The violence and unrest that has plagued Darjeeling since the 1980s was calmed this week with the signing of an historic document granting administrative autonomy to India’s Gorkhas.
A new territory was carved from West Bengal’s Darjeeling district but India rejected demands for a separate state. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration will have powers to manage public works, social welfare, health and forests and agriculture including valued tea gardens. Existing land records will be transferred to the authority.
“The agreement will end the violence in the hills of Darjeeling and pave the way for development,” newly elected West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee told the crowd of joyous Gorkhas gathered in the village of Pintail. She praised the signing as historic. “There is nothing to fear… Bengal is not being divided. Darjeeling is close to our heart,” she said.
“There will be an elected local body, there will be schools, colleges, hospitals, jobs will be available and Darjeeling will shine,” said Banerjee who shared her vision of Switzerland as a model.
The Gorkhas, who are ethnic Nepalese, established the Gorkha National Liberation Front in a violent 1980s revolt against the West Bengal Government that resulted in 1200 deaths. Tensions eased somewhat in 1988 when the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was created by then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to settle demands for independence. Protests soon resumed, often involving garden workers, with frequent strikes disrupting tea production and reducing productivity.
In 2007 Bimal Gurung formed the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, pressure group that pressed for independence, disrupting trade and occasional violent confrontations with the Hill Council and Bengal government.
This spring the Morcha effectively shut down the export of Darjeeling’s lucrative first flush in seeking higher wages for workers.
The Morcha was a party to the signing but Gorkha nationalist leader Roshan Giri said the organization has not abandoned its demand for a separate homeland but would work with the newly created administration.
India’s Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram was present at the signing, assuring the crowd “you have our fullest support to build a great future.”
India has 28 states and seven federally-administered regions.