Volume 21 Issue 11 November 2017


Located in the Himalayan foothills, Darjeeling is a district in the north of the Indian state of West Bengal. It is a hill station to which tourists flock due to its cool, bracing climate. More importantly, Darjeeling produces the best tea in the world. Highly valued for its delicate taste, it is called the “champagne of teas,” and, according to the Telegraph, “It is also among the most expensive teas, with some summer Darjeeling flushes averaging around £300 per lb.”

But, of late its tranquility was disturbed by political turmoil at the height of the tourist season after violent clashes broke out between police and hundreds of protesters who want Gorkhaland as a separate state for Gorkhas in West Bengal. A curfew was imposed and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was given shoot at sight orders.

The unrest that began on June 15 recalls the language agitation in former East Pakistan that culminated in an independent Bangladesh. There, the imposition of Urdu as state language had sparked the language movement which turned into a demand for secession by the Awami League. Here, West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee’s decision is to make Bengali compulsory in state-run schools. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)-administered areas in Bengal’s hills have a majority population of Nepali speaking Gorkhas, who perceived in the decision an attempt to undermine their mother tongue. Even though Mamata Banerjee clarified that Bengali will only be taught as an optional subject in schools and the hill districts would be exempted from the rule, the group refused to budge from its position and started an agitation that soon turned into a revival of the demand for Gorkhaland.

On June 10, GJM General Secretary Roshan Giri called for an indefinite bandh in government and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) offices, except schools, colleges, transport, hotels and hospitals, bringing life to a standstill. Worst hit by the unrest was the tea industry leaving 120,000 workers idle.

The GJM is the largest political party in the region with a population of around 1.3 lakh. It campaigns for the creation of a separate state, Gorkhaland, comprising areas north of West Bengal, including Darjeeling and areas of Dooars. The party is headed by 52-year-old Bimal Gurung.

The movement for a separate Gorkhaland is not new. It can be traced all the way to 1780 when Gorkhas took over Sikkim and large parts of, what is today India’s northeast, including Darjeeling. This was the region stretching from Teesta to the Sutlej. They ruled the lands for around 35 years. However, after losing the Anglo-Nepal war, the Gorkhas handed over the territory to the British in 1816 after signing the Treaty of Segoulee. Darjeeling was given to Sikkim by the British but later reclaimed in 1835. Decades later, in 1905, when Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, ordered Bengal’s partition, Darjeeling was demarcated as part of the Rajshahi division. This region falls in present day Bangladesh.

The first demand for a separate state was raised in 1907 when a request was put before the Morley-Minto Reforms Panel. Similar requests were repeatedly made to the British government and later to the Government of India post-independence and till date.

In 2007, Mamata Banerjee made the declaration of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) and Bimal Gurung was made its leader. Despite all discussions and legislative actions to provide a certain degree of autonomy for the region, the demand for full statehood continues.

The proposed area of Gorkhaland demanded by the party includes not just Darjeeling, but several parts of the plains region: covering 396 mouzas which comprise parts of Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, and some other parts of north Bengal plains
But a sizeable population in this region is against Gorkhaland. This includes many living in the plains – chiefly the Bengalis. Mamata Banerjee hopes this will make her subsequently win the support of the section of people who are now favouring the BJP in Darjeeling and beyond.

The chief minister may have a lot of reasons for not backing the cause of Gorkhaland. For one, the bifurcation of Bengal will turn Bengalis against Banerjee and it is more politically prudent for her to play the Bengali identity card by resisting attempts to divide the state.

Banerjee has adopted a hard-line posture and is hoping to tire out the agitators. But the agitation for Gorkhaland has simmered for many years. Her strong opposition may therefore fuel the agitation further as exemplified by current events. When security forces began tear gas shelling, baton charges, water cannons and other controlling measures to suppress the agitation, the situation turned critical as violence spread all over the hills. Protesters pelted stones, bricks, and petrol bombs in return. Ultimately, the government had to deploy the army to finally control the situation. Yet, despite the crackdown of security forces, GJM continued to hold flag marches in the district as a show of strength and defiance. Bimal Gurung, meanwhile, went underground and the police went hunting for him.

As both Mamata Banerjee and the GJM stuck to their positions the strike went on in full swing, Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh intervened, appealing to Bimal Gurung to call off the bandh. Deferring to Singh’s appeal, Gurung ended the strike on September 26, after 104 days, without break.

However, this may be a truce. It does not push the Gorkhaland issue to the backburner, but only allows breathing time to the government to reshape its strategy towards the demand which remains as live as ever.

Politics has further complicated the issue. The fight between GJM and Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress (TMC) in the hills is actually a fight between the BJP and the TMC, because Gurung is the face of the BJP in the hills.

By itself, BJP hardly has any presence in Darjeeling as an organisation. It won the seat with GJM support. Therefore, it is also about the tussle between the two parties spreading across large parts of north Bengal beyond Darjeeling.

Six out of the seven districts of north Bengal have seen a massive increase in support for the BJP between 2014 and 2016. In Darjeeling, this support has come due to the party's alliance with the GJM.

However, the BJP, which heads the NDA government in Delhi, has abandoned the Gorkhas. The party got its nominee elected to the Lok Sabha twice from Darjeeling on the tacit understanding that the BJP would back the statehood demand, the party has backtracked and washed its hands of the issue.

Both Banerjee and the BJP are eying the Bengali vote bank. How the situation unfolds remains to be seen.

The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia.


©2017 SouthAsia.com.pk. All Rights Reserved