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Gorkhaland violence result of TMC inroads in Darjeeling hills

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha also needs to out-compete the other ethnic organisations in the Darjeeling hills. Photograph: (Reuters)

WION Delhi, India Jun 14, 2017, 09.30 AM (IST) Samir Kumar Das

Back in 2008 when Darjeeling hills were witnessing a fresh wave of unrest and violence after the first phase of Gorkhaland movement in 1986-88, I was asked during a TV discussion why the Indian government allowed the Nepalis to remain in Darjeeling even after so many years of independence. Obviously, the caller who asked the question had not an iota of doubt about the status of Nepalis as 'foreign nationals'. 

Actually, this branding of Nepalis as foreigners goes further back. The Government of Meghalaya detected as many as 6,683 Nepalis as ‘foreigners’ and expelled some 6,481 of them from the state. As hundreds of Nepalis were hounded out of Meghalaya, Assam and a few other northeastern states, particularly in the early 1980s, many of them made their way to Darjeeling. 

Although the flight of the Nepalis from several Northeastern states served as the immediate trigger, “the first recorded instance of the demand for separation of Darjeeling region from Bengal”, according to Duytis Chakrabarti of North Bengal University, “can be traced to the year 1907, barely forty years after the formation of the district of Darjeeling.” This demand for 'separation' also routinely articulated in subsequent years could hardly be understood as one for statehood whether within India or without. It was Pranta Parsihad formed in 1980 that for the first time raised the demand for separate Gorkhaland within the Indian Union. Gorkhaland movement, however, started gathering steam since 1980. The first successful mass mobilisations, however, started only since 1986 under the leadership of Subash Ghising of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).

The Gorkhaland movement (in its earlier two phases of 1986-1988 and 2007-2011) aptly sums up the desperation of many of the people living there who, in their own perception, have been facing the threat of being reclassified as ‘foreigners’ in what they rightly consider as their own land. While Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was formed in 1988 and functioned for 21 years before it came to an end, Gorkha Territorial Administration came into being in 2012, ending the two phases of the movement.

The desperation, however, refuses to go and has by and large shaped the template of current Gorkhaland politics. While the Nepalis of Indian origin want to be identified as 'Gorkhas' in a bid to differentiate themselves from the 'Nepalis of Nepal', their subsequent attempt at identifying themselves as 'Tribes' was basically meant to secure 'Sixth Schedule status' for the Darjeeling hills. Getting recognised as a "Tribe" would have allowed the Gorkhas to institute an Autonomous District Council.  

While the Nepalis of Darjeeling are still groping for their identity as Indian citizens, and language was never far from their imagination, the current linguistic turn of the movement is likely to add a new direction to the Gorkhaland movement. If the words of Bimal Gurung – the supremo of Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha - are to be believed, they will from now on settle for nothing short of the “single-point agenda” of Gorkhaland.

The Linguistic Turn

Only recently the Government of West Bengal declared Bengali as a mandatory subject for all students till Class X in all schools within the state, irrespective of their Board affiliations. Partha Chatterjee, the minister of education, is reported to have announced: “The students have to choose three languages from a pool of Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Nepali, Santhali and English, out of which one has to be Bengali irrespective of the mother tongue of the student. The non-Bengali medium schools have to make arrangements to impart education in Bengali.” (emphasis ours). The chief minister has clarified in social media that while the three-language formula will be the means of 'giving the regional language its importance', a student will have the freedom of choosing Bengali as either first or second or even third language. Initial remarks coming from the official sources did not refer to any exemption. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) immediately organised a rally against making Bengali compulsory in the school curriculum.

The chief minister subsequently clarified that the government had no plan of forcing students of Darjeeling within the GTA jurisdiction to read Bengali in schools, but mentioned that learning Bengali would help them secure jobs in future. GJM's students' wing described the announcement as “infringement on the Nepali language” and “forced imposition of Bengali” on their community. It is yet to be seen whether the linguistic turn sparks off yet another phase of the Gorkhaland movement.

Institutionalising Militancy

Darjeeling's Bhanu Bhawan – the headquarters of Gorkha Territorial Administration – witnessed one of the worst ever confrontations between the irate mob and the police on 8 June 2017 in which about 60 policemen were injured.

According to a section of the press, the site turned into a “fortress” with about 1000 cadres of Gorkhaland Liberation Front (GLF) and Gorkhaland Personnel (GLP) armed with stones, catapults, bottles, and other inflammable substances. GLF – a militant outfit formed in 2004 came to surface only in 2014 when intelligence agencies arrested Umesh Karmi – a driver of Bimal Gurung - with a huge cache of arms. GLP was banned by the Central Government in 2013.
In a sense, the militancy of this nature is immanent in the way autonomous bodies like Gorkha Territorial Administration or its earlier avatar Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council function. 

To understand this recent outburst of violence, we need to understand the recent status of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the hills. While the ruling Trinamool Congress is making a strong headway in the hills, dissension has gripped the ranks of GJM with a few leaders forming their own political parties in the hills. In the recent municipal elections, TMC has won the Mirik municipality out of three municipal corporations while allegations of financial malpractices pile up again GTA. Under the circumstance, the Janmukti Morcha is in need of salvaging its otherwise thinning popularity and out-competing other ethnic organisations by stepping up its militant campaign. 

Interestingly, it is only now, in the 59th month of its 60-month long tenure, that the GJM leadership has come to realise that the GTA has limited power and financial resources. The realisation has come pretty late and, more importantly, crucially timed with the GTA elections coming up in the near future.  But the course of events should not particularly surprise most observers of Indian politics as more often than not, militancy and formal institutional politics are closely entwined in India.

The Language of Rule

In a recent interview, Bimal Gurung declares himself as 'the chief minister' of the hills as much as Ms Mamata Banerjee is the chief minister of “Bengal”. Gurung argues that if the latter's jabardasti (forcefulness) could extend over 'Bengal', his jabardasti will extend over the hills. When jabardasti becomes the name of the game, it threatens to nullify politics of dissent – the very heart of democracy. 

The situation worsened with the wildcat strike of 9 June that threw public life out of gear. The chief minister refused to leave the troubled city and personally supervised the evacuation of the tourists – a large bulk of whom happens to be Bengalis. A medium-ranking TMC leader from the foothills threatened to flood the hills with his 100,000 followers if the call ever comes from his leader. While her absolutely well-intentioned act made her immensely popular in the plains, care should be taken to stop the action from being represented in the hills. Because any such misunderstand would further harden the hills-plains divide. Besides, the chief minister has appealed to the masses to continue keeping faith in her as their "didi" (elder sister) but as Swaraj Thapa, another GJM leader, puts it, 'we were younger brothers, but we too have grown up and want to establish our separate home."

Samir Kumar Das

Samir Kumar Das is Professor of Political Science and currently the Dean, Faculty of Arts at the University of Calcutta. He had been the Vice-Chancellor of the University of North Bengal

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