Darjeeling, India -- where the aroma of tea and dissent mingle. Picturesque hill town at center of Gurkhas' push for autonomy

Nestled on a steep ridge, flanked by snowcapped Himalayan mountains to the north, Darjeeling has a name known the world over for its peerless aromatic tea. But nowadays, Darjeeling has become identified with the ``Gurkhaland'' movement which has transformed this spectacular hill town into a political arena symbolic of the divisive communal forces that plague India.

``Gurkhaland'' is the battle cry of Indian-born people of Nepalese origin -- known as Gurkhas -- who want a separate state in India. Some 600,000 of India's estimated 6 million to 7 million Gurkhas live in the Darjeeling area. The Gurkhas here constitute over 95 percent of the work force on tea estates.

``It's added one more trouble spot for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to deal with,'' says a Western diplomat. In other states, such as Punjab and Assam, conflicts involving minority groups have evolved into violent agitations or secessionist movements. Since clashes broke out here in May, more than 20 people have been killed.

So far, the central government has tried to steer clear of the problem. The responsibility for tackling the agitation, Prime Minister Gandhi said recently, lies with the government of West Bengal State, where Darjeeling is situated. The West Bengal government is led by Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, an opposition stalwart.

The ``Gurkhaland'' movement pits the Gurkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) against West Bengal's ruling party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which feels threatened by erosion of grassroots support, particularly among trade unions.

Darjeeling's backbone industry -- tea -- has already been hard hit. It stands to lose valuable income as periodic strikes called by both sides take a toll on quality and quantity of production.

Leading the ``Gurkhaland'' push is Subhash Ghising, who founded GNLF in 1980. Only recently did his campaign generate much support and enthusiasm. Author of several romantic novels in Nepali and a self-described philosopher, Ghising consults horoscopes before planning actions.

``We aim to have Gurkhaland by April 1987 by hook or by crook,'' Ghising says. He accuses the local government of committing ``an apartheid crime'' and adopting ``war tactics'' against GNLF supporters.

The movement focuses on the issue of Indian citizenship for local Nepalese born in the northeastern areas, as distinct from the Nepal-born Nepalese. ``We do not have political identity as Indian Nepalese. Are we Indians? Or are we considered foreigners?'' Ghising asks.

Ghising's chief demand is the abrogation of a clause in an Indo-Nepal Treaty that allows citizens of either country reciprocal privileges such as residence, property ownership, and trade in each other's territory. ``Ghising is concerned that if ever Nepal were deemed unfriendly to India, the Indian Nepalese will be treated as foreigners and deported,'' says local lawyer D. S. Rasaili.

But to the average Nepalese, the citizenship issue is not as much a concern as deeper cultural, socio-economic, and political problems that go back several decades. At the heart of support for Gurkhaland, analysts say, is the plight of a minority sector that feels left out of economic opportunities and political privileges.

``There is no question the hill areas have been neglected for many years,'' says an English school teacher. Early this century, Gurkha leaders asked British authorities for a separate administrative set-up for the Darjeeling area on grounds that the hill people were ethnologically, geographically, and historically distinct from the people of Bengal. This demand and others, such as recognizing Nepali as an official Indian language, have not been met.

Since Indian independence in 1947, the Gurkhas say, they have been dominated by Bengalis in many fields. ``Our people have [suffered] from limited education and inability to compete for jobs,'' says Usha Pradhan, a GNLF official. ``Our opportunities are limited in our own homeland. We don't want to be part of West Bengal. We want control over our lives. That's why we're fighting for Gurkhaland.''

Although Gandhi recently blamed the West Bengal government for the state's overall economic backwardness, analysts say the central government has in the past been insensitive or indifferent to the Nepalese grievances. Recently, an official of the government-run TV station reportedly denied a request to show a Nepalese film on the grounds that Nepali is a foreign language.

Ghising's movement seems to have touched the emotions of Nepalese. ``No matter how unrealistic his ideals are, [Ghising] came at the right time,'' a Nepalese social worker says. ``He gave us and the youths some hope.''

Ghising has received strong backing from the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 tea workers who traditionally belong to CPI-M trade unions. About half of Darjeeling's 70 tea gardens now support GNLF, planters say. In some estates, work has stopped altogether at times.

``It's had a terrible impact on the tea industry,'' says a tea estate manager. Darjeeling produces only some 20 million pounds of tea per year, but it fetches a high price.

Ghising claims he plans peaceful demonstrations but warns his movement could turn violent. ``If the government ignores us, the consequences will be drastic.''

Neither Gandhi nor Basu seem prepared to grant the Gurkhas their dream of a Gurkhaland. But, in the words of lawyer Rasaili, ``the Nepalese' political aspirations are such that they think Gurkhaland is the only solution. They support it and they will go on fighting for it.''

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