland Movement: Ethnic Conflict and State Response (2013) is his first book.