New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, in his rally at Siliguri, insisted that the National Register of Citizen (NRC) would not hurt the electorally important Gorkha community in north Bengal. This was reflective of the concerns that many in the community have, particularly in Darjeeling - a seat which the BJP has held since 2009.
The implementation of the NRC in Bengal is a key poll plank for the BJP there, particularly due to the party’s political strategy that hinges on the emphasis on illegal border infiltration and post-partition rights, the issues, that the party hopes, will be key in nine seats along the Indo-Bangladesh border.
PM Modi said, “I want to assure all Gorkha brothers and sisters from this stage that none of you will be inconvenienced because of the NRC." His assurance came three days after former BJP state president and north Kolkata candidate Rahul Sinha accused the Trinamool Congress of ‘running a false campaign in north Bengal through some local leaders’, claiming that the implementation of NRC would result in a forced exodus of the Gorkha population.
BJP candidate Raju Bista, while campaigning at Happy Valley Tea Estate in Darjeeling, also raised the issue in his first press conference since the candidature, claiming, “On the contrary, it will act as a security for the Gorkhas and will drive away the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas from the state…if this goes on, we will be minorities here”
The Prime Minister, the former state president and the BJP candidate have all raised the issue within a week. This underlines the importance of addressing the concerns of the Gorkha community - fears linked to the recent bitter experiences of the community in Assam, the 60-year-old dream of land ownership for man and the issue of autonomy.
NRC and the Trinamool Congress
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been one of the fiercest critics of the NRC, saying that it is an exercise aimed at dividing the communities, which specifically targets Bengalis. Reacting to the BJP’s claim that they would conduct an NRC in Bengal if voted to power, the Bengal CM at a rally in Dinhata on Wednesday said that the BJP should first aim at winning a seat in Bengal.
The TMC and the faction of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) that has sided with it has claimed that the NRC was a “conspiracy” aimed at displacing the Gorkha community. As evidence, the party has pointed to the “failure to include the 11 Gorkha sub communities into the ST list”.
A TMC leader said, “They have made numerous committees to examine the demand. But these recommendations were never made public. It was assured that a bill would be tabled regarding the issue. But this never happened. This is because the union government doesn’t want it to happen since it is concerned with migration from Nepal.”
The faction has called for “Gorkha unity” to thwart the “conspiracy”, while repeatedly pointing to erstwhile MP SS Ahluwalia’s comments about Gorkhas in Darjeeling hailing from Nepal. Reacting to Bista’s comments, Binay Tamang, the president of the faction said, “How can Bista say this? He should know better and explain how it will impact Gorkhas. He should study the history of the land.”
Assam Experience and Land Issue
Tamang attacked the PM last week, demanding that the party clarify how NRC will not impact the Gorkha community. He claimed that nearly 90 percent of those living in the hills, the tea gardens, cichona plantations, forest village and municipality leased land don’t have land right documents. “So how will they prove ownership?” he asked.
In June last year, there appeared some home for granting land rights to the hill populations, particularly to the economically vulnerable tea-garden workers. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) had announced the plans to revive the Nijo Griha Nijo Bhumi Prakalpo (Own Home, Own Land scheme). But land department officials told News18 that the going had been far from easy and that structural issues persist.
“Homeless and landless people can be given up to 5 decimals of land under the scheme. It started in 2011 but didn’t cover urban areas. The government then through a notification in 2015 extended it to urban areas,” said the official.
The problem though, the official added, was that “beneficiaries can only have inheritance rights, they can’t sell it off to a third party as per this scheme, without permission from the district magistrate.”
Last month, the News18 reported that many Gorkhas in the adjacent state of Assam found themselves among the 1.2 lakh persons tagged as ‘D’ Voters ahead of the Parliamentary election. The ‘D’ voter is a category of voters in Assam who were disenfranchised by Foreigners Tribunals under the jurisdiction of the government for lacking proper citizenship credentials.
“The Gorkhas living in Assam are mostly descendants of those who migrated or were transferred from Nepal as soldiers, road construction and tea plantation workers, labourers working for the railways and associated industries like coal and marginal farmers, by the British,” Dipak Nirola, Secretary of the Assam Gorkha Sanmilan (AGS) told News18.
Nirola alleged the harassment of Gorkhas at the hands of the state government because a previous notification by the Ministry of Home Affairs had stated that Gorkhas are not ‘foreigners’ under the provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955, if they are born in the country; acquire citizenship by registration or naturalisation or were Indian at the time of Constitution was exercised.