Darjeeling Simmers Again, But It's Different This Time

Published: July 01, 2017 18:45 IST
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Having been a Darjeeling resident for nine years, the Gorkhaland agitation is something I have witnessed from very close quarters, especially between 1995 to 2004 as a student at Mount Hermon School, situated very close to Patlebas, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung's bastion. Since the 1980s there have been several strikes and agitations, all of them with one goal - the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland. But every time there's been an agitation, a compromise has been worked out - the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the Gorkha Territorial Administration - and the people of Darjeeling have been let down, but accepted it. Which is why, this time, even as several political fronts came together, as a reporter on the ground I also perceived mobilization at a larger level. The facilitator this time has been the Internet, blocked as it has been in the hills.

Several pages have cropped up on Facebook that demand the creation of Gorkhaland and challenge the political leadership on how they have handled the issue so far. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has been at the forefront of the Gorkhaland agitation for the last decade or so. When its leaders say it's a people's movement now, it's not merely a political statement. On the ground, there is a palpable frustration over why the Gorkhaland movement has not succeeded. The people now demand answers, from the very leaders they trusted to get the job done. For the Morcha to admit that it's a people's movement is a tacit admission of the ground situation and the sticky position it find themselves in. It cannot fall back on a compromise anymore. Which is why every leader of the movement is talking about how it is a people's movement - they have no choice. The people are watching every step they take.

Ask any educated Gorkha and he will make a very strong case for Gorkhaland. Ask the people from the plains and they will make an equally passionate case for status quo. Professor of English at Motilal Nehru College, Munish Tamang calls this the third major mass agitation with a common thread running through. "Earlier it was a single leader/party movement and the diktat issued was the final word, but for the first time now we are seeing that it's a people's movement and the leaders are under tremendous pressure from the people not to give in to any kind of compromise, nothing short of full statehood."

It would take an entire research paper to delve into the history of the agitation and why the demand for a separate state. There are arguments for and against carving Gorkhaland out of West Bengal. From identity to economics, the people of the hills feel that they have been given step motherly treatment and that statehood will bring focus on development, identity and a self-governance within the constitutional framework on India. And they are unhappy that their political representatives haven't been able to make a strong case so far.

Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress was a growing force in the hills till this agitation. The Trinamool (which is a party from the plains) was tapping into this gap and the frustration of the people of the hills with the current leadership. Bimal Gurung had to do something. The controversy over learning Bengali came to his rescue. There is no doubt that the hills are culturally, linguistically and geographically different from the rest of West Bengal. And if the people of the hills felt Bengali was imposed upon them, they would revolt. They did and the demand for Gorkhaland once again came into the forefront. But now even Bimal Gurung has no maneuvering space. Either he delivers or becomes politically irrelevant in the hills. So trust him to put up a fight this time.  And an indefinite strike is only the beginning. With backing from Sikkim, he knows he has a long rope.

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too has a tough job on her hands. Her "Pahar hashchey' (the hills are smiling)" rhetoric is in tatters. There is immense distrust and regaining that trust is going to be next to impossible. The BJP, which has an member of Parliament from Darjeeling and is in alliance with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, cannot announce all out-support for the formation of Gorkhaland. If it does, it will be advantage Mamata Banerjee in the rest of the state and it cannot afford to let that happen if it is serious about its Mission Bengal for the next elections. So the party is choosing to attack Mamata Banerjee and ensure she shoulders the blame for the current situation in the hills. Mamata Banerjee's decision to counter the BJP's Hindutva with Bengali chauvinism will play out in days to come.

Bimal Gurung is also walking a tightrope. The reins of the agitation seem to be shifting from one leader/party to a larger mobilized force. He still has no assurance from the Centre and the state government under Mamata Banerjee has booked him, his wife and the top leadership of his party on murder charges. When asked at a press conference if he was willing to join hands with others, he replied "I can't stop anyone from joining and everyone is welcome to join."

Darjeeling is likely to simmer over the next few days. The state will toughen its stand. More security could be deployed too. Copies of the GTA Act, the arrangement in place till now, are being burned today at various places across the hills as a mark of protest. But what is more important to everyone is peace, stability and development without compromising the identity and economic independence of the people of the hills. A solution where the people of the hills can smile forever without being frequent interruptions by violence and anarchy.

(Saurabh Gupta is senior correspondent with NDTV 24x7)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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