BENGALIS

BENGALIS

Bengalis are defined as speakers of the Bengali (Bangla) language and live in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent, which is divided between India and Bangladesh. Most live in West Bengal, a state of India, and Bangladesh. They are also known as the Bangali and used to be known as the Bengalese and Baboo. Bengali is an anglicization of Bangli, the name that the Bengali’s call themselves.[Source: Most of the information for this articles comes from the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Bengalis are the second largest Muslim ethnic group in the world following the Arabs. There are both Muslim and Hindu Bengalis but the vast majority are Muslims.

Bengali speakers make up 85 percent of the population of West Bengal/ . Most of the non-Bengalis are from other parts of India, living in Calcutta. Only about 56 percent of Calcutta's 11 million people are Bengalis. Most signs and advertisements are written in English and Hindi, not Bengali. There are significant numbers of tribals living on rural West Bengal.

There are around 250 million Bengalis worldwide, Most are in West Bengal (with a population of 91 million in 2011) and Bangladesh (with a population of 161 million in 2013). There are several million in Assam , Bihar and Tripura states and several hundred thousand in Orissa and Meghalaya. There are also large numbers n the United States, Canada and Britain. There are lots of Bengalis in the Jackson Heights, Queens, New York.

West Bengal

West Bengal is a state in eastern India and home of 75 million people and Calcutta. It and the country of Bangladesh form Bengal. The Bengal region consists largely of a vast alluvial, deltaic plain built up by the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. The total Bengal region covers 233,000 square kilometers. Of this 89,000 square kilometers (38 percent) is in India and 144,00 square kilometers (62 percent) is in Bangladesh. The monsoon season lasts longer here than other in other parts of South Asia. It can extend from April to mid-November.

West Bengal and Bangladesh were divided up chiefly on religious grounds with: 1) Hindus making up 77 percent and Muslims making up 22 percent of the population of the of West Bengal; and 2) Hindus making up 14 percent and Muslims making up 85 percent of the population of Bangladesh. About three quarters of the population of West Bengal lives in rural areas. Many of the urban residents live in Calcutta.

Bengal has fertile soil, abundant water, a climate favorable for agriculture and lush landscape covered with banyans, palm trees, rice paddies and sugar cane fields. The roads are full of potholes, bullock carts, bicycles, pedestrians and trucks. The villages features thatch- and metal-roofed huts organized around mosques or two- or three-story pagoda-like towers with curved eaves. Outside the villages are images of horses or men. Cows, bullocks and water buffalo are everywhere.

For many centuries Bengal was a cash cow for whoever ruled it. The Moguls grew rich on Bengali taxis; the British established their empire here and also became rich. At when India was created and partitioned after World War II Bengal was divided into West Bengal, an Indian state, and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. West Bengal has traditionally been a stronghold of the Communist Party.

Bengali History

Bengal is mentioned as a distinct region in some of the earliest Hindu texts. Throughout the A.D. 1st millennium, it was ruled by a succession of Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Islamic armies arrived in the region on late 12th and early 13th and began a gradual campaign of conquest that culminated with Mogul rule, starting in 1586, during which time large numbers of people converted to Islam.

Calcutta, which is situated in Bengal, was an important center of the British East India Company opium trade. The beginning of British administration of India is usually dated with East India Company’s takeover of the government of Bengal, in 1757. English education had a profound influence on the region. Hindu tooks advantage of opportunities offered by the British earlier and faster. The Westernized elite was comprised mostly of Hindus.

Bengal was divided into the predominately Muslim eastern and predominately Hindu western provinces in 1905, but after a period of anarchy and violence, it was reunited in 1911 at the request of Hindus. Muslims were angered by this.

Bengali intellectuals were at the forefront of the independence movement. Hindus were very active in the Indian National Congress. Muslims were involved with the Muslim League, which was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan.

In 1947, when India and Pakistan were separated, Bengal was divided into primarily Hindu West Bengal and primarily Muslim East Pakistan. During the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971, hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees poured into Calcutta, West Bengal, Assam and other eastern India.

Bengali Language

Like most of the languages of northern South Asia, Bengali belongs to the Indo-Iranian (sometimes called Indo-Aryan) branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Descended from ancient Sanskrit, it contains 47 sounds: 11 vowels, 25 consonants, four semi-vowels and seven “breath sounds” (including sibilants and spirates). The script is also derived from Sanskrit. It contains 57 letter symbols.

The Bengali language has been described as "mellifluous and cultured." It has a long literary tradition, of which Bengalis take pride and is key to their identity. The literary language however is quite different from the language less educated Bengalis speak. The eastern dialects of Bangladesh, notably on Sylhet and Chittagong districts, are quite different from dialects spoken in West Bengal.

Among intellectuals in Calcutta, Bengali is being replaced more and more with English. In 2000, new laws were passed that stated that all government business had to be conducted in Bengali; that official forms had to be in Bengali, that responses to government letters and police reports had to be written in Bengali. Realizing the importance of English as an international language, many Bengali parents want their children to study English in school. Some have even enrolled their children in schools that specialize in teaching English.

Activists involved in preserving the Bengali language demanded that the name of Calcutta be changed to Kolkota—which has happened—and want the name of West Bengal to be changed to Banga. They also want Bengali to be the language of mandatory subjects in school and of television broadcasts. They also wanted shopkeepers and bureaucrats to speak the language and more computer software to use the Bengali script.

Bengali Religion

West Bengal and Bangladesh were divided up chiefly on religious grounds. Hindus make up 77 percent and Muslims make up 22 percent of the population of the of West Bengal while Hindus make up 10 percent and Muslims make up 90 percent of the population of Bangladesh. Less than one percent of Bengalis are Christian. There is only a small number of Bengali Buddhists.

Bengalis are known for blending Hindu, Muslim, folk religion, deities and practices. Worship takes place at temples and mosques and religious folk music gatherings (especially at Vaishnavite gatherings and among Muslim Sufis). Folk deities recognized by both Hindus and Muslim have included Sitala, the goddess of small pox, Olababibi, goddess of cholera, and Manasa, goddess of snakes.

The worship of Shiva is popular among the upper castes while the worship of Vishnu, and his incarnation Krishna, is more common among the lower castes. Bengali Hindu variations include Brahma Samaj, a modernist sect to which some Westernized high caste elites belong. Festivals honoring Shiva and his wife Lakshima and Sarswati. The goddess of knowledge, are important.

Bengali Muslim belong almost exclusively to the Sunni sect, mostly ascribing to the Hanafi school of Islamic law. They are known for the practice of “pirism,” the cultish following of Muslim holy men or saints.” Muslims celebrate the traditional Muslim holidays. Even though most Bengali Muslims are Sunnis, the also observe the Shiite festival of Ashura. The also celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi and the first day of the Hindu and Bengali new year.

See Bauls Under Literature

Bengali Character

Bengalis love it when attention s focused on their language, culture and achievements. They bristle at criticism of Calcutta. Paul Theroux wrote in the Great Railway Bazaar, "Bengalis were the most alert people I had met in India. But they were also irritable, talkative, dogmatic, arrogant and humorless, holding forth with malicious skill on virtually every subject except the future of Calcutta.”

Bengalis have a reputation for preferring to sit around and talk rather than work. Bengali workers are known for showing up late, going home early and spending much of their time at idly chatting.

The Bengali poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay told the New York Times, "We are an emotional people. We love to create and we love to talk. Some would say we talk to much. Whenever two or three people get together, they stop all work, and begin talking for hours." A bureaucratic from Uttar Pradesh told the New York Times, "If there are 10 Bengalis, there will be 11 opinions. The Bengali may have no food on the table, but he's off arguing somewhere about the Vietnam War or the last book he has read or whether it is a good idea to change every signboard in the city from Calcutta to Kolkata."

People from Calcutta are regarded as friendly, warm and intellectually arrogant. Known throughout India for being frank and informal, they like football, fish curry and arts and literature. A Bengali proverb goes that anger turns men into kings and women into whore.

Bengali Marriage

Bengali marriages have traditionally been arranged with customs dependent on whether the families involved were Muslims or Hindus. For example, polygamy is allowed and marriages between cousins are fairly common among Muslims while polygamy is discouraged and matrilineal cousin marriage are forbidden among Hindus.

Among Hindus, marriage generally takes place within restrictions. Women marrying upwards in caste is not forbidden but marrying downward is strongly discouraged. Bengali Muslims are not hemmed in by caste restrictions but social rank and status are important in the selection of a partner. Although cousin marriages are allowed there is no evidence that they are preferred and their incidence is not high. Among both Hindus and Muslims, newlyweds generally move in with the groom’s family.

The divorce rate among Muslim is generally higher because divorces are easier to obtain. The remarriage rate among widows and widowers is much higher among Muslims. Islam also does not discourage widow remarriage like Hinduism does.

Bengali Women, Men and Families

Kin groups revolve around homestead-based patrilineal extended families, whose members jointly own the homestead land. An extended family typically has a male head and consists of his wife, married son and their families, unmarried children and grandchildren and other dependants. These homestead extended families are divided into segments called paribars, consisting of men, their wives children and other dependents. Unity among the extended families is expressed through the sharing of a kitchen or hearth and the sharing of ownership and control of land.

It is common for older siblings to take care of younger siblings. As they grow older, the activities of girls is restricted and they are expected to stay close to home.

Bengali Hindu rules about inheritance are governed by the dayabhaga system of customary law, which states that ancestral property is handed down from a deceased man to his sons, who have traditionally divided the wealth equally. The wife and daughters are generally left out of the formula but have the right to be taken care of by sons and brothers. According to Islamic law, Muslim women are supposed to receive a share of the inheritance.. But since men are expected to be breadwinners, daughters customarily forfeit or are deprived of their inheritance which is given to sons.

Bengali men have traditionally been involved in tasks that take place outside the home while women engaged in tasks centered around the home. With farming, men tend to do the plowing, planting, wedding and harvesting while women take care of threshing, drying and husking crops near the home. Women also take care of household chores and child rearing. There are sometimes taboos about women working outside of the home. The taboos are often less strict with lower caste women because of economic necessity.

The degree to which women work outside the home is often determined by wealth and caste. Many poorer, lower-caste women work for wealthy families. Some wealthy, upper caste women work in professions, especially education and medicine. Nearly all the Bengali gynecologists are women.

Bengali Society and Caste System

The caste system is very much alive in Bengali society. There is some caste-based specialization among Muslims. In the modern economy, the caste system is not as pronounced and well defined but is present in the high numbers of upper caste members in professions and managerial jobs and the dominance of lower caste members in service-oriented and labor positions.

Hindu Bengali society tends to be less stratified than Hindu societies found elsewhere in India. Villages tend to have a smaller number of castes than Hindu villages elsewhere in India. They typically have five to 15 different castes where as villages elsewhere may have over 25. In the populous area of the southern Bengal delta, several low ranking farmer castes are strong both in terms of numbers and political powers. These include the Mahisyas, the Namasudras and the Pods.

The caste system traditions are in opposition to the egalitarian ideology of Islam. Among Muslims there are not castes per say but there are clearly-defined social ranks. This status is often determined by occupation.

In theory Islam forbids hereditary distinction based on social rank, but hierarchies exits. The traditional South Asian Muslim system of social rank distinguishes between nobles ( ashraf) and lowing ranks ( ajlaf or atraf, some of which are based on occupations). In many Muslim communities, most of the residents are farmers and castelike distinctions are not strong and when stratification occurs it based more on wealth more than anything else. The social system as a whole is more fluid and provided more opportunities for social mobility.

Bengali Villages and Homes

The official recognized unit of rural settlement is known as a mauza or “revenue village,” whose boundaries were surveyed and determined in the British era for purpose of administration and taxation. There are more that 68,000 of these villages in Bangladesh and 40,000 in West Bengal. A typical rural community in the low-lying delta region has 100 to 1,000 people and is comprised of one or more hamlets of peasant homesteads built on land intentionally raised to avoid monsoon flooding. Houses are set up in a linear fashion along canals and other waterways.

Peasant homesteads are typically comprised of extended families broken down into households consisting of nuclear families and men and their dependents, which form landholding and cultivating units. Scattered among the hamlets are “standard marketing areas,” which serve both as sites for regular markets and political centers for rural communities in a given area.

Dwellings in the delta area typically made from dense mud using techniques that are sophisticated enough to make buildings two or three stories in height. Homesteads typically have animal shelters, fruit-bearing trees and pond often constructed when mud was excavated to make house. The pond provides water for bathing, laundry and fish. The poor generally have houses with thatch roofs. Those who are better off can afford corrugated metal t roofs. The poorest of the poor often live houses made completely of bamboo.

Bengali Culture and Intellectual Life

Bengalis are proud of their achievements in the arts. West Bengal produced the Nobel laureates Rabibdranth Tagore (literature) and Amartya Sen (economics) "The Bengali," one man told Smithsonian magazine, "has always set himself up to think that God put him on earth to be a poet or a writer, and other races to do the dirty work."

Describing a Bengali intellectual, Barry Bearak wrote in the New York Times, he is "by culture and self-assertion of superior brainpower and spirit, adept at debating all isms and wasms of political thought. He is the Indian who effortlessly quotes Marx and Marshall McLuhan, all the while sipping coffee and scribbling poems on a paper napkin."

The Bengali playwright and government official Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told the New York Times, "Intellectually, I humbly proclaim we are more advanced than anyone else. We discussed the great questions: What is postmodernism? What does Noam Chomsky have to say about this or that?" Some Bengali intellectuals claim they know more about the United States than most Americans.

Bengalis and people from Calcutta has a reputation for being intellectual, romantic and outward-looking like characters in a Satyajit Ray movie. Even poor Muslim families in the slums of Calcutta hold reading of Pride and Prejudice. When Hindu extremist tried to shut down a showing of the controversial film Fire in Calcutta the audience ought back.

Bengali Literature, Arts and Music

Urban Bengalis have produced some of South Asia’s finest literary works, including novels, short stories, poetry. West Bengal produced the Nobel laureate Rabibdranth Tagore (literature) and the acclaimed poet Unil Gangipadhyay. Rural Bengal has a rich folk literature and narrative poetry tradition. Literary magazine in Calcutta sometimes are still produced with hand presses. Early magazines were printed on banana leaves.

Bengalis have also made contributions to drama and film. Jatra is a popular form of itinerant theaters. Terra-cotta sculpture is a feature of temple and mosque architecture. The Bengali tradition of painting is displayed in religious scrolls and the walls of homes in rural Bengal. The work of Bengali weaves, potters, blacksmiths is admired for its technique and design.

Some of India’s best classical musicians and dancers have been Bengalis. Bengal has a rich tradition of religious folk music, especially associated with Sufism among Muslims and with the devotional worship of Krishna and the goddess Kali among Hindus.

The Brita, or Vrita, is an important folk dance in West Bengal. Often performed after a recovery from a contagious disease, it is performed by barren women in hope that their wishes will be fulfilled. The Hurka is a dance performed during the cultivation of rice and maize. Named after a kind of drum, it is performed in different fields while a singer, or Baul, narrates a story about a battle or heroic deed. The dances themselves are known for their sharp, crisp movements. The Kali Nach is a dance that honors the goddess Kali A performer in a mask, purified by mantras, dances with sword and can make prophecies.

See Rabibdranth Tagore Under Literature

Bauls

Bauls are a religious and cultural group most active in West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. They are known as traveling minstrels who perform ecstatic songs and poems and live an unconventional lifestyle. The term “Baul” is understood to mean “madness.”. The Baul often describe themselves as “crazy for God.” Most Bauls are men who sing their songs while playing instruments such as the harmonium, small cymbals, drums or dotara (two-string lute with a long neck) . Usually the play a gopi yantra (or ektara, a one-stringed instrument ,made from a gourd and split bamboo). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Bauls fall into three major groups: 1) those with links to Tantric Buddhism and Shaktism (goddess worship), 2) those associated with Bengali Vaishnava (Vishnu worship); and Muslim fakirs. Some Bauls are married and perform daily rites in their homes. Some are ascetics who go through an initiation ritual, and wander the countryside, living in ashrams or monasteries. Bauls often gather in large numbers at festivals known as melas to sing songs and share stories.

Bauls usually dress in orange or saffron, with small bells around the ankles. The often have beards and longhair tied in a topknots. Sometimes they wear rudraksha beads (sacred to the god Shiva). They believe that god dwells within the human body and their songs bring him out. One type of song called sahaja emphasizes spontaneity and attempts to induce a state of ecstacy and creativity.

The Bauls reject caste and Muslim-Hindu religious distinctions and sometimes their way of life embraces Tantric ideas about sexuality. These Bauls believe that god dwells in sexual fluids. There are sexual rituals that unite the male and female essence. Many of their songs contain metaphors for unions of these fluid such a catching fish at high tide and piercing the moon. Baul beliefs are influenced by Tantric Buddhism, Sufism, Kundalini yoga and the Shaktism (the worship of Kali).

Bengali Political Parties and Crime

The Communist Party of India and other leftist groups for the most part ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. See Political parties.

In December 2000, 350 people died in 400 clashes, robberies and lynchings in West Bengal. The dead included a supporter of the Trinamool party, whose head was removed above the eyes by a met cleaver, two executed managers doused in gasoline and set on fire by employees upset over the firing of workers, and a girl suspected of poisoning her boyfriend who was tied naked to a lamppost and severely beaten.

Bengali Education, Health and Transportation

West Bengal once lead India in education, but now lags behind the rest of the country. There are lots of schools. How long children stay in school is often determined by their sex and the caste or status of their families. Religious schools— pathsalas for Hindus and madrassahs for Muslims—are open to both sexes.

Bengalis are proud of their achievements in science. West Bengal produced the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (economics) There are many Bengali professionals and bureaucrats.

Homeopathic, allopathic, Hindu Ayurvedic, Muslim Unani medicine and folk medical are practiced. Folk healers, known as ojha or fakis, are called upon to treat a wide variety of maladies, including snake bites, bone breaks and ghost possession. Treatments include reciting magical mantras while taking herbal remedies. Folk healers also provide amulets of protection against sorcery, which are worn by many Bengalis.

Bengal is crisscrossed by rivers and waterways and boat transportation is an important means for moving both people and goods. Many important commercial centers have grown up along rivers.

Bengali Economics and Business

West Bengal once lead India in business and industry but now lags behind the rest of the country. Bengali economic growth has been hampered somewhat by socialist policies, strikes and inflexible labor laws. Many multinational corporation have been driven out of the area.

Scattered among Bengali hamlets are “standard marketing areas,” which serve both as sites for regular markets and political centers for rural communities in a given area. In large towns there are daily markets. In the cities that are major urban commercial centers. They are often linked together through a wholesaler system. Many Bengali peasant engage in some kind of petty marketing to earn cash. The large scale marketing and transportation of major crops especially rice and jute, is carried by wholesalers who work in a number of different markets

A survey in 2000, indicated that only 6 percent of the businesses in Calcutta were owned by Bengalis. At that time Bengalis only owned 25 percent of West Bengal's 200 tea companies and didn't own any of the jute companies. Seminars have been held in Calcutta to get Bengalis to take more of an interest in entrepreneurship.

Industrial manufacturing is concentrated primarily in the cities. Village-level industry has traditionally been done by Hindu artisan caste groups, including weavers, potters, blacksmiths, and carpenters, Because villages are small, these artisans often serve a particular area rather than just one village.

Marwaris

Many businessmen, especially in Calcutta, are Marwaris. The Marwaris were originally traders and moneylenders from Marwar—a region of southwestern Rajasthan state in North Western India also known as Jodhpur—that migrated to Calcutta and Bombay and other places where they amassed huge fortunes in British Raj era.

Marwari once referred only to people from Marwar but now it often refers to anyone originally from Rajasthan. Many of the businesses in Calcutta are owned by Marwaris. The Marwaris, who have been trading for centuries, had the cash to buy many businesses after the British left.

Marwaris are regarded as proud, temperamental and generous. In the old days they placed great prestige and honor on dying in battle. Marwari women are regarded as first rate cooks. Marwar means “region of death.” The prince who founded a dynasty there belonged to the Rathores, a clan of fierce warrior belonging to the Rajput caste of rulers. Over the years the group expanded their territory until it was powerful kingdom the size of Belgium and conquered most of Rajasthan. Marwari horses are know for their bravery, short-tempers and passion.

Bengali Agriculture and Livestock

Land has traditionally been owned by families, with most land holdings not exceeding a hectare. Often times a parcel of land is highly fragmented, with an average of seven to nine separate plots per holding. Extended families have traditionally been expected to keep their family homesteads together but in practice the land is often subdivided after the death of a family patriarch and the division of land to small parcels with relatively low production is a problem.

There has been an effort to introduce land reform in West Bengal. In the 1960s only 20 percent of the landholding accounted for 60 percent of the total cultivated areas, and large numbers of cultivating families were landless laborers, tenants or sharecroppers.

About 50 percent of the labor force is involved in farming. There are three main agricultural seasons: 1) the spring season, marked by the beginning of the monsoon rains in April, when varieties of rice, including au, are typically grown along with jute, until July. 2) the aman season, when most rice is grown, lasting until November; and 3) the dry season, lasting until March, when types of rice known as boro, which grows well in irrigated conditions, are raised with pulses and oilseeds.

Jute has traditionally been the main commercial crop and rice the main food crop. In recent years some people have begun raising wheat and potatoes. Cows, oxen, bullocks, water buffalo and goats are raised for labor and food. They are usually raised on homesteads by farmers not as an agricultural specialization. Fishing is done on a small scale by farmers in homestead farm and as an occupational specialty by particular Hindu castes and castelike groups among Muslims.

Gorkhaland Movement

The Gorkhaland movement grew from the demand of Nepalis living in Darjiling District of West Bengal for a separate state for themselves. The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front led the movement, which disrupted the district with massive violence between 1986 and 1988. The issue was resolved, at least temporarily, in 1988 with the establishment of the Darjiling Gorkha Hill Council within West Bengal. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Historically, Darjiling belonged to the kingdom of Sikkim, which had lost it several times since the eighteenth century. The ethnic identity "Gorkha" comes from the kingdom with that name that united Nepal in the late eighteenth century and was the focal point of Nepalese in the British army. Immigration from Nepal expanded with British rule in India, and some 34 percent of the population of Darjiling in 1876 was of Gorkha (also seen as Gurkha) ethnicity. By the start of the twentieth century, Nepalese immigrants made a modest socioeconomic advance through government service, and a small anglicized elite developed among them. In 1917 the Hillmen's Association came into being and petitioned for the administrative separation of Darjiling in 1917 and again in 1928 and 1942. In 1928 the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (All India Gorkha League) was formed. It gained additional support after World War II with the influx of ex-soldiers from the Gurkha regiments who had been exposed to nationalist movements in Southeast Asia during service there. *

During the 1940s, the CPI organized Gorkha tea workers. In presentations to the States Reorganisation Commission in 1954, the CPI favored regional autonomy for Darjiling within West Bengal, with recognition of Nepali as a Scheduled Language. The All India Gorkha League preferred making the area a union territory under the national government. The state of West Bengal nominally has been supportive of the use of the Nepali language. The West Bengal Official Language Act of 1961 made Nepali the official language of the hill subdivisions of Darjiling, Kalimpong, and Kurseong, where Nepalese are a majority. The state legislative assembly passed a resolution in 1977 that led Parliament to amend the national constitution to include Nepali as a Scheduled Language. However, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front has accused the state government of failure to actually implement use of the language. *

The Gorkhaland movement distinguished Darjiling Gorkhas from nationals of Nepal legally resident in India, from Nepali-speaking Indian citizens from other parts of the country, and even from the majority in neighboring Sikkim, where Nepali is the official language. The movement was emphatic that it had no desire to separate from India, only from the state of West Bengal. Gorkhaland supporters therefore preferred to call the Gorkhas' language Gorkhali rather than Nepali, although they did not attempt to claim there is any linguistic difference from what other people call Nepali. The 1981 census of India, whether in deference to this sentiment or for some other reason, called the language Gorkhali/Nepali . However, when the Eighth Schedule of the constitution was amended in 1992 to make it a Scheduled Language, the term Nepali alone was used. *

In 1986 the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front, having failed to obtain a separate regional administrative identity from Parliament, again demanded a separate state of Gorkhaland. The party's leader, Subhash Ghising, headed a demonstration that turned violent and was severely repressed by the state government. The disturbances almost totally shut down the districts' economic mainstays of tea, tourism, and timber. The Left Front government of West Bengal, which earlier had supported some form of autonomy, now opposed it as "antinational." The state government claimed that Darjiling was no worse off than the state in general and was richer than many districts. Ghising made lavish promises to his followers, including the recruitment of 40,000 Indian Gorkhas into the army and paying Rs100,000 (for value of the rupee) for every Gorkha writer. After two years of fighting and the loss of at least 200 lives, the government of West Bengal and the central government finally agreed on an autonomous hill district. In July 1988, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front gave up the demand for a separate state, and in August the Darjiling Gorkha Hill Council came into being with Ghising as chairman. The council had authority over economic development programs, education, and culture. *

However, difficulties soon arose over the panchayat elections. Ghising wanted the hill council excluded from the national law on panchayat elections. Rajiv Gandhi's government was initially favorable to his request and introduced a constitutional amendment in 1989 to exclude the Darjiling Gorkha Hill Council, along with several other northeast hill states and regions (Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and the hill regions of Manipur), but it did not pass. However, in 1992 Parliament passed the Seventy-third Amendment, which seemed to show a newly serious commitment to the idea of local self-government by panchayats . The amendment excluded all the hill areas just mentioned except Darjiling. Ghising insisted this omission was a machination of West Bengal and threatened to revive militant agitation for a Gorkhaland state. He also said the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front would boycott the village panchayat elections mandated by the amendment. A large portion of his party, however, refused to accept the boycott and split off under the leadership of Chiten Sherpa to form the All India Gorkha League, which won a sizable number of panchayat seats. *

In 1995 it was unclear whether the region would remain content with autonomy rather than statehood. In August 1995, Sherpa complained to the state government that Ghising's government had misused hill council funds, and West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu promised to investigate. Both Gorkha parties showed willingness to use general shutdowns to forward their ends. The fact that so many people were willing to follow Sherpa instead of the hitherto unchallenged Ghising may indicate that they will be satisfied with regional autonomy. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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