26 April 2005, This was an op-ed piece.
By subordinating people’s interests and democratic rights to political expediency, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-Subash Ghisingh duo has reduced the DGHC to a non-starter. The Congress, of course, has its own axe to grind. And the Maoists may be eyeing the area, writes NIRAJ LAMA
The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a unique exercise in Indian federalism established 16 years ago is about to be discarded as a failure. A general consensus over its inefficacy now prevails and that includes the West Bengal government. Writers’ Buildings has agreed on the need to overhaul the purported “autonomous hill council”, which it has been claiming for long as a “model” for the country. Hopefully, this time the Marxists will be sincere and discard hyperbole. (It is another matter that the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was set up in 1995 on the lines of the DGHC.)
After two years of unprecedented violence for separate statehood rocked the Darjeeling Hills, the DGHC was set up in 1988. The politico-administrative set-up was a result of a tripartite agreement among the State government, the Centre and the Gorkha National Liberation Front, led by Subash Ghisingh. The council’s mandate was to advance hill people socially, economically, educationally and culturally, by lending a measure of autonomy to the region. After 16 years, however, the general feeling in Darjeeling is that of despondency.
Economic opportunities are negligible, education and health facilities inspire no confidence, infrastructure is antiquated and the fragile hill ecology is under threat. The people feel that the DGHC has failed to meet their aspirations. Rather, the council has bred corruption and criminalised politics, even as living conditions of the masses deteriorated. The DGHC elections, due before 25 March 2004, has been put on hold by the state government indefinitely.
Since the beginning of this year, four rounds of tripartite talks have been held in New Delhi, with Mr Ghisingh demanding an “alternative” to the DGHC. At the last round of talks in New Delhi, the Sixth Schedule and Article 371 of the Constitution were discussed as options for the DGHC. While there has been no commitment yet from either the state government or the Centre, the GNLF after Mr Ghisingh’s return claimed it would be “either, or” of the aforementioned constitutional provisions for Darjeeling. The state government has engaged constitutional experts to understand the implications of the provisions. (The hill people are anxious and curious to understand these constitutional obscurities).
The state government would be loathe to lose control over the Darjeeling Hills. Under the Sixth Schedule and Article 371, the influence that the Writers’ Buildings wielded over the DGHC would be significantly reduced. The power struggle that the state government and the DGHC publicly engaged in during Jyoti Basu’s chief ministership is somewhat tempered during Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s administration. There are strong suggestions that this time the Left Front government is mentally prepared to accede, to a great degree, the nearly 100-year-old demand for autonomous rule in the Darjeeling Hills, short of Gorkhaland.
Under the Sixth Schedule, the elected autonomous district councils are powerful enough to not just legislate and impose taxes, but also have its own judiciary. (The DGHC just has executive powers). Any Act of the state legislature or Parliament will not prevail in the Sixth Schedule’s ambit unless the Governor or the President, respectively, decide to intervene. The state has been barred from encroaching on the number of Subjects on which the autonomous district councils can make laws. The above provision, included in Article 244 (2) and 275 (1) of the Constitution, is expressly for the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. These are areas inhabited by tribals who have well-defined customs and institutions, which the Constitution lends legitimacy to through the Schedule.
In case of Darjeeling, the tribal population is a minority and there are no traditional institutions of the kind that exists in the North-east that can administrate. This throws up problems, when considering the possibility of including the Darjeeling Hills in the Sixth Schedule. The state government has, reportedly, turned down this option. Article 371 has 10 different provisions [from 371- 371 (i)], ranging from creating regional development boards under the Governor in Maharashtra and Gujarat to creating a Central University in Andhra Pradesh and closer home, special provisions guaranteed to Sikkim under 371(F). What is common to these provisions is the special powers conferred on the Governor to intervene in the administration of these areas/institutions. Article 371 does not devolve the powers from the state government to the extent it does in the Sixth Schedule. It won’t be surprising if this option gets exercised. But how exactly it would translate administratively for Darjeeling is a matter of speculation.
One thing is clear. A constitutional recognition is in the offing for whatever autonomous dispensation may be created for the Darjeeling Hills. One of the biggest lacunae of the DGHC was its lack of constitutional recognition, though it was created under a state Act “assented to by the President”. For all practical purposes, the DGHC became just another state government department. The so-called autonomy was a farce, with the government not only exercising control over most of the Subjects transferred to the DGHC, but deliberately setting up parallel authorities that undermined the council’s powers. For instance, while panchayat and rural development is a transferred Subject, block development officers, extension officer (panchayats) and the panchayat staff remain with the district administration. There are many more examples.
Though during the signing of the tripartite agreement the Centre and the state had committed to a regular flow of funds to make the exercise of the hill council a success, it turned out to be patchy in practice. The average flow annually is said to be about Rs 100 crore. It is hard to verify details – particularly, that of finance – when it comes to the hill council, and that brings us to the biggest problem — non-transparency and irregularities, under an inept leadership, is characteristic of the DGHC’s functioning. The state government turns a blind eye to it all.
After the assassination attempt on Mr Ghisingh in February, 2001, the DGHC virtually became a one-man’s personal enterprise. For four years, Mr Ghisingh as the Chairman did not convene a meeting of the General Council nor of the Executive Council. It is mandatory for the two bodies to meet once in three months and once every month, respectively. The state government, which has 11 nominees to the General Council, declared ignorance about the meetings not being held when challenged in courts through a writ petition filed by an Opposition leader. Clearly, Writers’ and Mr Ghisingh circled the wagons, keen on mutual preservation.
It is important for the state government to keep the Ghisingh phenomenon going, even if it means postponing elections and making him the DGHC’s sole caretaker, in defiance of democratic principles. The GNLF leader is an old customer and in Kolkata’s view, keeps peace in the Hills. Though the public perception of Mr Ghisingh outside the Hills is that of a man for Gorkhaland, in the hills he is seen as a state-sponsored stumbling block on the way to separate statehood. The latter view is closer to the truth.
Writers’ Buildings cannot ignore the fact that Mr Ghisingh’s popularity has waned with disaffection growing among the people. Writers’ is under pressure from the CPI-M hill cadres to take a clear stand against the GNLF, which has led the political wing of the government, including the CPI-M and the CPI, to align themselves with the three-party Opposition coalition — the People’s Democratic Front, comprising the All-India Gorkha League, the GNLF (C) and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists. It is a fine balance for the government.
While on the one hand the regional CPI-M leaders, including the State Urban Development Minister, Ashok Bhattacharya, accuse Mr Ghisingh on the floor of the Assembly of “blackmailing” the government. On the other, a month later, the Chief Minister apologises for the remarks. That is the reason the CPI-M’s relation with the PDF is peculiar. The government is averse to the rise in the strength of the AIGL and the CPRM, fearing their latent tendency towards a separate state. It cannot be denied that the CPI-M has joined the Opposition group, only to be able to control the growth of the AIGL and the CPRM.
The CPI-M’s long-term aim is to be the GNLF’s alternative in the Hills. When it comes to the Centre, it is also not seen to be fair to the Darjeeling Hills. The Centre had agreed to postponing elections and making Mr Ghisingh sole-caretaker of the DGHC. The Congress, which secured the support of the GNLF during the last parliamentary elections and won the Darjeeling seat, is hopeful for a favourable performance in the region in next year’s Assembly elections. The Congress is ready to keep Mr Ghisingh in good humour – another reason why the state government has been mollycoddling the GNLF leader. It is trying to ensure that the Congress does not advance in the Hills before the Assembly polls.
Complex as the politics of the Hills is, the larger good has been subordinated. The state government, the Centre and Mr Ghisingh are seen to be engaged in a desperate struggle to survive in the Hills, oblivious to the problems of the place. If this is how it continues — now, even the panchayat elections in the Hills have been deferred indefinitely – Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s fears of the Maoists across the border fomenting trouble in Darjeeling may come true. It is the Chief Minister who is preparing the ground for it, by suspending the democratic rights of the hill people. This has also made the case for separate statehood stronger.