There has been immediate, widespread reaction within the Gorkha community to the BJP led Central goverment's decision to set up a high level secretarial committee to look into and recommend granting of Scheduled Tribe status to 11 Gorkha communities in India, much of it heartily welcoming the move but some doubting it.
The single page order issued on April 2, 2016 by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, states that a committee is being set up headed by Shri Ashok Pai, joint secretary in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to “examine and recommend” regarding granting of ST status to eleven communities namely Bhujel, Gurung, Mangar, Newar, Jogi, Khas, Rai, Sunwar, Thami, Yakkha (Dewan) and Dhimal living in Sikkim and other Gorkha dominated States and areas. The committee has been given a time frame of three months to submit its report to the government.
Coming in the face of ongoing assembly elections when the model code of conduct is in operation, it is obvious that the decision is being viewed with suspicion while also encountering protests from the Opposition, particularly the TMC. Sections opposed to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha think its a political ploy aimed at garnering votes in the elections. The TMC, on the other hand, have contended that the decision will distort the level playing field in the assembly elections, providing an advantage to the BJP and its alliance partner, the GJM in North Bengal region.
|GJM Swaraj Thapa|
Moreover, it was the very TMC government, which, through its state cabinet, had approved granting of tribal status to the 11 Gorkha communities and sent its recommendation to the Centre in 2014 just before the Lok Sabha elections got underway. No one then complained that the move was aimed at earning political dividend in the Lok Sabha elections. There have been other similar decisions, like the UPA government's move to go ahead with the announcement to create separate state of Telengana just before the 2014 general elections, clearly with the objective of electoral gains in that region. Mamata Banerjee's announcement to carve out a separate district of Kalimpong too was for the same reason and the fledgling JAP and its president, Harka Bahadur Chettri, is in fact contesting the assembly election from Kalimpong on the very plank of Kalimpong being made a district .
So it will not be surprising if Prime Minister Narender Modi speaks about the issue on Saturday when he visits Siliguri as part of his campaign tour. After his previous visit to Siliguri before becoming Prime Minister when he had said “Gorkha ka sapna mera sapna hai”, his likely assertion that Gorkhas will soon be granted Scheduled Tribe status is certain to be given more than a rousing welcome.
Politics apart, what is more important is that the decision is a milestone in the Gorkha community bid to seek inclusion as scheduled tribes. Like the West Bengal state cabinet's recommendation to the Centre, the setting up of the committee by the Centre is another important step in this direction. The issue is critical to the crore or so Gorkhas residing in the country, a majority of them in Sikkim, GTA region, Assam, other North east states, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand as they feel they are yet to get justice despite working equally for the country.
The will of the people is supreme in a democracy. And the Centre's decision does not find any objection whatsoever on grounds of merit from the small Gorkha community, who have been seeking ST status for decades. In fact, the GNLF was even quick to stake claim for the decision, contending that the late Subhash Ghisingh was the first to write to the Centre on the subject two decades ago. That they are only trying to bake their own political bread on the side when the fire is burning is obvious by the fact that they have not given any representation to the government either recently or in the last few years.
Elections will be over in the next fortnight, but what is critical now for the entire Gorkha community is to get together and make a final push to ensure that the decision gets recommended by the committee and sent for approval upwards. Although the terms of reference of the Ashok Pai committee are yet to be outlined by the Centre, Gorkhas living in Sikkim, GTA region, Assam, other northeast states, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand should not lose any time in getting their act together and make representations before the committee. Of course, the primary Gorkha leadership—Shri Pawan Kumar Chamling who heads the Sikkim government and Shri Bimal Gurung, who heads the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration will play a stellar role in devising a strategy and pushing the matter forward with the committee and the Central government.
But other political parties, non-political organisations, individuals as well as other outfits from all over India too should write to the committee outlining the reasons why Gorkhas need to be categorised as scheduled tribes. There is a need to absolutely convince Shri Ashok Pai and other members of the committee that the miniscule Gorkha community has not been able to get due justice in this country as they do not stand any chance when it comes to competition with the majority population because of their backwardness and other traits. There is no need to be garish or outlandish like the late Subhash Ghisingh when he held Jhakri parades and created his own plethora of Devis and Devtas but make a strong case for granting of ST status.
At present, there are five criteria-primitive traits, distinctive culture, shyness of contact, geographical isolation and backwardness that define who can be a Scheduled Tribe. But these characteristics are colonial in nature and the government is reworking them to include neutral socio-economic elements like educational backwardness, historical injustice and deprivation. Even autonomous religious practices can be one of the criteria, as per media reports. We, as Gorkha community, have to keep all this in mind, while making representations before the Ashok Pai committee.
For the record, Shri Gurung had raised the matter in a meeting with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year, where I too was present as a delegation member. The GTA chief executive also met Tribal Affairs minister Jual Oram on the subject and in a number of the meetings, I also attended as a member.
The onus of deciding who can qualify as a scheduled tribe is also shifting from the Registrar General of India to the Tribal ministry, which is a positive step. It is also a fact that the Central government has been flooded with several applications from several communities to grant ST status. Howeever, the case of Gorkhas appears to have been fast forwarded—we have been picked from the line and taken to the front—only because of the fact that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha is a steadfast alliance partner of the BJP at the Centre. The GJM has left no stone unturned in assisting the BJP at all levels. It has allowed BJP to field candidates in its in stronghold areas in Terai and Dooars region of North Bengal. Parties like the GNLF and the fledling JAP have much to learn from GJM. Rather than hop from one party to another, they should know that loyalty can ultimately pays dividend. It is this philosophy that can also ultimately prove helpful in realising the demand of separate state of Gorkhaland.