Swaroop Sharma !
Succeeding governments in Bengal have very loudly asserted the state’s claims over the 3,150 square kilometres of mountainous terrain popularly called the Darjeeling hills every time the demand for Gorkhaland resounds through the hills. But such loud assertions have done little except further alienate the Nepali-speaking residents of the under-developed hills steeped in poverty and neglect. And successive rulers of Bengal have shown a remarkable selfishness towards, and lack of understanding of, the aspirations, sentiments and needs of the simple folks of the Darjeeling hills.
It is this insensitivity and lack of understanding – further heightened now with grave aggravation from an unthinking and whimsical Mamata Banerjee – that has led to the demands for Gorkhaland getting stronger in the hills. 8th June Thursday’s violence in Darjeeling is one more episode in the seemingly unending saga of unrest that the hills has convulsed in periodically over the past nearly four decades now.
The trigger for Thursday’s violence was the Bengal government’s decision to make Bengali a compulsory language in all schools across the state. The declaration caused immediate ripples with the people in the hills voicing their strong protest against this imposition of Bengali. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which spearheaded a three-and-a-half-year-long agitation for creation of a separate Gorkhaland state from late 2007, led the protests and accused Mamata of trying to promote the Bengali language over Nepali.
Though Mamata announced earlier this week that schools in the hills would be exempt from the Bengali language order, the damage was already done.
The deep distrust between the politicians of the plains of Bengal and the Darjeeling hills manifested itself with GJM chief Bimal Gurung asserting that Mamata’s announcement was not convincing and she was merely trying to hoodwink the people of the hills. The GJM announced 6th June a string of protests in the hills to coincide with Mamata’s visit to the area that started.
Mamata’s blasé presence in the hills was a red rag to the GJM, which has been facing a political challenge from Mamata’s Trinamool Congress. Mamata’s Marxist predecessors had preferred to stay away from the hills and allow the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which led a seven-year-long agitation for Gorkhaland state that ended with the signing of the Darjeeling Accord and formation of the semi-autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in August 1988, to be the unchallenged political force in the hills. But Mamata has been trying to expand her political footprints there since 2013 when the Trinamool Congress’ alliance with the GJM broke down over the latter’s decision to revive the Gorkhaland demand.
Rise of GJM and Fall of DGAHC
The DGAHC trial was a failure since the then Marxist rulers of BengaL government managed to appoint GNLF chief Subhas Ghising and turned him into a local autocrat who kept demands for more autonomy in check for two decades. The DGHC also did not get its promised level of autonomy and funds, and the hills continued to remain under-developed and caught up in poverty, sickness and filth. At the same time, Ghising and his men were allowed to loot whatever funds were allotted to the DGHC and enrich themselves at the cost of the hill people. Since Ghising was seen to be enjoying the investment of the monarchs sitting in Kolkata, the alienation of the hill people continued.
Twofold decades of Ghising’s despotism in the hills created a fertile ground for another rebellion that was provided by, interestingly, the third session of the popular reality show Indian Idol. When Prashant Tamang, a native of Darjeeling working for the Kolkata Police started emerging as one of the top finalists (he went on to win the show), the people of the hills started identifying with him. Tamang represented the latent hopes and aspirations of the Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling hills and their quest for recognition as a community with a distinct culture, language, history and ethos. Ghising didn’t attach any importance to Tamang’s feats, but his one-time lieutenant Bimal Gurung did and organized massive support in the hills and among the Nepali-speaking people across the country for Tamang.
Winning of Tamang in Indian Idol title boosted Gurung politically and in October 2007, he formed the GJM. The GJM became instantly popular in the Darjeeling hills and buoyed by widespread public support, Gurung launched the second phase of the Gorkhaland movement immediately. A series of bandhs, sit-ins, refusals to pay taxes and other peaceful modes of agitations continued. The Trinamool Congress, which was the principal opposition party at that time, supported the GJM and, before the 2011 assembly elections, entered into an electoral alliance with the GJM.