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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 44, October 25, 2014

Parliamentary Elections and Gorkhaland: Message from Darjeeling

Friday 24 October 2014, by Swatahsiddha Sarkar


The exposure of the Darjeeling hills towards the tit-bits of electoral politics can be traced back to 1937, the year when the first-ever elections in the hills took place. According to the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935, the Darjeeling hill region was declared as a ‘partially excluded area’ and allotted one member to be elected to the Provincial Legislature of the then Bengal. Again in 1946 the political enthusiasm registered by the people and hill leaders regarding the provincial Assembly elections (declared to be held between July and December, 1946 as per the provisions of the Cabinet Mission) was remarkable. The elections of 1946 marked a watershed in the political history of Darjeeling. For the first time a triangular electoral politics did evolve with representatives from the Communists, tea planters and Indian National Congress.

Interestingly enough, when the first parlia-mentary elections took place in independent India, none of the hill leaders contested; nevertheless, the hill people did vote in the first general elections in 1952. In the first parliamentary elections Darjeeling district was not considered as a separate constituency. Along with the two other districts (namely, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar), Darjeeling was clubbed under the North Bengal constituency and allotted three seats.

Since the second parliamentary elections (that took place in 1957) the Darjeeling district was designated as a separate parliamentary constituency and offered a single seat and the same arrangement is continuing even today. Besides the parliamentary elections, the Darjeeling hills have also been exposed to several other elections including Assembly elections and elections to the local level administrative bodies (like Municipality, Panchayat, Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration).

Discounting the Dominant View

What is interesting to note is that contrary to the dominant viewpoint prevalent in academia, that attests the worth of institutions like elections and electoral engineering in accommo-dating ethnic conflicts in deeply divided societies, the Darjeeling hills provide us an altogether different perspective. As the argument goes, the Darjeeling hills have been exposed to several experiments of elections of different genre for a pretty long time but such a democratic exposure did not help the hills to give up the politics of ethnic antagonism. Even the entry of mainstream political parties in hill politics was of little worth in scaling down the intensity and longevity of the ethnic movement of the Gorkhas continuing for over a century in the Darjeeling hills. As a result we find throughout the political history of the hills, elections were regularly held while the movement called Gorkhaland persisted side by side.

Such political developments confirm the very fact that the substance of hill politics, the way it has been articulated over the years, is rather different from that of the plains. This is a remarkable phenomenon indeed where we do find a region responding to the nationally designed political processes; but given deeper introspection one can also identify the signs of insular politics that typically runs on the basis of local political idioms. In fact, the peculiar insularity of hill politics with regard to the issues and processes of mainstream national/ State-level politics are the fallout of a distinctive political culture and history that developed and consolidated gradually in the hills.

The Genesis of Insular Politics

The ‘conspicuous incorporation’ of Darjeeling—an area referred to as ‘British Sikkim’ in colonial travelogues—into Bengal took place in 1835. Notwithstanding the physiognomic differences of the hills from the plains, which were naturally given, Darjeeling was formed as a ‘colonial hinterland’—an ideal space for the comfort and control of the imperial rulers who strategically kept the region isolated from the main currents of anti-colonial Bengali nationalism. Consequently the Darjeeling hills did reveal the articulation of a history and politics of ‘isolation’ and ‘segregation’ from the Bengal lowlands following an altogether different route from the labyrinths of mainstream politics of colonial Bengal. An abrupt spurt of sporadic nationalist activities did take place in the hills; nevertheless, such inconsistent moments of political mayhems failed to transplant the zeal of the hill people to segregate from the politics of nationalism epitomised by undivided Bengal.

India’s independence did result in the mere change of hands of Darjeeling’s proprietary rights from the Queen to the democratic State structure of West Bengal. Darjeeling lost its ‘hinterland’ status and was amalgamated administratively as a district in the State of West Bengal with the provisions of elected representatives who were to facilitate and guarantee the restoration of ‘popular sovereignty’ by taking active part in the formation of government both at the levels of the State and Centre.

The experience of popular sovereignty in the hills and its processual linkages with the democratic body politic of West Bengal is a matter of immense significance—resulting in the unresponsiveness of the hills to the politics of the State. The ‘insularity’ of hill politics has transplanted the political idiom propagated through the norms of parliamentary democracy. To no one’s surprise, the progression of electoral politics in the hills necessitated by the general elections of the nation has been overshadowed by the particular local idioms of power, privileges and aspirations rather than by the general appeals of ideology or issues of national/ international significance. Hence, keeping in view the repeated success of the BJP in Darjeeling for the last two terms of parliamentary elections, it would be too naïve to hold that the Darjeeling hills have been swayed by the Hindutva ideology or by the Modi hype that played havoc in the recent rise of the BJP at the Centre.

Popular Sovereignty and the Hills

The idea and practice of popular sovereignty in a particular locale and its appropriation by the democratic state structure can be of critical import in the attempt to explicate the intricacies of segregationist politics writ large in the political arena of the Darjeeling hills. While approximating the reality the notion of popular sovereignty embodies a multitude of institutional possibilities and in all its forms, the existence of some sort of popular consent was presumed to be axiomatic. In its most immediate manifestation, popular sovereignty implies the ability of the people to make law by themselves. The moderate version of it entails the mediation of the people’s ultimate authority through representatives who are subject to elections. The ultimate form of popular sovereignty can even entrust veto power in the hands of the people over a piece of legislation or to rule out the existing system of governance to the extent of inviting the carnage of civil war.

The point is that the pattern of governance run by the State in the hills is based on the moderate assumption of popular sovereignty, a desirable condition in which the hill people will submit their ultimate authority in electing their preferred representatives and subsequently take active part in the process of governance run by the State. Irrespective of the ruling parties, the State has been emphasising on this inclusionary strategy of participatory politics with an expectation that such measures will melt down the segregationist overtone of hill politics.

That hope hardly materialised with any degree of success; nevertheless, the hill people took part in the elections that kept on rolling periodically over the years. While the State did put considerable emphasis on the Deutschian mode of social communication and nation-building, these processes actually engendered a feeling attuned with the ‘immediate’ and ‘ultimate’ versions of popular sovereignty among the hill people. The situation largely approxi-mated the observation of Samuel P. Huntington, who once maintained that the politics of ‘rising expectation’ (the immediate fallout of social communication and nation-building strategy) will ultimately lead to the politics of ‘rising frustration’ (the manifestation of popular sovereignty in its ‘immediate’ and/or ‘ultimate’ sense). The net outcome will impart a lesson in legitimacy crisis in the minds of those who felt frustrated with the moderate version of popular sovereignty.

Pursuing Electoral Politics in the Hills

There are various implications of the Gorkhaland movement vis-a-vis parliamentary elections. The formal political foothold of the Darjeeling district as a parliamentary constituency is rather weak as only one seat is earmarked for the whole district while the State of West Bengal elects 42 representatives to the Lok Sabha. However, the ‘politics of non-indulgence’ or the lack of it in relation to the claim of Gorkhaland, as pursued by different political parties, largely revealed that the substance of hill politics can influence the political calculations and spirit of electioneering—be it for elections to the Lok Sabha or State Assembly.

It deserves mention that in the case of parlia-mentary elections the ethnic parties of Darjeeling hills [be it the All India Gorkha League (AIGL) of the 1960s, Gorkha National Liberation Front of the 1980s or Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) of the present day] have all the time estimated the parliamentary elections as the short-cut route for fulfilling their long cherished dream of a Gorkha homeland. It is no exaggeration to argue that within the high tide of political expediency the occurrence of periodic elections can hardly be considered as pillars of a successful democracy. The bankruptcy of the democratic ideal vis-à-vis elections become evident when the ethnic parties do not find any of the mainstream political parties as helpful in fulfilling their aspirations. In such situations they have no other option left for them but to go for outrightly boycotting the elections. Not to mention that such a repulsive attitude has been repeatedly registered by the GNLF when it shunned the Lok Sabha polls (during 1996, 1998 and 1999) and this boycott call enabled the then ruling party of the State attain smooth sailing in the Lok Sabha polls with a meagre turnout of votes from the hills. This would have surely been the case once again in the last two instances if the BJP would have refused to ally with the GJM in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Issues to Ponder Over

The Darjeeling situation is suggestive of the fact that the political parties typically find elections as the appropriate strategy to fetch the rewards of ethnic outbidding. Aspiring politicians, greedy for attaining electoral victory at any cost, have strong incentives to harness these identities as a political resource since ethnic identities tend to be invested with a great deal of symbolic and emotional feelings that constitute the potent-iality of being a weapon much stronger than a politics based on issues or ideologies.
The question that needs to be posed is
whether such mobilisation of ethnic identities for political expediency can contribute towards the development of a deep democratic culture. Can such highly politicised path of electoral politics, in which only ethnic cleavage has gained prominence rather than the politics of intent or ideology, enlarge the scope for democratic inclusion of the ethnic entrepreneurs in the larger body politic by providing them a chance to become stakeholders in the overall governance process on behalf of their own region?

Contrary to the functionalist assumption that elections and electoral politics would mediate the people’s ultimate authority to pave the way for parliamentary democracy, the Darjeeling experience leaves the message that the Lok Sabha polls and subsequent electioneering have in fact strengthened the capacity of ethnic cleavage to fix up the goals and directions of local politics. Needless to mention that in situations where periodic occurrence of elections appears to be a mere fait accompli, the failure of democratic politics is often the end result of these processes. The point is that the successful operation of the procedural norms of a democratic system does not necessarily guarantee the realisation of what in academia is called ‘substantial democracy’. The hill politics of Darjeeling is replete with such defunct predilections of ‘procedural democracy’ and the real essence of ‘substantive democracy’ is far beyond appropriation even after the successful completion of the 16th round of parliamentary elections.

Dr Swatahsiddha Sarkar is an Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling (West Bengal). He can be contacted at e-mail:

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