Kangra, Himachal Pradesh: Known for their valour on the battlefield, Gorkhas in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala constituency are a dissatisfied lot as far as political representation is considered. Neither the chest-thumping nationalism of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor the consistent calm of Indian National Congress finds a connect with them in the face of frequent ignorance from politicians from both the camps. And for the first time ever, the community has fielded an independent candidate — an unassuming banker who retired voluntarily to devote himself to his debut election contest.
Ravinder Rana, 59, a former director of Punjab and Sind Bank, is banking on the support of the 101-year-old Himachal and Punjab Gorkha Association in Bhagsu, Dharamshala.
“We have about 10,000 members of the (Gorkha) community in Dharamshala constituency alone. But my support base spreads across all sections of the society,” says Rana, who comes from Hodal village located 18 kilometres from Dharamshala town, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile in India. Dharamshala has 79,450 voters according to the electoral roll published by the Himachal Pradesh State Election Office.
Neither BJP nor Congress has mentioned anything about the community in their manifesto. For Rana, this illustrates how “the two parties have ignored the community, as it does not have as big a vote bank as others”.
Dharamshala falls in the electorally critical district of Kangra, which comprises 15 of the 68 Assembly seats of the state and is home to a sizeable chunk of defence votes. The district is the home of Kargil War heroes Captain Vikram Batra and Captain Saurabh Kalia. The Gorkhas first settled in Kangra Valley around 1804, against the backdrop of the mighty Dhauladhar range.
General secretary of Himachal and Punjab Gorkha Association, Captain (retired) Pritam Singh Burathoki says that they are unhappy with local political leaders, who are inconsiderate of their day-to-day problems.
“When Congress was in power at the Centre, it had announced a central university for Dharamshala, but not a file moved in that regard. Before it came to power in the state, Congress promised to establish an IT park in Dharamshala, but that did not happen either,” he says. “The BJP is no different. They keep talking about each other’s flaws, corruption, and scams, but our biggest issue is unemployment among the educated youth.”
Manisha Lamba, a first-year student at MCM DAV College for Women, Chandigarh, had to move out of her home in Palampur near Dharamshala, due to the lack of a good college and higher education avenues.
“Chandigarh’s Panjab University is a state varsity, but it is better than the options for higher education back home. A better varsity would have helped students like me,” she says.
The then prime minister Manmohan Singh, in his Independence Day address to the nation in 2007, had announced the establishment of a central university in every state that did not already have one following which the Central University of Himachal Pradesh was set up in 2009. Since then, the university has been operating from a temporary campus in Shahpur, Kangra, about 35 kilometres from Dharamshala. At present, there is a proposal to have two campuses of the varsity — one in Dehra (another constituency in Kangra district) and the second in Dharamshala. However, there is no deadline to set up these campuses and the work is taking its own sweet time.
“A lot of our youngsters have to live out of the state for jobs,” he rues.
Rana is hoping to use the managerial skills that he acquired during his 36 years at the bank towards developing the constituency. When he left his job, he was overseeing a project for skill development of youth in the state.
“I visited Sakoh village recently. People there told me that they don’t have drinking water supply to date. Isn’t this shameful?” he asks.
Snub to the Gorkhas
Rana cites an affront during the centenary celebrations of the Himachal and Punjab Gorkha Association in 2016 as “the last straw that broke the camel’s back”, pushing him to take the fight for the Gorkhas’ rights in his own hands.
“The association had invited chief minister Virbhadra Singh and state urban development minister Sudhir Sharma, but they did not come. This shows their attitude towards us,” he says.
In his defence, Sharma says that he could not make it to the function as a nephew of his had died shortly before. He says it was the tragedy in the family that kept him from attending the celebration.
Captain Burathoki, who served with military intelligence before he retired, calls it unfortunate that the chief minister did not care to come for their association’s centenary celebrations. “The Gorkhas have shed their blood for the nation. We may not be electorally as influential, but we are honest people and everybody here knows that. The BJP has gone to the extent of saying that we took money from Congress for dividing the votes, but it’s untrue,” the Army veteran says.
He says Rana’s election campaign is crowdfunded, largely by traders. “People know Ravinder well here and many of them have backed him. We have been able to collect Rs 10 lakh,” he adds.
Capt Burathoki informs that they have been campaigning relentlessly since the announcement of the poll schedule. “We have been holding five to six gatherings every day. We are sure that we will win the elections,” he says.
Even as Rana and Captain Burathoki exude the confidence of a poll victory in Dharamshala, they face a stiff challenge. Since 1967, the first elections conducted in Himachal Pradesh after it was carved out of Punjab, no independent candidate has registered a win. The state Assembly has witnessed 11 elections so far. If Rana wins, he will make history.