Darjeeling unrest: Gorkhaland movement is a question of identity, not development

The ongoing agitation in Darjeeling for the creation of a separate state called Gorkhaland and, what is more important, its open support by chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling of the adjoining state of Sikkim need to be seen in a different perspective than the ones associated with similar demands, both in the past and at present, for statehood in other parts of the country. In Darjeeling Hills, the core issue behind the demand to break away from West Bengal is identity, not development.

Of course, most of the new states that have been carved out of the bigger states in recent years have not conclusively settled the debate as to what the ideal criteria on the basis of which a state should be formed are. Presently, India has 29 states and seven union territories. Independent India in 1947 had 16 states and some 10 union territories. The number of states has increased over time due to the splitting of some big states and the conversion of some union territories into states. The last time cartographers were sent scurrying to redraw India's boundaries was in 2014, when Telengana was created out of Andhra Pradesh.

It may be noted that states such as undivided Andhra Pradesh, part of the original Madras state; Haryana, part of the original Punjab state; and Maharashtra and Gujarat, originally of the undivided Bombay province, were the creations of protests and hunger strikes by important national leaders. But many of the new states were formed on the basis of recommendations by the States Reorganisation Commission set up in 1955. Formed in the wake of agitation for the creation of a Telugu language-speaking Andhra Pradesh by breaking up Madras province — where Tamil was the other major language — the commission devised in 1956 the highly dubious criterion of linguistic commonality as the basis for new states.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

It may be mentioned here that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not exactly happy with the recommendations of the Commission, which essentially favoured the creation of new states on the basis of the language spoken by its people. Importantly, BR Ambedkar, who played a vital role in drafting the Indian Constitution, also was not in tune with the commission’s recommendations. Ambedkar pointed out, “The commission evidently thinks that the size of a state is a matter of no consequence and that the equality in the size of the status constituting a federation is a matter of no moment. This is the first and the most terrible error cost which the commission has committed. If not rectified in time, it will indeed be a great deal.”

Ambedkar realised that the disparity in population sizes was a ‘fantastic’ result, bound to create huge costs for the nation. His opposition to the commission’s recommendations stemmed from the imbalance of political power in the country — the large states in the north and balkanisation of the south would pit the two regions of the country against each other. The solution he offered used the size of the state and administrative effectiveness for making smaller states in the north: Dividing the three large states — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh and using the rule that ‘a population of approximately two crore which should be regarded as the standard size of population for a state to administer effectively’.

As Ambedkar clarified, “One language one state should be the rule, but people with the same language can divide themselves into many states—this promotes more uniform balance of power within the country, satisfies social needs and most importantly, creates units that can be administered with ease, leading to better growth performance for the nation.” While he used this rule to call for the division of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, he went into greater detail analysing his home state Maharashtra with 3.3 crore Marathi-speaking population and an area spanning 1.74 lakh square miles — it “is a vast area and it is impossible to have efficient administration by a single state”. According to his analysis, economic, industrial, educational and social inequalities in the regions of Maharashtra make for a clear division of the state into four parts — Bombay, Western (Konkan), Central (Marathwada) and Eastern (Vidarbha).

As subsequent events proved, Ambedkar was perhaps right. New states have been created over the last five decades periodically. In the mid-60s, Haryana was formed out of Punjab and some districts of Punjab formed today’s Himachal Pradesh. In 1971, Arunachal, Meghalaya and Mizoram were carved out of Assam and then, in 2000, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were formed out of UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. And more importantly, economists say these creations contributed towards economic development of the country.

Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have done very well economically. After the division of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in 2000, except for Madhya Pradesh, all the others — UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — performed much better in the seven-year period post-reorganisation than the seven preceding years. In the case of Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh, the annualised growth rates increased by about 6 percentage points in the post-reorganisation years. In Jharkhand as well, there was an improvement, about 4 percentage points — the smaller Bihar also found its growth rising by 3.7 percentage points.

Even from the point of view of governance, small states are supposed to be better. The arguments cited in this regard are as follows: By dividing the problem in small parts and concentrating on the problems region wise, there are more chances of better growth. We need governance at a small level so that we can manage and regulate life more appropriately. Reorganising India into smaller states on the basis of problems such as poverty and illiteracy can give a chance to the government to resolve those problems in a much better way.

But there is also a counter-view. In a diverse and pluralistic country like India, too much decentralisation is not seen as a good thing. In fact, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not in favour of small states, as he believed they could accentuate the divisiveness in the country. Some of the small states being demanded may not even have enough resources to stand on their own. Also, a smaller state does not always mean a smaller government. In fact, at least in the short and medium term, the cost of administration will increase, for one would be duplicating a lot of the existing systems and resources in the new state. Thus, instead of “administrative convenience”, what one should be looking at is “administrative necessity”. Increasingly, it is also being argued that smaller states are less likely to be able to deal with the ever-present threat of militancy. The examples of Punjab, Assam and the north-east, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh provide some evidence supporting this argument.

However, all these arguments, both in favour of and against the creation of smaller states, do not apply in the case of the proposed state of Gorkhaland, comprising the Darjeeling district and Dooars region of West Bengal. Here, the main issue is identity, not development. If the latter was the issue, the creation of semi-autonomous administrative body called the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills would have settled the issue by now. But that has not been the case.

It may be noted that the Nepalese and Lepchas living in Darjeeling and the adjoining areas have a more distinct culture and history than the Bengalis in rest of the state. Historically, they have been sharing cultural and societal values with Sikkim and Nepal since hundreds of years when there were no nation-states the way we interpret at present and no closed boundaries. In fact, Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim until around 1780, when the Gorkhas of modern day Nepal invaded the latter and captured most parts of it, including Darjeeling and Siliguri. Later in 1816, following the British-Nepal war, Nepal ceded these territories back to Sikkim as per the treaty of Segoulee. But given its strategic location, Darjeeling was taken back by the British from Sikkim in 1835. Since then, it has been administered by the authorities in Kolkata, the colonial capital, the capital of undivided Bengal and the capital of West Bengal.

But that does not mean that the people of Darjeeling and the adjoining areas have considered themselves as part of Bengal; they have fiercely protected their Nepali language and culture (in broad sense of the term). This is clearly evident from their representations for full autonomy to the Morley-Minto reforms panel in 1907, Simon Commission in 1929 and their demand for statehood through popular agitations in 1980s under the leadership of Gurkha National Liberation Front.

The Darjeeling agitation reminds one of the so-called “annexation” of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Crimea has been a part of Russia since 1783 and is overwhelmingly constituted by the Russian-speaking people. In 1954, when the then Soviet Union (USSR) was at its mightiest glory and Ukraine a constituent of it, Moscow, for administrative convenience, transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics (RSFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR). But after the dissolution of the USSR and subsequent emergence of Ukraine as a sovereign country, Crimeans wanted to remain Russians, not to be Ukrainians.

The point thus is that a ruler undertakes territorial adjustments within his overall territory as long as he is powerful and in total command of the situation. But things change after he departs. In a way, the same is the case with Jammu and Ladakh in the present state of Jammu and Kashmir. Historically, Jammu, Kashmir valley and Ladakh have been three distinct regions with separate value systems. It was made one state by the Dogra ruler Gulab Singh in 1846 after the First Anglo-Sikh War as per the Treaty of Amritsar. The East India Company annexed the Kashmir Valley, Jammu, Ladakh, and Gilgit-Baltistan from the Sikhs, and then transferred it to Gulab Singh in return for an indemnity payment of 7,500,000 Nanakshahee Rupees. Obviously, the three regions have their separate needs and aspirations, which are not being fulfilled under the present system that has been totally dominated by the Kashmiri elites after the state acceded to India. The ongoing problem is Jammu and Kashmir cannot be resolved fully as long these basic contradictions remain.

Viewed thus, the Gorkhaland movement is essentially a case for identity. The cause is legitimate and it cannot be subject to a veto by Kolkata. If the central government, then led by the Congress, could create Telengana without the consent of the Assembly and the government of then undivided Andhra Pradesh, there is no reason why a BJP-led central government can create a separate state of Gorkhaland without the approval of the West Bengal government and Assembly. The Indian constitution fully empowers the central government to undertake such a step. Unlike the United States of America, which is “an indestructible union of indestructible states”, India is only an “indestructible union”.


Published Date: Jun 24, 2017 04:49 pm | Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 04:49 pm


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