'Didigiri' in Darjeeling: What sparked the unrest in the Hills?

Last Updated: Thu, Jun 15, 2017 15:23 hrs
Indian supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha shout slogans during a protest in Darjeeling (AFP Image)

A crisis in Darjeeling seems to be underway after parties in the North Bengal hills came together and called for the formation of a separate state; Gorkhaland .Violent protests broke out in Darjeeling in the wake of the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's’ decision to impose Bengali in all schools from class 1 to 12.

The crisis has been brewing for decades as Gorkhaland consists of Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and other hilly districts who don’t have much connection with the Bengali community in terms of ethnicity, culture and language. She later clarified stating that her government has no intention of making Bengali compulsory in schools in Darjeeling, but the damage was already done.

The parties’ agreement on Tuesday for the creation of a separate state sent a loud message to the state government. The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) that partnered the ruling Trinamool Congress in the civic polls only last month also fully endorsed the push for a separate state, embarrassing chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

For the Scroll, Shoaib Daniyal writes

“The Trinamool’s politics came to fruit last month as it won the Mirik municipality in Darjeeling district. This win is highly significant as it is the first time a non-Gorkha party has won anything in the hills for three decades – ever since the Gorkhaland movement took off.”

This win has provided momentum for the GJM (Gorkha Janmukti Morcha) to agitate around the issue of language identity even after the Trinamool has backtracked from its Bengali-is-compulsory stand.

According to a Time of India report, the BJP took part in the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)-sponsored all-party meeting and an apolitical outfit to advance the cause for a separate state. The GJM president Bimal Gurung posted a statement that read –

“The all-party meeting called by (GJM) ended in a unanimous decision to fight for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Apart from the vow to fight for Gorkhaland, two resolutions were adopted in Tuesday's meeting.”

Tuesday saw incidents of stone-pelting on the second day of the GJM-sponsored indefinite bandh. As a result, the centre dispatched 600 paramilitary personnel to assist the West Bengal government in helping to bring peace and restoring normalcy in the violence-hit Darjeeling hills.

However, GJM General Secretary Roshan Giri told PTI, “The police resorted to unprovoked lathi-charge on a peaceful rally. The more they use force against us, the more intense will be the struggle for a separate Gorkhaland state”.

On Tuesday, the general strike took an ugly turn after three SUVs packed with 15 tourists from Mumbai, including five children, headed to Siliguri from Darjeeling were stopped by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters, reports the Times of India.

The Hindu editorial called for the central and the state government to do more to calm the situation –

“Watching from the sidelines is the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is keen to expand its base in the State. While the State government must be firm and quick to quell cries for the formation of a separate state in the border region, the GJM should tread carefully as a spiral of violence hurts hill-dwellers the most.

The editorial points out how tourism and business will be affected should the situation in the region become worse -

“With May and June constituting the peak tourist season, the GJM has, for now, kept hotels, shops and transport facilities outside the purview of the shutdown. It is the peak season for the Darjeeling tea too, with the second flush harvesting on. This eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation spells fresh trouble for a region that depends on tourism and tea for its survival.”

According to a report in the Times of India, tourists were scared and wanted to leave immediately as one person said “We had arrived on Thursday and were to leave later, but chose to do so on Tuesday due to the worsening atmosphere. All we want is to leave this place immediately. It is a nightmare”. Others were sympathetic of the situation.

The Indian Express editorial states both sides are to share the blame; where it was not correct for the Chief Minister to announce the rule without consulting the organization that prevails in the town.

“Given that language has been a fraught issue in the Darjeeling hills for more than a century, it was imprudent, in the first place, for the chief minister to have made the announcement without consulting the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the semi-autonomous body that runs the affairs of the hill town.”

The editorial does not fault the GJM and other Gorkha parties for resisting the rule but does point out the usefulness of a new language –

“The GJM — and other Gorkha parties — are not wrong in resisting “imposition of Bengali”. But identity politics aside, there is something utilitarian about learning a language. Learning the language, formally, will only help expand their economic avenues in West Bengal. For that to happen, however, all parties concerned will have to shed their intransigence, and look at the issue beyond immediate political gains.”

An editorial by Live Mint stated that the current agitation has old roots but it’s now being used in aid of a turf war –

“It it was only six years ago that the GJM signed a peace deal of sorts with this same government, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee—which in turn led to the establishment of the GTA, the empowered avatar of the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, in 2012.”

The editorial goes on to address the issue of why there is unrest in the hills again –

“The answer lies partly in the fact that ‘the Darjeeling problem’ was never quite solved. The state’s plan to quell the demand for Gorkhaland by giving the locals more autonomy brought only limited results… while the protest has its roots in long-standing ethnic and linguistic factors, the current flare-up is the result of a political turf war between Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party on the one hand, and the GJM and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other.”

An Echo of India editorial on Sunday called for unity in the face of the unrest in the hills –

“The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) had a free run of the Darjeeling town on Thursday (Jun 8th) at a time when the Chief Minister and the entire State Cabinet were present. The widespread vandalism that the GJM indulged – or rather could indulge – in almost with gay abandon raises several questions.”

The editorial points to a communication gap in between the locals and the administration –

“That the Morcha succeeded in its propaganda implies that there is a communication and credibility gap between the local people and the civil administration. This gap needs to be closed speedily so that the Morcha cannot whip up public feelings by taking recourse to false propaganda in future”.

“What the Morcha could succeed in doing also underlines another important fact: development alone is not enough to win over the hill people. Equally necessary is to establish social and personal contact with them. It is only through a long process of interaction that the feeling of ‘we’ and ‘they’ can be overcome and the basis for a permanent and lasting peace in the hills can be laid.”

A report in Outlook stated that the President of the PCC, a unit of the Indian National Congress, said the unrest in Darjeeling is due to the revenge politics by the Mamata Banerjee. He accused her of resorting to the politics of threats and intimidation saying, “The common man in the hills and tourists are now in a miserable condition caught between the 'Didigiri' of CM. This tactic she had employed in the plains in past also by using the weapon of threat-temptation.”

The Hindustan Times editorial argued for the Chief Minister's plan to expand, but suggests that it may not be accepted by locals –

“Ms Banerjee is within her rights to plan expansion of Trinamool Congress in the hills, but it will be quite impossible to be accepted as a party representing local aspirations. The need for army help was also an indication how fragile the situation is in the hills.”

“Any reasonably permanent solution to the Darjeeling problem cannot be achieved by brushing under the carpet the fact that the Gorkhas are aspiring to establish their identity. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s hill strategy has essentially treated it as a development question that, she thinks, is an outcome of the neglect of the hills by successive governments in Bengal.”

With the formation of Telangana on July 20, 2013, the movement for Gorkhaland state again intensifies. Making her stance clear, Mamata Banerjee has said that “Bengal cannot suffer the pain of yet another partition”.

Looking ahead, amidst fear of a shrinking voter base, the Gorkha National Liberation Front said that there was no future in allying with the Trinamool Congress in the Hills, as reported by News18. Their spokesperson, Neeraj Zimba Tamang said, “There is a strong feeling among the people for a separate Gorkhaland and we are being branded as a party that is against it. We lost a huge vote share in the municipal election. We have decided to stay away from the TMC as there is no feasibility and no common objective.”


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