India signs deal to end ethnic unrest in tea hills

NEW DELHI - India was to sign a deal Monday to grant autonomy to an ethnic group in the Himalayan tea-growing area of Darjeeling in an effort to end decades of often-violent demands for a homeland.

The agreement between the federal government, the state of West Bengal in India's east and a political group leading the Gorkha protesters was to be inked later Monday in a village about 600 kilometres from Kolkata.

Indian Gorkhas, who are ethnic Nepalese, have led a violent campaign for the past two decades demanding the separate state of Gorkhaland carved from West Bengal's hilly district of Darjeeling.

The newly created Gorkhaland Territorial Administration will have powers to manage public works, social welfare, health and forests in administrative areas under its mandate.

"The agreement will end the violence in the hills of Darjeeling and pave the way for development," said newly elected West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

"We have plans to develop the hills of Darjeeling and its surrounding areas on the lines of Switzerland," she added, repeating a pledge made on the campaign trail earlier this year.

The tea-growing hills of Darjeeling has been a hotbed of protests since the 1980s when the Gorkha National Liberation Front rose in revolt against the West Bengal government.

A Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was created in 1988 under then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to settle the demands for independence, but support for this organisation broke down.

Bimal Gurung formed the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha pressure group in 2007 and rebelled against the Council and the state government.