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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 11, Dated Mar 22, 2008
darjeeling astir

The Cause Kicks The Rebel

For 20 years, Subhas Ghising was the unstoppable leader of the Gorkhas. TERESA REHMAN reports on the reasons that have led to his meek exit

TIME WAS Subhas Ghising’s unstoppable mass protests in the cold mountains of Darjeeling made New Delhi hot under the collar, often forcing even the prime minister’s agenda. Time is Ghising’s disgraceful departure as the autonomous governing head of Darjeeling and nearby areas causes no murmur across India’s corridors of power. And the people back home are saying, well, good riddance. When Ghising, the Chairman of the grandiose Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, meekly sent in his resignation on March 10, an era definitely ended, though not quite the way he may have desired or envisaged at the height of his people’s struggle in the mid-1980s. For a man who once roamed unchallenged the streets of Darjeeling cocking his trademark cap, Ghising, 71, cut a sorry figure in the last few days, holed out at a guesthouse in the nearby town of Siliguri as protestors kept a day-night vigil to stop him from returning to his picturesque headquarters.

“Ghising may want to return now but the people are angry and we can’t guarantee his safety,” Amar Lama, a leader of the anti-Ghising protests that have swelled since last year, told TEHELKA. “With him gone, our next goal is Gorkhaland.” Ghising’s supporters lamely played down his resignation, saying he was only a caretaker head and the council’s term was ending this month. “Gorkhaland was originally our demand and we are going back to it,” said Ghising’s aide Dipak Gurung. “We will not allow elections to the council until a separate Gorkha state has been created.”

Ghising’s exit has also been made dubious by allegations of corruption in the management of the annual grant of the Rs 30 crore to the Gorkha Hill Council, given by the Central and the West Bengal governments. Opponents claim Ghising’s men have also siphoned off money given for the national literacy programme, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and for providing free-of-cost midday meals to poor school children. Ghising’s supporters, of course, deny the charges. “Despite inflation and no extra grant, Ghising built roads, bridges, community halls and schools, and provided jobs for 15,000 youths,” says Dipak Gurung. “This wasn’t possible if he was corrupt.”

For measure, the contentious areas of and around Darjeeling, long claimed by the Gorkhas for a separate state, are only 300 sq km. The region is home to 800,000 people, 80 percent of them Gorkhas, or people of Nepali origin settled in the region since overrunning it in battles two centuries ago. The Gorkhas made their first demand for autonomy to the British exactly 100 years ago, but their push for greater self-rule turned to shove only during the time India was gaining Independence. Gorkha leaders also made representations before India’s Constituent Assembly, but the region was nonetheless clubbed with West Bengal after Independence, to the chagrin of local Gorkhas.

A DARJEELING NATIVE, Ghising quit the Indian Army as a soldier at age 32 and returned home to an active life in local politics around 1968. Fighting for Gorkha rights, Ghising first raised the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state in 1980 and soon after announced the creation of his party, the startlingly named Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Over the next few years, a debonair Ghising led the often violent protests for a separate state for the Gorkhas, which claimed some 1,200 lives in bloodbaths and alarmed New Delhi because the region is a sensitive border with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and is dangerously close to China. A key reason for Ghising’s success with that movement lay in uniting all Gorkhas.

the fall
of ghising

A 27-month-long stir
in the mid-80s brought
Ghising to the helm of
Gorkha politics

In 2005, Ghising
agreed to the Centre’s
decision to
grant autonomy to
Darjeeling under
the Sixth Schedule

Terming it a surrender,
the Gorkhas have
organised under new
leader Bimal Gurung

Ghising was forced
out of Darjeeling and
his return blocked

“Ghising ensured his movement never had communal, religious or linguistic divisions,” recalls sociologist Roddur Dey who teaches at the city’s St. Joseph’s College. On August 22, 1988, Ghising sat down with top national and state bureaucrats to sign a historic deal blessed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to allow for the creation of the Gorkha Hill Council, giving the Gorkhas unprecedented autonomy. However, over the next two decades, Ghising all but gave up the demand for a separate state . When in 2005 Ghising agreed to a Central bid to bring the Darjeeling region under a Constitutional provision, called the Sixth Schedule in officialdom, guaranteeing some more rights to the tribal people of the northeast — but still not full statehood — the opposition parties erupted against Ghising, beginning a strong though peaceful protest. Ghising’s aid Gurung said the GNLF was now backing out of its agreement to implement the Sixth Schedule: “The government has delayed its implementation and now everyone is once again sentimental about Gorkhaland.”

IRONICALLY, GHISING has been undone by, among others, a social group that once was his bedrock: the ex-servicemen. Most Gorkhas traditionally prefer employment in the Indian Army, which gives them dignity and standing in a country where people of Nepali origin do not have much social status. Unhappy over a general lack of development in the region and Ghising’s failure to provide employment to younger people, these ex-servicemen went en masse — in their uniforms complete with their medallions — to join street campaigns of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) launched six months ago to oust Ghising. “Ghising was a dictator who played with our sentiments for his personal gain,” says retired Lt Col DP Subba. “The ex-soldiers have pledged a month’s pension to the fight for Gorkhaland.”

The new hero of the Gorkhas is GJM’S Bimal Gurung, the 44-year-old one-time GNLF supporter who turned against Ghising after the Hill Council was created in 1988. Gurung is among the few opponents to stand his ground against Ghising, and even served the Hill Council as an elected independent councillor. “Ghising is a shrewd man who used his musclemen to silence opponents,” Gurung told TEHELKA. “We will dig his misdeed, including his family’s illegal properties, and bring him to justice.” Gurung claims that GNLF cadre are now deserting Ghising to join his frontal organisations for plantation workers, teachers and students.

The dice is now with the West Bengal government, the technical master of the Gorkha Hill Council, which needs to decide on the follow-up action, including calling fresh elections. Locals are relieved that the political protests would now recede just in time for the tourist season to bloom. “We want peace but we also want better prospects,” says pony guide Asal Thapa as he prepares to take his tourists on a ride of Darjeeling’s Mall Road. Adds engine assistant Pramod Thapa, who works on the famous toy train: “We are positive that Bimal Gurung will secure us our cause.” For the sake of these simple mountain folks, it mustn’t take another 20 years to find the truth about their leader — either way.



From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 11, Dated Mar 22, 2008

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