POLITICS

What Lies Behind The Gorkhaland Protests In Darjeeling

An ancient sense of hurt and injustice.

12/06/2017 3:30 PM IST | Updated 12/06/2017 4:00 PM IST
DIPTENDU DUTTA via Getty Images

Darjeeling has been on the boil for the past one week. The latest bout of protests for a separate state of Gorkhaland were triggered by the Mamata Banerjee government's decision to make Bengali compulsory in schools across West Bengal. The government later made conciliatory noises, saying it was to be offered as an optional second or third language, but by then the damage was done.

The recent stir is a war cry against the West Bengal government as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) has called for an indefinite strike of all government facilities in the hills in the northern parts of the state.

The Times of India reported that Section 144 has been imposed in some areas, including around the District Magistrate's office, treasury building and the courts.

Paramilitary forces have been deployed in the Darjeeling, the epicentre of the protests, and the state government is cracking the whip against the protest with an order stating, "In view of the call given by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha for indefinite bandh/strike on and from 12 June, 2017, it has been decided that all state government offices situated in the District of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, including those provided with grants-in-aid by the state government, would remain open and all the employees of those offices should report for duty on each day till the call for such bandh is not withdrawn. It has also been decided that no leave shall be granted to any employee on any of these bandh days."

GJM leader Bimal Gurung has vowed to not stop till his party achieves the goal of separate statehood.

The struggle of the Gorkhas, and their demand for Gorkhaland is almost 70 years old. And behind it lies a history of racism, differences in language and culture.

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

The recent stir

The latest bid by the GJM for a separate Gorkhaland state was triggered by an announcement by the Mamata Banerjee government that Bengali would be made compulsory in schools across the state.

While West Bengal is a largely Bengali-speaking state, the northern hilly areas of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong are inhabited by mostly Nepali-speaking people, who, understandably, have a problem with the diktat of the West Bengal government.

The GJM has demanded that Nepali be introduced as a language instead or Hindi, but they are absolutely against making Bengali mandatory.

As pointed out by Esha Roy in her column in The Indian Express, this is a severe and growing backlash for trying to enforce Bengali culture in the hills. And this comes at a time when the TMC has just made some inroads into the hills of West Bengal with a win in the Mirik municipality during the polls in 2017.

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Racism against the Gorkhas

The forcing of Bengali on the Gorkhas is like rubbing salt on the wounds of people who not only look different but are also culturally different from the Bengalis, who have always made them to feel like outsiders, and inferior ones at that.

GJM's Amar Singh Rai told Scroll in 2016, "We want a homeland for ourselves—for our own identity. ... Although we are bona fide Indian citizens, we are still called 'Nepali'. To get rid of the stigma we feel it's essential that we have our own state."

That the people in the hills felt marginalised as a race was evident when the public campaign for Prashant Tamang—a local boy from the hills who made it to the talent show Indian Idol in 2008—turned political.

As a Mint report had pointed out then, his fan clubs were turned into GJM offices and rising number of members were taken in by the party after a Delhi FM radio jockey mocked Tamang as a 'chowkidar'.

An article in the New York Times says that despite being part of Indian history from before the British era, the Gorkhas are still looked down as migrants from Nepal, and therefore 'foreigners', by many Indians.

The incident with the radio jockey was only one example of how the Gorkha people are stereotyped into certain professions—and continue to be labelled as such.

AFP/Getty Images

The short end of the stick

The Gorkhas have always maintained that they have received the short end of the stick because Bengali-speaking politicians don't understand or care enough about their needs or issues.

"We who live here need to decide what will happen with our land. How can people sitting in Kolkata or Delhi decide things about our home?" Anup Chhetri, an winter-garment-seller in Darjeeling town told Scroll last year.

A year later, the sentiments against the authorities in the state remain the same. The Gorkhas still feel like outsiders, despite promises from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that the hills are her top priority.

And the inroads that the TMC has made into the hills are not something that the GJM, the party that is leading the Gorkhaland protests, is happy about. Mint quoted Roshan Giri, GJM spokesperson, as saying, "She is going to grab everything."

Mint also reported that while Banerjee has created 19 welfare boards for the communities in the hills, these were also seen by the GJM as trying to create rifts in the unity of the Gorkha community.

AFP/Getty Images

Early history of the Gorkhaland movement

The history of the Gorkha movement is decades old.

The New York Times points out that Darjeeling was never supposed to be part of West Bengal. The Gorkhas had captured Sikkim and most parts of the North East including Darjeeling in 1780. But after losing to the British, they surrendered their territories to in the Treaty of Segoulee in 1816. While the British had given Darjeeling to Sikkim, they leased it back in 1835 for political reasons.

Darjeeling, according to The Indian Express, had also been part of the Rajshahi division, which is now part of Bangladesh, and then part of the Bhagalpur division. Darjeeling was merged with West Bengal after the partition of 1947.

As pointed out in Mint, the All India Gorkha League began a movement for a separate state in 1949. But as the moderate movement, which only demanded autonomy for Darjeeling, fizzled out by the 1980s, Subhash Ghisingh of the Gorkha National Liberation Front started a more violent uprising for a separate state.

The largest protests for Gorkhaland were seen between 1986 and 1988 when more than a thousand people died. Since then, the protests have flared up and died out every few years.

A major protest broke out in 2013, when Telangana was made a separate state, but Mamata Banerjee ruled out the proposal for Gorkhaland once again. Although fresh protests have been sparked in the past weeks and it will be a while before the situation comes under control, the West Bengal government is unlikely to concede to any demand this time too.

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