Why the Gorkha Homeland Talks Are a One Way Street

It is near impossible to negotiate a long-term solution without conceding to the demand of a Gorkhaland. A temporary truce and a suspension of the shutdown is the best that can be expected from the bipartite talks that have just begun.

Left: West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Credit: PTI. The agitation in Gorkhaland. Credit: Brihat Rai. GJM chief Bimal Gurung. Credit: PTI

Kolkata: Yearnings for a homeland are legitimate; demands for a separate state are not. The first is a sentimental claim to a homeland for the Gorkhas; the second is about dividing up territory and creating the state of Gorkhaland. Conceding the idea of a homeland is easy, because it costs little. Succumbing to the demand for a separate state would undermine too many things for West Bengal and the government of Mamata Banerjee.

The impossibility of negotiating a long-term solution without conceding to the demand of a Gorkhaland is complicated by the fact that Darjeeling is both a hill town in West Bengal as well as the unofficial capital of Gorkhaland. A temporary truce and a suspension of the shutdown agitation is the best that can be expected from the bipartite talks that have just begun between the West Bengal government and a delegation of representatives from Darjeeling.

The composition of the delegation, with nominees of the ruling Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) – which was the founder of a separate, autonomous and elected Hill Council in 1988 – is revealing. On one side are parties that were formed to claim Darjeeling and the hills as a separate homeland and a state for the people of Gorkha origin and on the other is the West Bengal government that cannot negotiate for a division of territory because the ruling Trinamool Congress, like its predecessor the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, does not have the mandate to do so.

The GJM and the GNLF have not been friends in the past. As rivals to the political heritage of separate statehood, it is highly unlikely they ever will be. But in joining up and presenting a united front, the two parties have affirmed that the demand for a separate state is non-negotiable. Both parties have made it clear that there is no expectation that a solution to the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state will emerge soon. Both parties have backed each other up in saying that the first round of talks in Kolkata on Tuesday was just the start. Also, both the parties are in accord that the West Bengal government is only one of the parties to the negotiations because the Centre has not as yet joined the discussion.

Even as reports of differences and divisions within the GJM leadership surface and questions are raised over Binay Tamang’s status as coordinator of the GJM’s delegation and his brief on the terms of the negotiations with the state government, the fact that the hills were able to collectively represent a demand for separate statehood is significant. It pits the hills against the West Bengal government, that is, the plains, and thus, draws a clear line of distinction.

The closing of ranks evident among the hill parties against the Trinamool Congress is one way of establishing identities, allegiances and differences. The Trinamool Congress’s encroachments into what has become over the last three decades the exclusive political domain of parties that originated in the hills, is being seen as a challenge to which a strong response is needed. The GJM has been angry over losing the Mirik municipality and two seats in Kalimpong to the Trinamool Congress as well as the defeat of two more candidates by the splinter Jan Andolan Party of Harka Bahadur Chhetri and the Trinamool Congress. In these defeats, it sees a challenge to its dominance and the idea of single party rule.

In emphasising that the bipartite talks in Kolkata was just the beginning and that there would be further rounds of discussions, the hill parties are signalling that they are prepared to exhaust the process of negotiation till a solution is hammered out that satisfies the minimum conditions for a restoration of normalcy to the hills. Time has therefore been made a bargaining chip in the negotiations over territory. It is a clever twist to what would otherwise be an old and tested formula for a solution to the agitation over Darjeeling’s status.

The timing of the current phase of the agitation, with the over a two-month shutdown of Darjeeling and the hill areas, the burning of government buildings, the closure of schools and offices, the violence and the countermoves by the West Bengal government, fits a choreography of avoiding accountability through elections that was first crafted and used by Subash Ghisingh after he signed the Darjeeling Hill Council agreement in 1988.

There are limits to how long the agitation can continue. The cost of the shutdown has affected the tea and tourism industries, other businesses as well as the education sector. Just as the GJM needs face saving, so does Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress because a return to the normal is imperative. Mediating a temporary solution ought to have been the Centre’s role, except that the BJP is not a disinterested party in the Darjeeling situation and by extension in West Bengal’s politics.

Also read: Understanding the Demand for Self-Rule in the Darjeeling Hills

The steps that have led up to the talks in Kolkata signal the progression towards a solution, even if it is a temporary one. The agitators in Darjeeling, led by the GJM, declared that the only solution  acceptable was a division of West Bengal and the creation of Gorkhaland as a separate state. The West Bengal government said it would not talk to the agitators till the shutdown ended. The Centre was brought in as a third party in the confrontation. Even though it declared that it would not engage on the issue and the two sides directly involved would have to talk it out, the fact that the GJM leaders are in New Delhi, talking to Rajnath Singh and others, exerted pressure on Banerjee.

There are two possibilities that emerge from the current line-up of negotiators. One, the West Bengal government and the collective of parties in Darjeeling work towards a temporary suspension of confrontation and a return to normalcy. For this, the cost may be keeping the already overdue elections to Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) on hold. The other possibility is that the bipartite talks fail and the BJP sees in its failure an opportunity to make further inroads into West Bengal politics by engaging with the state as well as the hill parties to end the agitation. The cost of such an intervention would probably take Darjeeling one step closer to statehood. The only hitch would be that the BJP does not have a model that it can pull off the shelf and offer to the GJM and its partners as a solution to the impasse.   

Darjeeling has been simmering since 2013, when Banerjee was heckled publicly during the Uttarbanga Utsav organised by the West Bengal government. It is probable that both Gurung and Banerjee knew that things would come to such a pass; in 2011, Gurung certainly anticipated it when he said after signing the agreement with the Union and West Bengal governments: “I know a lot of people were disenchanted by the chief minister’s statement that there would be no division of the state. She was just making a political statement, a personal speech. She has her own political compulsions, in the same way we, too, have our own compulsions in demanding statehood. The state government must understand our demand.”

The agitations for a separate state, not just a territory that can be called home, follows a fixed progression – discord, accord and finally the climax – accusations of betrayal of the politically popular demand for a territory that is already defined as Gorkhaland.

The escalation in 2017 coincides with the deadline for holding elections to the GTA. With Banerjee at loggerheads with the BJP over encroachments in West Bengal’s political space and her uneasiness on the course of the investigations into various financial scams that link her party and close associates with corruption, using the vulnerabilities of the ruling party is part of Gurung’s game to stave off probes into how his administration spent money and the elections that he does not want to face.

The GJM’s discomfort with accountability and elections has come across over and over again between 2012 and now. The negotiations and the expectations that there will be multiple rounds of talks is one way of playing for the time being. The longer it can postpone the talks from coming to grips with the minimum terms of settlement, the better off the GJM expects to be; but only so long as it can hold on to its control over the popular vote. For the GJM, pushing the deadline for a solution as close to 2019 will be a good tactic. It will then be able to negotiate for terms that serve its interests or rather the interests of Gurung and his clique, because the Darjeeling seat can be a base camp for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political ambitions in West Bengal.

Legitimising representation – which is what an election would do – is not the way parties that claim leadership of the Darjeeling hills operate. This bears a certain kind of similarity to the way that the Trinamool Congress likes things to be – the obsession with winning every seat, by whatever means works best. It was also the way that the Left Front liked things and curiously enough, the Congress before that. Absolute control exercised by one party is the rule in West Bengal, which has turned elections into a do or die battle between the dominant party and the far weaker opposition.  

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