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The Gorkhaland movement grew from the demand of Nepalis living in Darjiling District of West Bengal for a separate state for themselves. The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front led the movement, which disrupted the district with massive violence between 1986 and 1988. The issue was resolved, at least temporarily, in 1988 with the establishment of the Darjiling Gorkha Hill Council within West Bengal.
Historically, Darjiling belonged to the kingdom of Sikkim, which had lost it several times since the eighteenth century. The ethnic identity "Gorkha" comes from the kingdom with that name that united Nepal in the late eighteenth century and was the focal point of Nepalese in the British army.
Immigration from Nepal expanded with British rule in India, and some 34 percent of the population of Darjiling in 1876 was of Gorkha (also seen as Gurkha) ethnicity. By the start of the twentieth century, Nepalese immigrants made a modest socioeconomic advance through government service, and a small anglicized elite developed among them. In 1917 the Hillmen's Association came into being and petitioned for the administrative separation of Darjiling in 1917 and again in 1928 and 1942. In 1928 the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (All India Gorkha League) was formed. It gained additional support after World War II with the influx of ex-soldiers from the Gurkha regiments who had been exposed to nationalist movements in Southeast Asia during service there.
During the 1940s, the CPI organized Gorkha tea workers. In presentations to the States Reorganisation Commission in 1954, the CPI favored regional autonomy for Darjiling within West Bengal, with recognition of Nepali as a Scheduled Language. The All India Gorkha League preferred making the area a union territory under the national government (see Local Government, ch. 8).
The state of West Bengal nominally has been supportive of the use of the Nepali language. The West Bengal Official Language Act of 1961 made Nepali the official language of the hill subdivisions of Darjiling, Kalimpong, and Kurseong, where Nepalese are a majority. The state legislative assembly passed a resolution in 1977 that led Parliament to amend the national constitution to include Nepali as a Scheduled Language. However, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front has accused the state government of failure to actually implement use of the language.
The Gorkhaland movement distinguished Darjiling Gorkhas from nationals of Nepal legally resident in India, from Nepali-speaking Indian citizens from other parts of the country, and even from the majority in neighboring Sikkim, where Nepali is the official language. The movement was emphatic that it had no desire to separate from India, only from the state of West Bengal. Gorkhaland supporters therefore preferred to call the Gorkhas' language Gorkhali rather than Nepali, although they did not attempt to claim there is any linguistic difference from what other people call Nepali. The 1981 census of India, whether in deference to this sentiment or for some other reason, called the language Gorkhali/Nepali . However, when the Eighth Schedule of the constitution was amended in 1992 to make it a Scheduled Language, the term Nepali alone was used.
In 1986 the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front, having failed to obtain a separate regional administrative identity from Parliament, again demanded a separate state of Gorkhaland. The party's leader, Subhash Ghising, headed a demonstration that turned violent and was severely repressed by the state government. The disturbances almost totally shut down the districts' economic mainstays of tea, tourism, and timber. The Left Front government of West Bengal, which earlier had supported some form of autonomy, now opposed it as "antinational." The state government claimed that Darjiling was no worse off than the state in general and was richer than many districts. Ghising made lavish promises to his followers, including the recruitment of 40,000 Indian Gorkhas into the army and paying Rs100,000 (for value of the rupee--see Glossary) for every Gorkha writer. After two years of fighting and the loss of at least 200 lives, the government of West Bengal and the central government finally agreed on an autonomous hill district. In July 1988, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front gave up the demand for a separate state, and in August the Darjiling Gorkha Hill Council came into being with Ghising as chairman. The council had authority over economic development programs, education, and culture.
However, difficulties soon arose over the panchayat (see Glossary) elections. Ghising wanted the hill council excluded from the national law on panchayat elections. Rajiv Gandhi's government was initially favorable to his request and introduced a constitutional amendment in 1989 to exclude the Darjiling Gorkha Hill Council, along with several other northeast hill states and regions (Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and the hill regions of Manipur), but it did not pass. However, in 1992 Parliament passed the Seventy-third Amendment, which seemed to show a newly serious commitment to the idea of local self-government by panchayats . The amendment excluded all the hill areas just mentioned except Darjiling. Ghising insisted this omission was a machination of West Bengal and threatened to revive militant agitation for a Gorkhaland state. He also said the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front would boycott the village panchayat elections mandated by the amendment. A large portion of his party, however, refused to accept the boycott and split off under the leadership of Chiten Sherpa to form the All India Gorkha League, which won a sizable number of panchayat seats.
In 1995 it was unclear whether the region would remain content with autonomy rather than statehood. In August 1995, Sherpa complained to the state government that Ghising's government had misused hill council funds, and West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu promised to investigate. Both Gorkha parties showed willingness to use general shutdowns to forward their ends. The fact that so many people were willing to follow Sherpa instead of the hitherto unchallenged Ghising may indicate that they will be satisfied with regional autonomy.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress