While we all saw the brouhaha in parliament surrounding the creation of Telangana, there is another region in our country which has a long history of a movement for statehood within the Indian Union (at times resorting to vandalism, which obviously must be condemned). It is the Gorkha-majority region of West Bengal, comprising the famous hill station of Darjeeling. Noted journalist M J Akbar interestingly points out that the conflict over Gorkhaland, like the previous conflict over Uttarakhand (neither of which have been anti-India in any sense), and even the secessionist conflicts in Kashmir and the northeast, have to do with people of the hills asserting for their cultural and economic autonomy to be respected in some form. Geography has its bearing on culture and politics.
I am not a Gorkha, and without meaning any offence to the Gorkha brethren, I may state that I also, so far, do not have any particular attachment to or great interest in Gorkha culture. My Bengali friends far outnumber my Gorkha friends. Some of the historical figures I greatly admire, like Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose, were Bengalis. Yet, I do support the Gorkhas of West Bengal in their demand to carve out a separate state for themselves within the Indian Union, though this article shall not dwell into whether all the districts claimed by them should fall in the proposed state. Most (though not all) Bengalis fume and fret over the idea of their beloved state being vivisected.
But my support to this demand stems from my commitment to democracy and pluralism. Indian states have been organized largely on a linguistic and cultural basis. So if the Punjabis can have a Punjab, Marathis a Maharashtra, Bengalis a West Bengal and so on, I see no reason to deny the Gorkhas a Gorkhaland within the Indian Union. Their language and culture is certainly distinct and separate from that of the Bengalis, and that, in itself, makes their demand quite legitimate (with Telangana, this contention becomes debatable).
I am opposed to movements that seek secession from India, be it in Punjab or Assam, for a country is greater than the sum of its parts, and every part of the country belongs to all countrymen equally. But so long the Indian constitution allows people the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of it, I see no problem in further administrative demarcations in line with regional aspirations in the spirit of democracy.
Some Bengalis assert that Darjeeling is as dear to them and feels as much their own as Kolkata. Many Bengali writers have visited Darjeeling and written about its beauty. Hence, Darjeeling forms a part of the Bengali cultural construct. This, however, does not make for a very sound argument. Many Gujaratis are very emotionally attached to Mount Abu in neighboring Rajasthan as the nearest hill station. Many Indian Punjabis still identify culturally with Lahore as their own. Similarly, Bengalis can identify with Darjeeling as being theirs as much as the Gorkhas’, but that is a hardly a valid argument against the creation of Gorkhaland.
Our reading of history in school textbooks that rightly emphasizes the need for national unity and how India fell prey to foreign invasions owing to a lack of the same makes some of us trash any movement that talks of carving out a separate entity from another, even within the Indian Union, as going against our national fabric. Also, the bloodbath in 1947 and Pakistan’s hostility with India makes any idea of ‘partition’ or ‘vivisection’ consciously or subconsciously come across as anathema to many of us, without even delving into the context. However, what we forget is that India is a land of unity in diversity, and we can sustain the unity only by accommodating the legitimate aspirations of diverse lingual, ethnic and religious groups in this country. Indeed, can anyone, by any means, assert that the average resident of Uttarakhand is any less of a patriotic Indian than a resident of Uttar Pradesh? Even Gujarat and Maharashtra were once part of a large Bombay province, but are the residents of both Gujarat and Maharashtra not patriotic Indians?
Even from an economic point of view, the Gorkhas have faced neglect in a Bengali-majority state. Also, smaller states can be governed better. It is true that there will be some additional burden on the exchequer for a new state’s infrastructure, but that can be more than worth it if the end result is beneficial for the people. As noted columnist Swaminathan Aiyar pointed out in 2009, the three states of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, which separated from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar respectively, have experienced high GDP growth rates. I know many people from Uttarakhand who feel they are better off now, having carved out a separate state for themselves. The case of mineral-rich Jharkhand separating from Bihar is especially pertinent in this context, for it was prophesied by many that it would be very difficult for Bihar to experience rapid economic development thereafter, but the sceptics have indeed been proven wrong.
Some people have also forcefully contended that the name ‘Gorkhaland’ is parochial for it suggests that Gorkhaland would belong to the Gorkhas alone. This idea seems bizarre to me, for then, the same logic can be extended to Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the likes, which suggest linguistic denominations. Sure, there have been regional chauvinists trying to make such claims, most notably in Maharashtra, but that should not come in the way of a state being named after the ethnic or linguistic identity on the basis of which it was created. In fact, if we were to turn our attention to our western neighbour, Pakistan’s policy of retaining the name North West Frontier Province (NWFP) for the Pashtun-majority province, among other things, actually alienated many Pashtuns, some of whom even started to entertain ideas of seceding from Pakistan or joining Afghanistan, and only a few years ago, the province was renamed Khyber Pakhtoonwa, the way Sindh has been named to denote the culture of its inhabitants.
It has also been suggested by some that the Gorkhas will, on the creation of Gorkhaland, start an anti-India secessionist movement on the lines of the states in the northeast. This idea that seeks to homogenize the attitude of all northeasterners smacks of racism, though all of them are not even of the same racial stock. People in Arunachal Pradesh identify themselves as Indians without giving any second thought, and so do the Gorkhas, and now, even most people in Assam. In fact, when the Mizos got Mizoram, the anti-India secessionist movement nearly died out.
Where there are secessionist movements in the northeast, like in Nagaland and Manipur, and to a lesser extent, Meghalaya and parts of Assam, the primary reason is certainly not Christian fanaticism as the saffron brigade would like us to believe (their logic of “areas with Muslims or Christians in majority have wanted to secede” falls flat looking at the cases of Assam, Punjab and Tamil Nadu), but a general attitude of neglect. In Assam, for instance, the apathy of the Indian state to the illegal immigration from Bangladesh led the movement against Bangladeshi infiltration to turn into a movement against India, and migrants from Bihar also came to be seen as “foreigners” like the Bangladeshis. Likewise, if the Gorkhas’ legitimate demands are met, they would have no reason to stop identifying themselves as Indians (this is not, however, to suggest that they are likely to turn anti-India in any situation). Indeed, they have made stellar contributions to the army and their campaign for Gorkhaland asserts proudly that they are Indians like anyone else, as this wonderful rap song demonstrates. As a land of pluralism or unity in diversity, one can be a proud Malayali speaking Malayalam and celebrating Onam, and at the same time, be a very patriotic Indian; the unity in diversity will cease to exist if we try to suppress the diversity.
To conclude, the arguments against the creation of Gorkhaland, as I see it, do not hold much water, and allowing the Gorkhas to pave the way for economic prosperity and assertion of cultural identity in the pluralistic Indian Union by way of allowing the creation of Gorkhaland is not a bad idea at all.