Nepali Times
Chalo Dilli
Footnote to Sugauli



History, that capricious but determined avenger of the seasons, may have treated itself to a tiny cackle last week as India's central government conceded to the formation of a political, autonomous body in the Darjeeling hills, dominated by people of Nepali origin.

Ok, so let's align the chessboard right away. West Bengal's new chief minister, Mamata Bannerjee handed over both power and resources to the new Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) on Monday in the village of Pintail. Hanging over the ceremony was the long, drawn-out shadow of the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, which is a thorn in the flesh of every self-respecting Nepali because it forced the Gorkha empire to cede Darjeeling, Kumaon, Garhwal and Sikkim to the East India Company.

On hand to witness the creation of a new chapter in history, was India's home minister P Chidambaram as well as Bimal Gurung, chief of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the prime mover behind the creation of the GTA, of whom it is sometimes said that he is less a character from a Shakespeare play than a familiar man-on-the-street from the small towns in the region.

The reference to Shakespeare is Gurung's political stab in the back of his mentor Subhash Ghisingh, whose agitation in the 1980s for a separate state resulted in the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). The GTA is said to be much more powerful than the DGHC because many more people are elected, rather than nominated. A few weeks ago, Gurung "banned" Ghisingh from the hills, saying his "visa" had expired. The older man now lives in the plains in Jalpaiguri, fending off the symptoms of old age.

But the hero, or heroine, of our story really is Mamata Bannerjee and her readiness to share power with the Nepali ethnic group which dominated the northern part of her state so soon after being elected. Perhaps Mamata had no choice because her overwhelming victory in the hills during the recent state elections had been helped along by Gurung's party.

Mamata's decision to share the development pie is an astute move. The GTA gets INR 6 billion for the next three years from the Centre's kitty. Much better to be generous when the time is right, Mamata may have thought. At least, you can then hope to influence the nature of the new state.

But India is littered with a history of broken promises over the creation of small states: Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, Harit Pradesh from western Uttar Pradesh, Bodoland from Assam, Vidarbha from Maharashtra, Bundelkhand from Uttar Pradesh again.

The big question that dogs both policy-makers and champions of federalism is whether small is always beautiful or that the "aspirations of the people" can only be met when you break up larger administrative entities. There may be a lesson for Nepal as it grapples with federalism in its new constitution.

"The creation of the GTA is certainly the way forward," said Subhas Chakraborty, former professor of history at Kolkata's Presidency College who also taught in Darjeeling, "provided the new administration does not misuse its powers and ensures democracy and pluralism."

Chakraborty's fears are founded not only on the usual avaricious grab for the fish and loaves of office, but also in reverse discrimination. Gurung's party has demanded that parts of the Dooars between the foothills and the plains, which has a large concentration of indigenous peoples, also be incorporated in the GTA.

The star of people of Nepali origin in India is shining brightly these days. Gone are the charges of discrimination and that being Nepali they had divided loyalties.

There is talk now of converting Darjeeling into an education hub, attracting people not only from the Indian hinterland, but also from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Mamata's description of the hills as a "new Switzerland" caused some mirth when it was made, but if Gurung gets his vision right, he could even find his dreams coming true.

The Gorkhas who will run their new body demanded a "separation" from Bengal because of the demands based on their special ethnicity, not because they were once part of Nepal. Two hundred years is a long time to figure out where you belong. The GTA just gave the Treaty of Sugauli a new footnote.

1. karma gurung
Your last paragraph contradicts the first one. 200 years may be a long time to figure out where one belong, but Nepali people do figure it out. Barring the period when India is ruled by Indira Gandhi like ambitious, meddlesome and impractical leader , Nepali don't regard themselves as an enemy of India, and our special relation allows us to travel to any land south of Himalaya without any hindrance. The only thing that may test the loyalty of Nepali in India is when India goes to war with Nepal, which has about zero probability. Nepali in India will forever remember Sugauli Treaty, but will accept the new reality and live with it.  

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)