Ethnic Gorkhas get more autonomy in Indian state

AP News
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Posted: Jul 18, 2011 11:49 AM
Ethnic Gorkhas get more autonomy in Indian state

The government of the Indian state of West Bengal signed an agreement Monday offering greater autonomy to ethnic Gorkhas in hopes of ending their often violent agitation for a homeland in the Himalayan foothills.

The agreement was negotiated by the newly elected government in West Bengal with the main Gorkha organization, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, or Gorkha Peoples' Freedom Front.

However, it did not appear to go far enough for some activists who want a separate state carved out of West Bengal and have called a 48-hour protest strike.

Gorkha nationalist leader Roshan Giri has said they have not abandoned the demand for a separate homeland but would wait for recommendations from a committee set up under the accord.

India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram attended the ceremony to mark the signing of the accord in the hill town of Sukna, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.

Tens of thousands of Gorkhas cheered and applauded as the deal was signed by representatives of the three sides.

"You have our fullest support to build a great future," Chidambaram told the cheering crowds in Sukna.

The agreement envisions a hill council with elected representatives, a committee that will determine what Gorkha-dominated areas will be represented and the transfer of land records to the newly created administrative authority. The Gorkhaland administration will have full control over agriculture, tourism and public health.

Members of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha welcomed the creation of the hill council but said the struggle for a seperate state would continue.

"This is a turning point in our movement and not a permanent settlement," said P. Arjun, a GJM leader. "The separate state issue is not a closed chapter."

In the 1980s, the Gorkhas led a violent insurgency leading to the deaths of some 1,200 people. Their means have been more peaceful since. Experts say the agreement could bring development to the Darjeeling region famed for its tea gardens.

"Once peace returns, people will see the impact of the agreement," said Sanjoy Hazarika, head of the Center for North East Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Darjeeling, a popular tourist and educational hub in India's northeast, had lost its sheen due to unrest fueled by frequent strikes by separatist groups.

"If calm prevails, tourists should return," he said.

India has 28 states and seven federally administered regions but there are growing demands for smaller states to be carved out of the larger ones.

Several parts of India _ the Telengana region in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the Bundelkhand region in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and Vidarbha in the western state of Maharashtra _ also face similar movements for new states. So far there have been no moves by the government to create separate states there.

India's Gorkha community is from the same ethnic group as the Gurkhas in Nepal, best known for the regiments in the Indian and British armies.