20 Jun 2008, 0131 hrs IST, Anand Soondas ,TNN
When the first batch of Indian Nepalese, or Gorkhas as they like to be called, settled in what is now Darjeeling, there was nobody to record it for history.
But Darjeeling already had a resident population when the British, after a ravaging war with the fierce warriors, brought them down with guile to annex the hill tracts in 1814.
That was almost 200 years ago. A decade after that General Lloyd and J W Grant of the East India Company began the first British settlements in Darjeeling, finding it favourable both as a getaway and sanatorium.
The region was formally adopted by the British in 1837 and a road from Pankhabari to Ghoom, and then up to Darjeeling, leapt up almost immediately as a hotel was established in Kurseong for European travellers. By 1866, Darjeeling district as we know today was complete.
It's surprising, therefore, that CPM state secretariat member and West Bengal transport minister Subhas Chakrabarty should call Gorkhas foreigners, exhibiting ignorance about the history of a region that has long been a part of West Bengal.
That apart, it's doubly worrying that his utterances have come when the hills are burning with the renewed rage of a people marginalized and dispossessed through centuries.
It didn't help either that external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, and not the Union home minister, made a statement just a day before that when he dismissed the demand for a separate Gorkhaland. Could he have thought, for a slippery moment, that Gorkhas being "foreigners" all matters relating to them logically come under external affairs?
Today, when charged up masses in the hills have pledged to go on a 45-day strike, botching up on history can have grave consequences. Also, it will be worthwhile for the Buddhadeb government to remember that the first rumblings of discontent were heard in the hills way back in 1907, making the call for separate statehood and identity one of the country's oldest rebellions.
The wounds thus are centuries old and call for sensitivity and diplomacy. More importantly, Subash Ghising sold his Gorkhaland dream 20 years ago to a government that just wanted the monkey off its back.
No genuine effort was made to tackle the festering problems of poverty, unemployment, water scarcity, lack of quality higher education and roads. All that was done was a promise made to Ghising that his autonomous hill council wouldn't be accountable to anyone and that he could run it like a fief if he so wanted with no questions asked.
Now, though, both the dynamics of agitation and those leading it have changed. Indications are Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, spearheading the fresh homeland demand, will not sell out, prolonging an agitation that can be bitter, violent and more broadbased. After all, much has happened in the Hills in the last two decades and Gorkhas, in India and abroad, are better educated, better connected and better equipped to sustain their struggle.
There is already a frantic Internet community exhorting people to lend a helping hand to their brethren back home.
There is also a new cultural and linguistic nationalism in the way Gorkhas came together, from Nagaland to Nepal, Mumbai to Manhattan, to heave and push Prashant Tamang to his Indian Idol victory last year which has come into play in the region, making the situation trickier than earlier.
Socio-economic indicators of the Hills show that a staggering 75% of the populace, according to Laden Tenzing of Tenzing Wine Store in Kurseong, are alcoholics. Though culturally a wine-drinking people, he says neither he nor his father remember so many people hitting the bottle. This time around, the agitators need to be brought to the table and efforts made to address immediate issues, ensuring that the escape hatch of all the piled up despondence and hopelessness is not violence. Not again.