Birth of new Indian state opens old divisions

Some residents of the northeast are calling for secession following Telengana which became the newest state this week.

    Telengana, carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, became India's newest state in July [AFP]
    Telengana, carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, became India's newest state in July [AFP]

    Calcutta, India - Campaigns for separate states, marked by early violence, have resumed in India's eastern states near the country's sensitive borders with China immediately after Delhi decided to create a new state down south.

    India's federal government announced in late July its decision to create the state of Telengana, carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

    A ripple effect is sweeping through India, as many campaigning for smaller states feel encouraged to push their case.

    But nowhere is this more evident than in the country's east, with at least two agitations erupting disconcertingly close to the narrow 20-km "Chicken Neck" that connects seven northeastern states to India's mainland.

    To the west of the "Chicken Neck", the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas are up in arms against the state of West Bengal, saying a new state called "Gorkhaland" should be immediately carved out of the tea-producing hill region of Darjeeling.

    India's Silent War

    The Gorkhas, who have provided for generations some of the best soldiers for the Indian army - before that for the British, say their aspirations have not been fulfilled in Bengali-dominated West Bengal.

    Their campaign for a separate state started in the 1980s and resumed five years ago, but India - and West Bengal - have so far managed to pacify the many Gorkhas by enhanced autonomy packages.

    But now the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (Gorkha Peoples Liberation Front), GJM for short, says they will fight for a separate state to the "very bitter end".

    "If Telengana can come into existence, Gorkhaland will come into being as well. Our demand for a separate state is as old and as justified as the one for Telengana," says GJM general secretary Roshan Giri.

    Within hours of Delhi's announcing Telengana's creation, GJM chief Bimal Gurung resigned as chief executive of the autonomous Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), saying it is "now or never" for a separate Gorkhaland.

    After a three-day strike in late July, the GJM called for an indefinite strike starting on August 3 in the Darjeeling region, that sits atop the plains of the "Chicken Neck".

    Calls for secession

    The GJM is not only asking for a separate Gorkha state in the Darjeeling Hills.

    It wants the boundaries of the new state to extend to the Darjeeling foothills called "Dooars", a demand stiffly opposed by the Bengalis and other tribes working in the tea plantations of the plains region.

    Last time the GJM pressed for a separate Gorkhaland, the 'Dooars' that straddles the "Chicken Neck" witnessed some bitter rioting.

    During the GJM's late July strike, one of their supporters, Mangal Singh Rajput, 45, set himself on fire, shouting "Gorkhaland, now or never".

    He is now in hospital with burns covering 65 percent of his body.

    West Bengal's maverick woman chief minister Mamata Banerji has ruled out a separate Gorkhaland, threatening to crack down hard on protestors if they got violent.

    Banerji's street fighter reputation against the state's once ruling Communists further heightens the chances of violence , as she is not expected to take a Gorkha agitation lying down.

    We are getting ready for a powerful campaign . We will keep it peaceful but if the Assam government tries suppression, we will hit back

    -Pramod Bodo

    The battlelines are clear - the GJM has asked tourists and students from the Bengal plains studying in Darjeeling's famous British-era boarding schools to leave Darjeeling before the indefinite strike.

    Banerji has said her administration is determined to keep Darjeeling normal - but that's not going to be easy.

    On the other side of the "Chicken Neck", in the northeastern state of Assam, two tribes have revived demands for separate states.

    The Bodos who have campaigned for a separate Bodoland state since the 1980s say that Assam government has not helped them enjoy the autonomy they fought and got in 2003, when the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Council (BTAQC) was created.

    Last summer, the area witnessed huge rioting between Bodo tribespeople and Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who have settled down in the area. Hundreds died, tens of thousands were rendered homeless.

    "Now the Assam government run by the Congress favours the migrants before their votes are important . They will not protect Bodo interests, so we better get a separate state," says Pramod Bodo, general secretary of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU).

    When the Bodos fought violently for a separate state in the 1980s, bombing bus terminals and railway stations, blowing up bridges and roads, they complained about "neglect" and "lack of development" by Assam government .

    Now favouring migrants is added to that list of grievances.

    "We are getting ready for a powerful campaign. We will keep it peaceful but if the Assam government tries suppression, we will hit back," warns Pramod Bodo.

    The Bodos dominate the "gateway" to India's Northeast, their homeland located on the eastern edges of the "Chicken Neck" and the highway passing through this area has identified as the main overland route for India to connect to Myanmar and neighbouring countries of South-east Asia.

    "This highway is crucial for India's Look east policy, if it is disturbed on both sides of the "Chicken Neck", all efforts to locate Northeast at the heart of India's  Look East foreign policy will fail," says Atin Sen of the Calcutta-based Asian Council of Logistics Management.

    Tensions escalating

    Further south of the "Chicken Neck", the Karbi tribespeople are already up in arms against the Assam government for a separate state they want carved out of the Karbi Anglong district.

    On Wednesday, Karbi protestors fought pitched battles with the police, demanding a separate state. One died when police fired to the control the angry mob.

    The district administration had to call out the army in aid of civilian authorities.

    The Hills State Democratic Party, campaigning for a separate state of Karbi tribespeople, has called for a 100-hour strike beginning August 5 to push their campaign.

    "The Assam government will never meet our demand for more autonomye, so we better ask for a separate state now or never," said Joy Ram Engleng, chief executive member of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council.

    Dimasa tribespeople in a neighbouring district are also restive and could ask for a separate state, for which they earlier fought like the Karbis and Bodos but then settled for autonomy.

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    Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, unlike Mamata Banerji, advocated caution.

    "These statehood demands have been around for a while. We have handled them in the past with tact and persuasion, we will do that again," Gogoi said.

    But his Congress party colleagues were less than happy with their leaders in Delhi who went ahead with the decision to create Telengana.

    "This may prove to be a wrong time for such a decision," said a senior Assam Congress leader, but on condition of anonymity.

    Indian defence strategists are worried.

    "If the agitation for Gorkhaland and Bodoland and for separate Karbi state all intensify, the strategic border region around the Chicken's Neck will be badly disturbed. We cannot afford that long," said Major General Gaganjit Singh, who served long years in the region , where Indian troops face the Chinese.

    "The Chicken Neck is our Achilles Heel because it is surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh with China not too far away," said Singh , who finally retired as deputy of India's Defense Intelligence Agency.

    Indian generals have always lived in the dread of the Chinese outflanking campaign capable of cutting off the "Chicken Neck" that will leave the country's seven northeastern states severed from the mainland.

    India is now raising a new mountain strike corps, consisting of two divisions and two independent bridgades, 45,000 troops in all.

    This will be deployed mostly in and around the "Chicken Neck" .

    The country's finance ministry which was sitting on the army's proposal to raise the strike corps, because it involves spending the equivalent of $13.6bn, cleared it after a face-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Depsang bulge on the Himalayan borders in April this year.

    "China has build a massive military infrastructure in the Himalayas, we are only trying top catch up," says strategic analyst C Rajamohan. 

    So the last thing that Indian military planners wants is "destabilisation" of the "Chicken Neck", but which now appears unavoidable with the campaigns for new states around it that could easily turn violent.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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