THE NORTHERN HILL districts of West Bengal, especially Darjeeling, are in the grip of agitation once again. The local political class that dominates the hill council there is up in arms, demanding a separate state.
The spark for the current outburst is the alleged ‘imposition’ of Bengali as a language. In reality, the reasons are more complex. One big factor is the local political competition. The victory of a Trinamool Congress candidate in a local poll has unnerved the Gorkha constituency. This is over and above the mobilisational role played by the demand whenever members of the council come under pressure from their other Nepalese or Gorkha rivals.
Truth be told, there is no case for a new state in North Bengal. For one, the size of the ‘hill territory’ is not commensurate with the revenue required to run an effective administration there. In the absence of such a revenue base, the only option that remains is for the Union Government to foot the bill of a new state. The danger here is that every new state conceded without financial and administrative viability opens the gates for further, equally reckless, demands elsewhere in India. With roughly a dozen odd such demands across the country, the Union would be left staring at empty coffers. The consequences of giving in will be too hideous to contemplate.
There is another worrying factor at play. The demand for ‘Gorkhaland’ is being made in a border region of India. That puts the call for statehood on a very different footing. If that were not reason enough for concern, a look at the map could alarm anyone: the North Bengal frontier is India’s only land link to the entire Northeast region that includes some very sensitive states. To concede statehood demanded by a group that has strong ethnic links with a neighbouring country requires an extra measure of caution. This is not something that can be decided on the streets of Darjeeling.
The demand for statehood on emotional grounds has run its course in modern India. The first States Reorganisation Commission (1953-1955) gave ample space to such ‘feelings’. There is only that much room for emotions in such matters before administrative reason has to take over. It is time that national political parties explain this to their local units and regional parties understand the dangers inherent in fanning sub-regional sentiments.