Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Darjeeling Debate

The Darjeeling Debate
Subrata Nagchoudhury
Posted online: Friday, December 07, 2007 at 0000 hrs

The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council wants the Darjeeling hill areas to be given tribal areas status. Those who oppose this move claim that this is not possible as tribals are in a minority there. So, what is the real story? Subrata Nagchoudhury sorts out the issues

• What is the controversy about the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (107th) Amendment Bill?

There are basically two points of contention over the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (107th) Amendment) Bill 2007. First, the BJP has objected to the way the bill was being introduced in the Lok Sabha by Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, without referring it to either the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs, of which Sushma Swaraj is the chairman, or to the Rajya Sabha. The BJP, therefore, dubbed it a “backdoor” attempt to ensure the passage of the legislation.
The second aspect of the controversy revolves around the question of whether Darjeeling hill areas, comprising three hill sub-divisions — Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong — qualify for the tribal area status that the Constitution Amendment Bill seeks to provide? A number of political groups as well as civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations have contested this claim. The reason given is that they have about only 32 per cent tribal population, and to qualify for tribal status, the areas should have a tribal majority population. So, there are dissenting voices to what Subash Ghisingh, GNLF chief and Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) administrator, was trying to have implemented. Some organisations have already resorted to judicial redress in this regard.

• Why is Subash Ghisingh keen on tribal status?

Primarily because Ghisingh is striving for greater autonomy for the DGHC. The Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (107th) Amendment Bill seeks to give greater powers to the council, and also bring more geographical areas under its jurisdiction. For example, at present the DGHC has about 20 departments under its control. Once the tribal status is given to the DGHC, twenty additional departments would be handed over to the council by the state government, barring a few like home and judicial, though the council would have limited powers to enact laws relating to tribal areas. About 17 mouzas adjacent to Siliguri town in the foothills of Darjeeling would be handed over to the DGHC officially. It would also entitle the DGHC to more funds/grants directly from the central government instead of via the state government, as it is being done now.

• Who is supporting the Amendment Bill and who opposes it?

Ghisingh, of course, wants the Amendment to be made effective as early as possible. The Left Front government in West Bengal, led by the CPM, has principally accepted it and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has been vigorously lobbying for its passage in the Lok Sabha. His interest is to avoid fresh violence in the hills. The Congress-led UPA government at the Centre has been a signatory to an “in principle” memorandum of understanding signed between all these three parties in December 2005.

The opposition is led by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) headed by Bimal Gurung, once a close lieutenant to Subash Ghisingh during the Gorkhaland agitation in the mid-’80s. He was also a DGHC councillor for successive terms but left Ghisingh to form the GJM. Gurung has significant following in the Darjeeling town areas and controls the vital sectors of transport operators and traders there. Others who are opposed to the Sixth Schedule Amendment include, among others, the All India Gorkha League, headed by Madan Tamang, and Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) led by R.B. Rai, both well known figures in Darjeeling. There are other NGOs and civil society groups opposing the Amendment on the ground that Sixth Schedule is not suitable for Darjeeling, where non-tribals are in a majority. Some groups like GJM argue that acceptance of the Sixth Schedule will close the road for a separate statehood for Darjeeling.

• What is the roadmap ahead ?

Subash Ghisingh has reserved his comments on the Bill for the time being. He has convened a meeting of his GNLF councillors in the three hill sub-divisions to decide on the next course of action. Insiders say that the GNLF might not go for an immediate action like a bandh or chakka jam as people did not appreciate a recent indefinite bandh called by Ghisingh, who then had to withdraw the call. Rather, he will wait for the parliamentary standing committee members to visit the hills and give their opinion. The visit is expected within the next two months and Ghisingh would wait for its outcome. The threat of violent agitation might be his recipe to ensure that the verdict of the parliamentary standing committee does not go against his wishes.

Simultaneously, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and several other hill groups are trying to embarrass Ghisingh with his own ‘weapon’ by saying that only separate statehood for Darjeeling can fulfill the aspirations of the people of Darjeeling. As things stand now, the situation might not take a serious turn till the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs submits its recommendations. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is, of course, keenly focused on avoiding any outbreak of violence. The BJP has got both the Left and the UPA on the wrong foot and it would be interesting to see how it encashes on it.
Finally, matters having been dragged to the court, the judiciary might play an important role too in deciding the ultimate fate of the legislation.