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Darjeeling Crisis: An uprising for an identity

By Ashima Makhija

The West Bengal hills are ablaze, both with fire and rebellion. The brewing crisis in Darjeeling was ignited by the decision of the West Bengal government to impose Bengali in all schools from Class I-X. This imposition overlooks the cultural differences of the Gorkha community, which consists of Nepali-speaking Indians in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, and other hilly districts. It has thus triggered violent protests in the hills.

Gorkhaland: A time-worn demand

The Gorkha outfits have buried their past differences and have rekindled a united demand for an autonomous state, ‘Gorkhaland’. The agitation escalated on Thursday when the police raided the office of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). In retaliation, the GJM leaders announced an indefinite bandh and protesters burned down a railway station, a police outpost and several vehicles.

The demands for a separate ‘Gorkhaland’ that protects the Indian identity of this Nepali-speaking population have been imminent for several decades. The people belonging to these areas hardly have any connection with the Bengali community and are different in ethnicity, culture, and language.

Right from the reign of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Gorkhas have pushed for separation from Bengal. After a series of successive violent movements in the 1980s and in 2007, the CM Mamta Banerjee pacified the Gorkhas with the creation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), which is chiefly under the command of GJM. However, the ‘divisive politics’ of the Trinamool Congress supremo are threatening the semi-autonomous position of the region and thus, they have re-initiated their campaign.

The outbreak of violence, a sensitive situation

On June 13, in a landmark meeting of several important hill parties, a resolution for a separate state was passed in Darjeeling. This meeting was attended by GJM, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the Gorkhaland Rajya Nirman Morcha, the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh (apolitical), and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists. The belligerent stance of the Bengal CM forced these opposition parties to take a unanimous stand against the linguistic and cultural chauvinism, and so they declared a partial bandh.

The situation rapidly degraded from there on. The GJM’s office’s raid on June 15 revealed a sack full of cash, firearms, explosives, and wireless communication devices. Issuing a strong rebuttal, the GJM said in a statement that only bows, arrows, farm implements such as axes and sickles, and a “couple of boxes of firecrackers” were found at the party office. It also argued that the state was trying to intimidate its supporters and discredit the movement.

On Thursday night, GJM supporters set fire to government establishments like hydel projects and health centres. The panchayat building at Mirik, where the Trinamool Congress, won the civic poll only last month, was also set ablaze. Stray incidents of violence were reported from Darjeeling and nearby areas and six suspected GJM supporters were detained on Friday. The Centre deployed 1400 paramilitary forces to control the situation.

From the parties’ stands

Mamta Banerjee’s method of dealing with the protests has been widely criticised because none of her ideas seems to pay any heed to the Gorkha identity. She said that—“A few leaders are doing goondagiri (hooliganism). But one cannot do politics with guns and bombs. We will curb their violent agitation.”

BJP, one of the key opposition parties in WB, has blatantly blamed the “inept handling” of the CM for the situation. Union minister, Ananth Kumar said, “It is she (Mamata) who is responsible for the unrest in the Darjeeling hills, disrupting its continuing peace.”

In the hills, the Gorkha leaders have emerged, both as villains and as heroes. They are urging the people to fight against the “terror of police excesses”, “attacks on democracy” and for their identity. But at the same time, their indefinite bandh and violent methods have caused immense problems and insecurity for the tourists as well as residents of the region.

What can be done to control the situation?

In our country, we have always stressed upon integrating our linguistic and cultural identities with our national identity. Cultural and linguistic chauvinism not only demolishes the philosophy of our Constitution but also threatens the identities of other groups. It is vital for the Bengal government to curb its attempts to suppress the unique identity of the Gorkhas and to show greater sensitivity to their language and culture.

Bengali should be made an optional subject in school and the Nepali language should be empowered and embraced by the State Government. Bilateral conversation, instead of wild and severe allegations, between leaders of the Gorkha outfits, the state and the Centre can potentially resolve the dispute. Thus, the key to this age-old demand of autonomy isn’t the use of paramilitary forces, only tact and sensitivity can restore the peace of the hills.


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