We arrived in Kalimpong, famous for its cheese – thanks to Swiss Jesuit monks – but also for political killings. In fact, not so long ago there were travel warnings from several countries advising against travel to this small town in the West Bengal Hills because of the potential for civil unrest. So when we heard a crowd of people marching through the streets on our first evening, we started to worry. Later, we found out that they were just celebrating.

Kalimpong and Darjeeling are the two main cities of the Darjeeling Hills which sit above the rest of West Bengal in the north. A large portion of the population in the Hills is of Nepali origin; this is reflected in the lifestyle and culture which, like the climate, are quite different from the rest of tropical West Bengal. They are the Gorkhas. Gorkha people are proud of their origin as several people testified during our stay there by presenting themselves as being Gorkhas first, before quickly adding that also consider themselves Indian – as opposed to Nepalese. But, as our taxi driver explained, they feel they are different from the Bengalis in the plains and that is why they have been asking for administrative separation from West Bengal even before India’s independence. This would seem after all a legitimate demand given the region’s history; like so many other parts of India, both colonisation and the Partition left many unresolved disputes.

At present, the region enjoys some form of autonomy within West Bengal via the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. The Hill Council was created in 1988 primarily to put an end to the violence that shook the region in the mid-eighties. The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) whose main desire was simply to separate from West Bengal, had led a violent campaign during which over a thousand people died. The central Indian government in Delhi managed to reach an agreement with the GNLF: an autonomous council would be created and, in return, the GNLF would give up its demand for a separate state. The council was given authority over economic development programs, education and culture. But major decisions are still taken in Kolkata and this has been a major cause of friction between the Gorkhas and the rest of the population.

As a side note, not long after the creation of the Darjeeling Hill Council, violent riots erupted in Ladakh between Buddhists and Muslims; the Ladakh Buddhist Council requested that Ladakh be also granted Autonomous Hill Council status in order to gain some autonomy from the state of Jammu & Kashmir. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was created in 1995. In Indian politics, every decision can potentially have a domino effect; which partly explains the complexity of its laws, constitution and numerous amendments.

While the creation of the council satisfied the majority of GNLF supporters originally, various political developments led the GNLF to split over the years. The GNLF which currently heads the Hill Council still seems to enjoy widespread support: there are plenty of what appears to be semi-permanent banners in the streets, graffiti tags on the walls and numerous shopkeepers have their GNLF flag hanging off their window. Such is their influence that the Gorkha parties have the power to shut down the region if they want to and have used this to put pressure on the state government when needed.

When we were still in Darjeeling, at the end of December, we saw numerous posters and banners in the streets; while the majority of them were reminding people to vote for a local participating in the Indian version of Australian Idol, the others referred to the Sixth Schedule, generally negatively. The Sixth Schedule is a legal status which would provide additional powers to the Hill council allowing it to frame acts and laws and collect taxes. At the end of 2007, the GNLF signed the Sixth Schedule with the West Bengal government and the central government; but for the council to acquire Sixth Schedule status, an amendment of the constitution – the 107th – is required so there is no certainty that the bill will pass. But it seems also that not everyone is happy about the Sixth Schedule, on top of banners and posters, demonstrations were organised and locals advised us to avoid them. People thought the Sixth Schedule was not going far enough.

Believing that the Sixth Schedule only weakens the statehood demand, renegade members of the GNLF formed another party, the Gorkha Janmuti Morcha, in order to reiterate the demand for a separate state contending that only a separate state can fulfil people’s aspirations in Darjeeling. The recent political developments have led to a series of political assassinations in the region; the tension has also erupted into civil unrest a few times which is why Australia, amongst other countries, renewed their travel warnings recently. However, no one in West Bengal wants to relive the terror of the mid-eighties.

This may have prompted the Prime Minister to propose that a second States Reorganisation Commission be set up in order to possibly redraw the map of the country. This would in effect pave the way for Gorkhaland. There was no hostile crowd in Kalimpong; there were only people chanting and bursting crackers, rejoicing at the possibility of the creation of Gorkhaland.

1 Response to “Gorkhaland?”

  1. 1 Jyoti Mukhia Posted May 23rd, 2008 - 15:30

    I hope you have been following the Gorkhaland movement since January 2008.
    I think you could not find the real cheese which Kalimpong used to produce long time back in ’80s and also the original Lollypop. It was not Jesuit priests but the CR (Swiss) priests who introduced these two milk products and after the closure of the “Swiss dairy” the locals have started producing themselves especially the lollypop. It has now become one of the growing cottage industries in Kalimpong.

    Thanks for your visit to Kalimpong. Did you visit the Mary Mother of God Church at Relliroad, it is a good symbol of inculturation.

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