Darjeeling on the brink of ethnic violence?

Darjeeling on the brink of ethnic violence?

Sutirtha Gupta, Kolkata,
Public and private properties were damaged during Gorkhaland agitation

The Indian government is holding the Tiranga Yatra from 9-15 August, commemorating 75th anniversary of the anti-British ‘leave India’ movement. But in the hills of Darjeeling this year, the Gorkha Jamamukti Morcha’s commemorations have taken a different turn. Morcha lader Bimal Gurung has said they will be part of the Tiranga Yatra and will take out processions to the hills, Terai and Dooars, but their main slogan will be ‘Bangla [West Bengal], leave the hills!’ The hills will also resound with slogans of ‘Jai Gorkha! Jai Gorkhaland!” [Victory to the Gorkhas! Victory to Gorkhaland!’] The Morcha statement said that just as the British had kept the Indian’s like slaves and the people could not move freely, the West Bengal government is also depriving us of freedom. That is why this movement has been taken up.

Read this in Bengali

An indefinite strike has been continuing for the past two months at the call of the Morcha, demanding a separate Gorkhaland state. A hunger strike is also being observed. The activists of the movement have extended their area to Terai and Dooars. The movement is steadily taking in a more aggressive form and the leaders show no inclination to respond to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s call for talks. They will only agree to talks on a Gorkhaland state.

They placed an 8 August deadline for talks with the Indian government. However, 8 August has come and gone, but the Indian government did not respond. The elected MP of Darjeeling, BJP Ahluwalia also remains silent. The Morcha thus sees no alternative but to go ahead with their movement. And the unrest grows in Darjeeling.

In the meantime, the state administration is fully prepared to tackle the protestors, in order to make sure their rebellion doesn’t spill over to the plain lands.

The protest was initially sparked off when the Wst Bengal government made Bengali language a compulsory subject in all schools. However, that has now emerged as a full-fledged movement for a separate Gorkhaland.  While there may not be a consensus on Bimal Gurung’s leadership, the various parties of the hills have formed the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee. Putting aside all difference, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) and other parties have joined this committee. The committee is generating support and action all over the country and overseas too.

Also Read: Darjeeling unrest threatens tea shortage

On the other hand, the West Bengal chief minister has taken this up as a challenge, saying that for as long as she is alive, she will not allow Bengal to be divided. There is no attempt to understand whether this movement is merely for a separate state or whether it reflects a greater movement for the fundamental rights of a larger community.

Actually, the call for Gorkhaland was raised 110 years ago. It was in 1907 that the Hillmen’s Association placed a memorandum with the British government for a separate Gorkhaland. Then over the last decade or so, this demand has been raised time and again. There has been violence and over a thousand people have given their lives in this movement. There have been repeated attempts to quell the movement and reach a compromise through the Hill Council or the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration.

Meanwhile, in the five years since she took over as chief minister, Mamata Banerjee has been flexing her muscles in the hills. In her political strategy, she has been dividing parties and luring others away from the movement. She has been setting up various development boards in the hills, also attempting to keep the non-Gorkhas happy too.

However, the struggle for social identity of the hill people cannot be quelled in this manner. As historian Gautam Bhadra points out, statements such as ‘Dajeeling is an inseparable part of Bengal’, is an insult to the political aspirations of the ethnic identity of the hill people which has grown over the past century. The ‘rough and tough’ stance of the administration, the attempts to divide and rule, legal action and other measures have simply served to ignite counter aggression. Rather than taken to tough stance, the authorities need to give political respect and recognition to the hill people. The development programs being meted out at present seem nothing but charity. And time is running out.

Also Read: Gorkhaland stir is a festering sore which could threaten India’s security

The Darjeeling factor had never been given due attention, leading up to the present predicament. Novelist Bimal Lama had once said that if any ethnic groups feel that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights, it is imperative to give their grievance due recognition. This is a constitutionaresponsibility. It is the responsibility of the state.

This movement, however, is still being viewed as an attempt to divide Bengal. Observers feel, this attitude is pushing the movement towards ethnic hatred. They apprehend further outburst of violence, as the writing has long been on the wall.