Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Thursday, 24 December 2009

India campaign for Gorkha state gathers pace

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Darjeeling

Gorkhaland supporter
Darjeeling has seen many strikes and protests

Driving up into the Darjeeling hills one thing quickly becomes apparent - and it's a deliberate message for outsiders.

The green, white and yellow of Gorkhaland is everywhere - painted on walls, on curb stones, on banners and posters.

"Welcome to Gorkhaland", they boldly declare. "Gorkhaland is our birthright."

The demand for a separate state within India for the Gorkhas isn't new. This is a campaign that started more than 100 years ago.

India's Gorkha community is from the same ethnic group as the differently spelt Gurkhas in Nepal who serve in the Indian and British armies.

The central government's apparent willingness to create a new state in south India, carving Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh, has got these northern hills buzzing with indignation.

If they can do it, the Gorkhas ask, why can't we?

'Ready to fight'

At 94 years old and now profoundly deaf, PB Tamang has seen it all before.

He is a Gurkha veteran who fought for the British in Burma in World War II and later in the jungles of Malaya.

Sitting in his garden, sipping a cup of tea, he listened patiently as members of his family shouted questions in his ear.

Chicken shop
The Gorkhaland signboard is everywhere

"I'm ready to fight again," he declared, punching the air for emphasis, "this time for Gorkhaland."

While most Gurkhas who served in the British army are from Nepal, there are plenty of veterans who are now Indian citizens.

Mr Tamang still receives a British pension of £470 per month.

His brother-in-law, IB Tamang, another British veteran, says things are peaceful at the moment.

But resentment is simmering just beneath the surface.

"If the demand is not conceded by the government," he warned, "it might bring a great upheaval, and it might bring bloodshed."

Back in the 1980s more than 1,000 people were killed in a violent uprising in these hills, but for now the battle lines have been re-drawn.

Hunger strike

The focus is on peaceful protest and passive resistance, following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi.

There have been a series of hunger strikes across the region.

On one bitterly cold morning recently I watched as 21 men lay in a makeshift tent opposite the district magistrate's office in Darjeeling.

None of them had taken food or fluids for several days.


One man was screaming out in pain as severe dehydration began to take its toll. Doctors tried in vain to comfort him.

"We just want Gorkhaland for our identity," said another of the hunger strikers, David Rai, a 54-year-old teacher huddled beneath several blankets.

Speaking in a voice weak with exhaustion, he told me that the Gorkhas didn't belong in the state of West Bengal.

"We are Indians. But when we go elsewhere in India, people say I don't look Bengali. So I have to tell them I'm an Indian Gorkha, and I'm not a foreigner."

So Darjeeling is up in arms. There are constant strikes and demonstrations, and no-one is paying their taxes or utility bills to the state and central governments.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the movement at the forefront of the Gorkhaland campaign, has even sought to ban alcohol to avoid anyone paying excise duty.

But there are also whispers of coercion, and suggestions that dissent isn't really tolerated.

"No, it isn't true," replied Bimal Gurung, the GJM leader.

"Our movement is trying to appeal to everyone in the hills, including minority groups. We're not out to isolate anyone and we're not out to intimidate anyone."

Money matters

On Darjeeling's famous tea estates, they are pruning the tea bushes in preparation for next year's harvest.

PB Tamang
PB Tamang says he is ready to fight again

Almost 70% of the local population rely on the estates in some way for their livelihood.

So what effect would a declaration of Gorkhaland actually have on the local economy? In the end, it all comes down to money.

"I think the tea industry would stand to gain," says Sandeep Mukherjee, the Secretary of the Darjeeling Tea Association.

"My personal view is that with more funds being allocated, the infrastructure of this region is likely to come up and the industry would benefit."

On Darjeeling's crowded shopping streets normal life continues at a hectic pace. But every shop has the word "Gorkhaland" painted on its signboard, and there's green, white and yellow bunting everywhere.

On the surface, it is an impressive display of local patriotism and support for the cause.

'Do not split'

And similar demands for statehood are springing up right across this vast country.

"We're an ancient civilisation but a young nation," said Ram Guha, one of India's leading historians.

"I think we're still finding the best political forms to meet the aspirations of our people - how big our states should be, and what the respective powers of the centre, the state and local municipalities should be."

Current state governments are understandably cautious. They don't want their powers diluted.

Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has already rejected the Gorkhaland demand and warned that the situation will become "complicated" if the GJM refuses to be flexible.

"I'm once again telling them," he told a recent public rally, "not to think about splitting from us."

But Ram Guha is one of those who argue that it could be time to have another look at how the Indian political system is organised.

"I don't think we should be unduly worried about these demands, and I don't think they threaten the unity of India in any way," he explained.

"They are manifestations of a certain discontent with the present arrangements."

The trouble is that India has so many ethnic and linguistic groups, so many tribes and castes. They can't all have their own state.

But the Gorkhas have always been a proud, martial race.

And they seem determined to fight for this cause - for their own cause - for as long as it takes.

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