The agitation might have started around the 1980s, and brought in some prominence to the Nepali, or the Lepcha population in the region … but the pot had been on the boil for a while now.
What region is that now? That would be part of Sikkim, and most of what is now Darjeeling district. The region which is administered by the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council since 1988. I was in the area in late 2015 and saw festoons, banners, flags, posters and road side meetings in Kalimpong. And, yes, Bimal Gurung (more about him later) does draw a crowd.
लेपचा भोटीया नेपाली
हामी सबै गोर्खाली
– writing on walls in Kalimpong
There are armed security personnel on the streets with a sense of uneasy political calm as people go about their lives. The undercurrent is certainly there and is palpable. Talking to local people brought to light:
- The Lepchas (along with some other tribes) are perhaps the original residents of the region.
- Nepali folk arrived mainly with the invasion of Gorkhas in the 1780. The cessation from Nepal happened much later (for a pittance) after the British-Nepal battle. The ceded territory included Darjeeling, Siliguri, the entire terai, Simla, Nainital, Garwhal hills, Kumaon upto the Sutlej. The British came all the way in, and starting planting tea all over around 1860s.
- As the world moved on, the Gorkhas lost some of their identity as they were neither in Nepal, nor were they in a ‘province of their own’. This loss of identity is what bothers the Gorkhas today, and their wanting to unite with Lepchas and Bhotias (tribes originating from Bhutan) to press for Gokhaland
- There was some socio-economic pressure from the refugee Tibetans, but that has started easing out now as the Tibetans have started migrating to other parts of the country and also out of the country.
There are some other facts which play into the situation.
- Subhash Ghising who was the face of the Gorkhaland agitation passed on early 2015 and left the movement somewhat rudderless. But, even in the years before Ghising had somewhat mellowed down.
- As Ghising’s power based weakened, a new leader, Bimal Gurung, emerged. Gurung started as a GNLF member and later become a councillor in the Hill Council. Gurung capitalized on the mass support for Prashant Tamang (an Indian Idol contestant) in 2007, and garnered enough support to throw Ghising out of the power seat. In 2008, Gurung moved away from the Hill Council and also formed his new party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.
- Immediately afterwards Gurung resurrected the demand for Gorkhaland and had conversations with the Prime Minister in 2015 as well and got some assurances.
Surely, Gorkha identity is an issue as is the feeling of neglect as felt by the Gorkhas. Along with, there definitely is a problem of unemployment in many of the areas which are dependent on tourism (to a large extent) or the tea business.
Successive governments have tried to placate them with promises of development. It is just that those promises might not hold long-term unless there was some fruition.