Act Forty – Darjeeling Unrest: The Hills are Burning Again

Gorkhaland

—- By Tunchinmang Langel

Darjeeling, once a summer hill resort for the British Raj, is a destination regarded for its cool climate throughout the year, antique toy train service surrounded by a picturesque view of the Himalayan mountain ranges, Kanchenjunga peak (when the sky is clear blue), the famous tea gardens, delicacies ranging from homemade iskush ko tarkaari (chayote squash), sel roti, aloo dum and mimi combo, shaphale (veg & non veg), ‘authentic’ momo (veg & non-veg) and various palate fulfilling dishes. These are some of the never ending attractions Darjeeling is renowned for amongst the locals and the travelling soul.

As we indulge ourselves in imagining and soaking the beauty of Darjeeling, the peaceful calm of this place has been broken by protests called by the Gorkha Janmukhti Morcha (GJM) party against the ruling Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal, laying siege to the town with the six decades old demand for a separate ‘Gorkhaland’. This movement has revived questions of regional autonomy, the creation of separate states and its roots lies in the ethno-linguistic-cultural sentiments ascribed by the Nepali-speaking Gorkha people in the Darjeeling hills. It has once again pitched the people of distinct socio-cultural origins trying to promote, preserve and protect their identity at loggerheads with an existing state system.

We are now going to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the birth of our nation. Since the time of Independence, this country has been shaped by its history, unique geography, diverse demography, languages, religions, customs which differ from place to place, i.e., the country stitched together with different threads to form a concept of India. The state boundary lines of our nation are largely drawn based on linguistic groups, as such, we have always considered India as a land of multiculturalism. However, a liberal democracy such as in our country has many a time failed to ensure equal citizenship, for all its members. People from the minority community remain disadvantaged and feel discriminated as certain states prefer to enforce law and order, policies endorsing the hegemonic culture of the majority community in the society leading to homogenisation. We see this trend not only in the state but the national level as well and many at times within the microcosm of communities at large in a vast country such as India.

 

 

Ethnic resurgence movements such as the Gorkhaland, claiming measures of autonomy within the state needs to be approached with much caution and sensitivity. Gorkhaland demand has brought to fore how a simple trigger such as language can inflame the subdued passion and aspirations of the people, mobilising them into taking action on their own. In 2014, we witnessed one of the longest known movements for Telangana finally being carved out of Andhra Pradesh largely from the Telugu speaking parts of what was known before as the princely state of Hyderabad. This aspiration was transformed into reality after years of protests (violent and non-violent) and continued agitations even involving lakhs of government employees, lawyers, private MNC employees, public transporters, daily wage labourers, students and even MPs/MLAs from the region. Such a massive movement finally could not be quelled by piecemeal deals, false assurances and repressive police actions.

 

History of Gorkhaland movement

The demand by the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas for a separate administrative unit in Darjeeling has existed since 1907. This moment was considered as the first political signal of aspiration by the Nepali-speaking people in India. Historically, the movement for Gorkhaland last witnessed massive deaths during violent protests during the riots in 1986-87. This period was the time when the statehood demand was coined as ‘Gorkhaland’ by former leader Subhash Ghishing of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) party. It was reported that around 1200-1400 lives were lost during these violent agitations. In 2007, riding on the popularity wave of support from the Indian Idol winner Prashant Tamang, the baton of Gorkhaland movement was whisked away by the breakaway faction of the GNLF lead by the current supreme leader Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).

 

Gorkha protests

 

This was one example of Bimal Gurung’s politics at play which led to his meteoric rise; pragmatic and strategic with no hesitation to grab onto every opportunity that could sway the public opinion for his image. In 2010, Madan Tamang leader of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, a more moderate faction of the Gorkhaland movement, considered as a vocal opponent of the GJM and its leaders including Bimal Gurung, was publicly hacked to death allegedly by GJM supporters leading to an automatic shutdown of the Darjeeling hills. Before his death, Tamang had in fact forged an alliance of several parties to fight for democracy in the Hills through peaceful means. Over the years, protests have taken the form of strikes and blockades, not resulting in any massive violent deaths till now. Latest reports suggested that three lives were lost during police firings in the hills. Counterclaims by West Bengal administration indicated that these people were accidentally shot during the protests by their own supporters. This kind of irresponsible statement only results in the Darjeeling people being swayed that the Mamata Banerjee government is trying cloak the state repression on the plight of the Gorkhas.

 

Current politics over Gorkhaland

The GJM party has dominated the politics of Gorkhaland since 2007, whose supreme leader Bimal Gurung was elected as the first Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) leader in 2012. The GTA was a semi-autonomous administrative body set up for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills to replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) which was administering the Darjeeling hills since 1988. The DGHC which was associated with Subhash Ghising’s GNLF was replaced as it had reportedly failed to fulfil its goal of forming a new state. The GTA in place was expected to run the Darjeeling hills with more autonomy and eventually carve out the state of Gorkhaland. However, the TMC government at the time of the formation of GTA considered it as a step towards quelling the Gorkhaland movement.

There had been a period of undefined calm since 2012, with flickers of agitations in the form of bandhs (blockades) and little skirmishes, nothing gruesome or unruly to put the hills on alert till now. It all started with the results of the municipal Bengal Civic Polls for seven municipalities in the month of May 2017. Trinamool Congress won 3 in the plains (Raiganj, Domkal, Pujali) and 1 in the hills (Mirik). The GJM won the remaining three seats (Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong) out of the four in the hills. In the history of Darjeeling hills, this was one of the rarest of time when a party from the plains had managed to gain a foothold in the region.

Overall GJM kept Darjeeling with 31 seats and TMC with 1. The total numbers did not reveal much, but for the political observers of the Darjeeling hills, it was a sign of a dent in the image of GJM which had been contesting and winning the elections by focusing and capitalising on the ‘Gorkhaland’ demand. Amongst the locals there was a growing concern that the GJM has been exhibiting false promises and assurances for the past ten years, in fact, people had questioned at times the capability of the GJM to deliver ‘Gorkhaland’. A gap started to emerge between the people of the hills and the GJM, the TMC and its leader Mamata Banerjee saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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It was like a flashback of the plot in the 2000s when GNLF was starting to lose its base and factions such as GJM emerged from its shadow. Her personal visits to rally for the elections in Darjeeling, Kurseong was evidence of how much she wanted to make an impact in the electoral mandate in the hills. Bimal Gurung, the undisputed mass leader of the 21st-century Gorkhaland movement, realised his grasp of the people’s opinion regarding him and his party was slowly slipping away. The municipal election results losing the Mirik seat, and the investigations of the GTA financial accounts did not do any justice to his functioning of governance as GTA leader. However, Bimal Gurung who has been much touted for his ability to overturn the inevitable finally grasped on the opportunity offered on his lap due to the political faux pas of Mamata Banerjee’s government policy to make Bengali language mandatory in schools for the entire state. Language is what defines a culture, and it enforces an identity amongst the minority communities who often rely on language to distinguish themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic group.

 

 

The idea of an ethnic and cultural divide between the Bengalis in the plains and the Nepalese dominant Darjeeling hills solely because of language had always been the determining reason for the demand of a separate state. Bimal Gurung now had the trump card he anxiously needed to revert the image of incompetence he had gained in the recent months. With a vocal opposition and leading public agitation against the attempt to impose a majority foreign language of Bengali on the minority ethnic Gorkhas, he fulfilled his role as the leader of the masses to the full extent by reinvigorating the dormant but still prevalent demand of ‘Gorkhaland’. On top of this, despite the language card played by Bimal Gurung the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee seems completely oblivious to the cause and aspirations of the Gorkhas in the Darjeeling Hills who have been unrelenting in their demand for a separate Gorkhaland since time immemorial.

She has been called out for playing politics herself by covering up the embroiling situation at hand under the garb of law and order dysfunction along with many conspiracy theories such as outsider elements of militant support from the Northeast. Mamata Banerjee has belittled the centuries-old aspiration and demand of the Gorkha people by giving it a face of law and order situation and by connecting dots where there are none. This moment of insensitivity could be recorded in history as to where she lost the plot.

Nevertheless, a cornered animal is a dangerous animal, and it was not by luck that Mamata Banerjee had usurped the decades-old dominion of the left bastion in West Bengal. Darjeeling is now at the mercy of two leaders who once held each other in high regards but now face each other off in the quagmire of realpolitik, with neither party willing to relent and are waiting to see who blinks first. Bimal Gurung also knows that this time he needs to deliver if he wants to go down history books as the mainstay of Gorkhaland demand.

 

What now?

In any situation of political instability, it is only the citizen who suffers as normal functioning of government and society becomes impaired. The economy takes a fall as businesses get hit especially with the local industry of Darjeeling contingent on the influx of tourists. Road blockades and strikes steer the whole region into a standstill as Darjeeling is dependent on transport of goods, services, people from the plains to the hills and vice-versa. We are starting to witness the ill effects of prolonged, widespread demonstrations as fuel & food supplies, medical facilities and educational services are starting to struggle.

 

This failure of services could play out in favour of the WB Chief Minister’s agenda as it may lead the Gorkhaland protestors to relent in some manner. However, the longer she waits, the more agitated the people of Darjeeling are bound to become and questions of politics being played with the lives of the citizens of India is not going to help her dreams of achieving a national leadership role in the upcoming general elections of 2019. For Bimal Gurung, this will be his end game, the people of Darjeeling are much aware of his sleight of hands and his pragmatic political skills. The people of Darjeeling will be observing Gurung carefully if he tries to attempt anything less as the Gorkhas are looking more resolute than ever before in spearheading their target of ‘Gorkhaland’.

Demands of autonomous state administration have been prevalent throughout the country. One is easily reminded of the more visible and ongoing protests for independence in the Kashmir valley, the central government negotiations at play with the proponents of Nagaland’s ‘shared sovereignty’. In the state of Assam itself, the ‘Bodoland’ advocates would be looking carefully at the developments in their neighbourhood. In September 2015, the Hill-Valley divide of the Manipur state was torn further wide when nine tribals were killed during agitation while protesting against the three Bills introduced by the state government to meet the Inner Line Permit demand. The killings resulted in violent and non-violent protests fuelled by the angry sentiments bottled up amongst the people of the hills against the diktats of majority ‘Meitei’ community in the valley, who are largely seen as insensitive towards the demands of the Hill Tribes. There is now even a call for separate administration in this part of Manipur as well.

The question remains that will the call for separate political administration in the form of a separate state or even a shared sovereignty based on the idea of preserving unique ethnic identity, culture and language, lead to better governance and development of the state and its people who had been marginalised by the dominant community? Will these carving out of states finally ensure long lasting peace? Multiculturalism propounds that privileging the majority culture means disadvantaging the minority culture. No one knows what the future holds but the aspirations of the people such as of ‘Gorkhaland’ maintain that they do not want the present where they are living under the oppression of a dominant foreign community. Therefore calls for assimilation by majority communities is widely viewed negatively and opposed by ethnic minority communities aspiring to safeguard their existence.

Charles Taylor (1995: 73) famously states that if we cannot contribute to our inheritance, we must at least ensure that the diversity that exists survives and does not perish.

— The writer is currently pursuing his PhD at the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, SIS, JNU & was a former executive (ASEAN Desk) at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). 

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