The Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal have surpassed 40 days of protest for a separate state of Gorkhaland. The crisis in the hills has crippled the region – eight people have died in alleged police firing, tourists have been evacuated, the internet is suspended for over a week, shops are shut down, there is a visible military presence in the region and transport for daily commuting remains inaccessible.
On Monday, July 24, Darjeeling teachers’ associations met with the district magistrate to seek restoration of internet services as standard 9 students were unable to fill up their forms for board examinations. However, their demand was rejected.
On Saturday, July 22, the West Bengal government took the drastic step of sealing the Siliguri-based office of a Nepali language satellite television channel after authorities alleged coverage of pro-Gorkhaland rally.
The protests started when, on May 16, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced to make Bengali language compulsory in all schools from Class I to Class IX, including private English-medium schools, of the state. Most schools already had the language as an optional subject, but making it mandatory was seen as ‘linguistic imperialism’ by the Nepali speaking population of the region. In response, CM Banerjee decided to hold a Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling for the first time in 40 years. The agitation escalated when little effort was made by the state government to include representatives of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) or the three hill MLAs.
In a month’s time, 600 additional paramilitary personnel, including 200 women, were deployed in Darjeeling to help the administration restore normalcy.
A protest for inclusion into the democratic framework of India
The demand for a separate state of Gorkhas is almost 70 years old and it is a story of racism, and cultural and language differences. It is a classic sub-nationalist movement, not unlike those that have birthed the states of Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Beyond the representation by the media, it is a longing for recognition, respect and integration of the Gorkhas into the democratic state of India.
As reported by The New York Times, the Nepalese inhabitants of the Darjeeling hills have been looked as migrants from Nepal and therefore “foreigners” even though their history in the area predates an independent India.
Similar to Uttarakhand, Gorkhas want a separate state to nurture their geographical resources, traditions and culture.
The first Gorkhaland agitation was during the 1980s, while the second, with unrequited demands, emerged in 2007 under the leadership of Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).
Heralding self-governance, belonging and recognition as Indian citizens, Gorkhaland remains a dream for the citizens of Darjeeling and other Nepali-speaking Indians across the country. For them, it stands as a solution to the decades of discrimination, misconception and marginalisation.
Understanding the issue requires understanding the multiple nuances of the history of Gorkhaland and its people, who are yet to experience the liberation of Independent India.
A people’s movement
Since July 15, around 50 schools in Darjeeling district are closed, leaving more than 43,000 students in a dilemma on how or rather whether they will be able to sit for their board examinations next year. In many schools, even the half-yearly examinations are still pending.
Subsequently, several teachers have now gone out of their way to teach the students privately at home at the request of the parents.
Yesterday, July 24, Darjeeling teachers’ associations also met with the district magistrate to seek restoration of internet services because it’s hampering with the students’ education.
“What is new about the movement this time is the people’s participation. Earlier in the 1986 agitation, we had to go door to door asking people to join in. But this time, they have come out themselves, and from all age groups. There is a sense of urgency because we are on the 40th day of the strike and that urgency is brought about not just due to faulty governance from the state, but from our leaders as well. Both sides of the coin need to be understood,” said Students as Rethinkers, Gorkhaland to The Logical Indian. “There is also a collective leadership committee that is trying to represent our people in front of the state and central governments.”
“Forty days into the strike, the situation is more like a curfew; we can’t move around freely as the so-called ‘normalcy’ is missing. The internet is still banned and it’s difficult to even get small household items. Our only source for such daily necessities is Siliguri which is about 2-3 hours away. But even going there is a hassle because of the vehicular strike, and if we do manage to get things like rice and dal, the vehicles carrying the food are stopped by the police. The shopkeepers in Siliguri are reluctant to sell their goods to us. Apparently, they were given orders by the police to not sell any items to the people from the hills. It is rumoured that they want to block all routes and cut all supplies so we tire out and halt the protest,” they added.
Students as Rethinkers believe that the main problem is the state government’s approach to the issue. “But the blame needs to be shared by our leaders as well. We are in a deadlock because of bad governance from both sides. The state is blaming our leaders, while they are blaming the state government. Where is the public in that?” they said.
Even if the Gorkhas stop their protests, normalcy is unlikely to return, owing to the deep-rooted nature of the issue.
“Our demand for a separate statehood is not new. The failure to actually understand why a separate state is being demanded is the main problem. One thing that also needs to be understood is that when we say that we want a separate state, it doesn’t mean that we have an agenda against the Bengalis. This is not out of hatred, but only out of a desire for recognition. West Bengal MP Derek O’Brien had said on social media that Gorkhaland cannot function on its own because the region is very small. But states as small as ours, Sikkim and Goa, already exist and function,” said Students as Rethinkers.
In the recent protests, eight Gorkhas have died in police firing. Out of them, one was shot dead when he had stepped out in the evening to buy medicine, they claim.
The people’s strike is indefinite. But even as their basic rights are being violated – internet shut down, schools closed, shops shut – they have decided to stand true to their cause.
Darjeeling holds an important place in India’ geography – its beautiful tea plantations and the Himalayan vistas – make it a land of blissful serenity. But politics has reduced the region to a place filled with voices of frustration. It is crucial that the demands of the Gorkhas are not left unheard.