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Citizenship, Autonomy and Political Closure: Re-examining Accommodation of Diversity

By Samir Sharma

North Bengal: The Nature of Contesting Claims

The Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts in North Bengal have an interesting history comprising of kingdoms, migrations and encounters with the British colonial administration. With the development of the tea plantations and the introduction of railways, these areas became important parts of the British Empire in India, particularly for plantations, sanatoriums, tea exports and recruitment for the military. Colonialism also devised its own administrative apparatus consisting of ‘partially excluded areas’, which was applied to the Darjeeling and surrounding areas. The British policy of recruiting the ‘Gorkhas’ and the colonial discourse of the ‘martial races’ for the armed forces is still continued by the Government of India. This has its intended and unintended consequences for the Nepali speaking population in the Darjeeling Hills. In the contemporary period, this region has been the site of numerous contestations of the notions of ‘citizenship’ and ‘territoriality’, exemplified by the agitations for and against the Nepali-speaking population, tribal and non-tribal populations and also the ‘Bangladeshi immigrant’, which has sparked debates regarding autonomy, citizenship, territory, protective discrimination and inclusion-exclusion.

 According to the 2001 Census, in the Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts, the Scheduled tribe population accounts for a sizeable proportion:  21.0% and 13.8% respectively as compared to the State average of 5.6%. Similarly, Jalpaiguri has 36.71% of the Scheduled Castes while Darjeeling has 16.09%. Apart from these groups, there are others which are classified as ‘Other Backward Classes’ that include many Muslim communities and the Nepali-speaking communities such as Rai, Dewan and Newar. In the recent years, groups and communities, such as the Tamangs and Limbus, have managed to gain tribal status while the demands from other groups (almost all) for tribal or similar kind of recognition are on the rise. Coupled with these developments, there has been a strong demand in the federal reorganization of India, particularly in the three demands for Gorkhaland, Greater Cooch Behar and Kamtapur, the proposed area of which includes both the Darjeeling hills and the Dooars-Terai region. This multiplicity of demands has raised important issues as far as the management and accommodation of these diversities in these areas are concerned.

Given such a context, the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri regions have witnessed agitations and movements for a variety of claims that range from separate statehood, non-territorial autonomy, and sub-federal territorial institutional arrangements to Sixth Schedule. Such developments have given rise to claims and counter-claims by various political groups where massive political mobilizations of various groups are observed, which in some cases have also turned violent. Real or imagined notions of community, identity, inclusion-exclusion and development have played an important part through which these movements/mobilizations are sustained, revived or even created. These developments have raised new questions on issues of territoriality, citizenship, autonomy, the need for a second internal reorganization of India, the manner of accommodation and the management of various diversities. It is with such a background in mind that the present essay seeks to examine these areas and the issues within them.

Autonomy and Sub-state Autonomy: Some Issues

The Darjeeling demand for autonomy and statehood is one of the unique cases in the democratic history of India. The agreement of 1988 was the first time that self-governing institution was granted not to an indigenous tribal group that was threatening secession from India but to a group that was instead demanding integration. It is in this context that institutional arrangements like the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (1988) and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (2011) were created under the laws of the state of West Bengal. The DGHC ceased to function after the formation of the GTA. However, such attempts have not succeeded in completely satisfying the political aspirations of the Nepali-speaking population in the hills. The demand for statehood is raised time and again, along with the issues of ‘identity’ and ‘development’.

The fate of the GTA remains unclear as the GJM leader, Bimal Gurung, has made it clear time and again that it is a mere stepping stone to a full-fledged statehood. The Memorandum of Agreement signed in 2011 lays down that the GJM is not dropping the demand  for Gorkhaland. On the other hand, political and cultural-linguistic groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP), the Amra Bangali, Bangla O Bangla Bhasa Bachao Committee (Save Bengal and Bengali Language Committee) and the West Bengal Bodo People’s Forum (WBBPF), who are influential in the Terai-Dooars region, have opposed the formation of Gorkhaland. Some groups have also demanded the formation of an Adivasi Territorial Administration (ATA) under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution for the Dooars region. The ABAVP is against the inclusion of the territory of Dooars into the GTA or for the proposed state of Gorkhaland. The Left Front in North Bengal also regards all these demands as ‘separatist’ which are attempting to divide the people in the name of Gorkhaland, Kamtapur and Greater Cooch Behar. Although the ruling Trinamool Congress party has made it clear that separation of Darjeeling from Bengal would not be possible, because it heads the government it has been engaging in negotiations and dialogue with the various parties, particularly the GJM. However, recent reports indicate that tensions have risen with the relationship of the TMC and the GJM taking a backseat. With this  the GJM has threatened  to launch a ‘militant’ agitation for the state of Gorkhaland. If that happens, then the entire Darjeeling and Terai-Dooars region will plunge into violence and crisis.

It is however clear that these kinds of politico-administrative setups are not without problems.  Since there is mobility, including contiguity of territory and population in these areas, state recognition of one group or community has their consequence among other groups. This is also one of the most important problems that the present essay seeks to address. While the Darjeeling hill areas are dominated by the Nepali speaking population, the Dooars-Terai region has a majority of the adivasi or tribal population. The problem is compounded because these two major groups are further fragmented into respective communities or even castes. There are therefore numerous inter/intra ethnic conflicts and friction relating to state response, recognition, representation, rights, citizenship and territorial jurisdictions.

As a scheduled district or backward tract, Darjeeling partially excluded areas under the British rule, when autonomous enclaves for administration were experimented. After 1947, the areas of Darjeeling were made part of the state of West Bengal and a separate district of Darjeeling was established consisting of the hilly towns of Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong including some parts of the Terai region. The Hill Affairs Department was in charge of the Darjeeling areas. After the creation of DGHC in 1988,  an attempt was made to bring it  under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule in 2007. In 2011, the GTA was created which replaced the DGHC.

As a consequence of such accommodation, a number of hill councils have dotted the Indian federal administrative structure. While Indian federalism is considered as multilevel, primarily through the introduction of the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendment, the status of these councils (especially the ones created by the means of sub-state or sub-federal autonomy) have sometimes remained ambivalent vis-a-vis the Indian multilevel federal administrative structure. Such ambivalence is also observed in the process of forming and also the resulting arrangements of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) and the present Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). There is a ‘lack of clarity’ regarding the location of these types of arrangements in the boarder structure which lends to numerous problems.

The GTA Act, 2011has replaced the DGHC Act, 1988. This Act of 2011 immediately put the Darjeeling areas under the three-tier Panchayat system. But the three tier Panchayats have not materialised in the GTA region due to the state Government’s reluctance, though there is a demand for this. Hence there is a lot of politicking on the issue.

Another problem with institutional arrangements such as these relates to the question of the relationship among democracy, autonomy and institutional legitimacy. Since these arrangements have been created after a strong mobilization for statehood, most often by a single party (the GNLF for DGHC and the GJM for GTA), the fate of the institutions are too closely tied with the fate of the party bringing them into existence. Since the primary demand is for statehood, alternative institutional arrangements are suspiciously viewed as a means of controlling or checking the demand for statehood. Almost all the major hill parties like the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM), Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), Gorkha Rastriya Nirman Morcha (GRNM), Gorkha Rastriya Congress (GRC) and the Gorkha Liberation Organization (GLO) are opposed to the formation of the GTA. Some like the GRC demand the merger of Sikkim and Darjeeling; others like GNLF demand the scrapping of the GTA and the resumption of the erstwhile DGHC (but under the Sixth Schedule). The AIGL and CPRM demand the scrapping of GTA and resumption of the agitation for Gorkhaland. In the face of such multiplicity of demands institutional arrangements such as the GTA and the DGHC do not generate and receive the political legitimacy to endure. This crisis with regard to legitimacy and other issues (such as transfer of departments to the DGHC and its location in relation to the Panchayats) was observed clearly in the DGHC.  And present trends in the functioning of the GTA indicate a similar pattern.

What effect does such legitimacy crisis have on the notions of local or grass-root democracy? The track record of the DGHC and the West Bengal government does not bode well for both autonomy and democracy. The GNLF was given the space to use violence and corruption to consolidate its power in the Darjeeling region after the signing of the 1988 accord.  Also the design of the DGHC by the West Bengal government helped the GNLF to eliminate its rivals. Elections to the council were by statute supervised by the West Bengal Ministry of Hill Affairs, which was headed by a political appointee and not the State Election Commission. The fact that the last external audit of the DGHC was formed in 1992 is an indication of how the government (both national and state) tolerates such localized autocracy for a semblance of political stability. There were numerous allegations of misappropriation of funds by various political parties, all of which went unheeded. What has been the consequence of the new political alignments with the GJM and the formation of the GTA? These questions need to be examined.

Political Closure and Symbolic Representation

The new party, GJM, seeks to project itself as the only political organization capable of voicing the concerns and anxieties of the Nepali/Gorkha speaking population in India. Although  many other organizations  exist, there is no single association or body which can claim to ‘represent’ the Nepali/Gorkha speaking population in India. This void has resulted in many inter-party and inter-group contestations and conflicts. In particular, this void has also resulted in numerous acts of violence exemplified by the assassinations and murders of political rivals. Such trends have been worryingly growing in the Darjeeling hill areas. Existing literature does not explain, examine or attempt to understand this violence. For instance, in the history of Darjeeling post 1980s there has been an increase in the number of political murders.  Between 1983 and 2003, there were as many as 300 politically motivated murders in Darjeeling. After 2003, there have been twelve cases of murders of politicians, activists and party sympathizers. The latest in this gruesome list is the murder of the AIGL leader Madan Tamang in 2010. How can we understand this seemingly sporadic violence that has become a part of political behavior? Is it the result of colonial construction of the Gorkhas as ‘martial races’? Is it the result of New Delhi’s and West Bengal’s tolerance to achieve some semblance of political stability? Or does it have other explanations? This issue needs to be examined.

The other side of the problem is observed with regard to strategies employed by the groups and communities in the face of the failed statehood agitation. Earlier the biggest challenge for the Nepali-speaking community was to evolve an Indian ‘Nepali identity’ distinct from Nepalese (of Nepal). The word ‘Nepali’ therefore itself represented a homogenizing tendency. While in Nepal, caste identities are much stronger in identifying oneself as a Bahun, Chhetri, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, Magar or Tamang, in India, one is simply referred to as a ‘Nepali’. The word ‘Nepali’ also thus refers to an identity that is supposedly ‘supra-caste, supra-linguistic, supra-ethnic identity’ With the 1988 agitation officially guaranteeing the Indian Nepalis with citizenship of India, the urgent need to maintain this ‘homogenity’ has disappeared. Therefore, castes and tribes are fragmenting, each seeking a strategy to achieve different degrees of recognition by means they see fit.

The Darjeeling case therefore unfolds as a paradox, one where for political reasons, there is a strong need, often forced, to project the community as a single whole, and another, due to apparent failure of the same project, the desire of the constituent communities to emerge as separate entities. The struggle for recognition via reservations is clearly fragmenting the notion of a single unified ‘Gorkha’ community bound by linguistic solidarity presented by the Nepali language

In conclusion, it may be pointed out that the recent efforts of the GTA to achieve ST status through the Central government for the eleven ‘Gorkha’ communities is an attempt to resolve the above mentioned paradox. Another dimension has been added by the state granting of non-territorial development boards to tribal and non-tribal groups. This hurried institutionalizing of group identity by the state government will only enhance the process of closure that may culminate in a full political closure. This, if achieved, will only result in more violence and instability in the hills.

Samir Sharma
is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bijanbari Degree College under the University of North Bengal (NBU). He is also Associate Editor for the online journal, ‘Federal Governance’, published by the Forum of Federations and the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queens University, Canada. He has a Post-Graduate Diploma from Institute of Federalism, University of Fribourg, Switzerland and is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research interests include federalism, citizenship and minority rights.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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