Mamata Banerjee’s decision to make Bengali a compulsory language in all schools in the state has triggered a spate of violence in Darjeeling hills.
This show of anger from the hill people is age-old, being stoked by the way successive governments have continued to treat them for years.
Successive regimes 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 reverberates 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 insensitivity towards, and lack of understanding of, the aspirations, sentiments and needs of the simple folks of the hills.
It is this insensitivity and lack of understanding – further accentuated now with grave provocation from an unthinking and whimsical Mamata Banerjee – that has led to the demands for Gorkhaland getting stronger in the hills. And Thursday’s violence (8 June) 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 announcement 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 a string of protests in the hills to coincide with Mamata’s visit to the area that started on Tuesday (6 June).
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.
Failure of the DGHC and rise of GJM
The DGHC experiment was a failure since the then Marxist rulers of Bengal managed to co-opt 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 mired in poverty, disease and squalor. 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 patronage of the rulers sitting in Kolkata, the alienation of the hill people continued.
Two decades of Ghising’s dictatorship in the hills created a fertile ground for another revolt 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 organised massive support in the hills and among the Nepali-speaking people across the country for Tamang.
Tamang’s win of the 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.
Formation of GTA and revival of movement
After sweeping the 2011 assembly polls, Mamata played the peace-broker and a tripartite agreement (between the GJM, the union government and the Bengal government) was signed in July 2011 to form the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) to replace the DGHC. The GTA was given more powers – administrative and financial – than the DGHC. The Bengal government promised to transfer many departments to the GTA. However, Gurung announced right at that time that the GTA was not an end in itself but a step forward to realising the dream of Gorkhaland.
The GJM won all the 45 seats of the GTA in the elections held in July 2012. But by then, relations between the GJM and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) had already started souring, more so since the TMC contested the GTA polls. The TMC contesting the polls was looked upon by the GJM as a challenge to its suzerainty over the Darjeeling hills. Soon after taking over the GTA, the GJM started accusing Mamata of reneging on the July 2011 agreement and not transferring powers to the GTA. Matters reached a new low with Mamata and Gurung indulging in sharp verbal exchanges.
That the Bengal government didn’t deliver on its promises, as per the July 2011 agreement, to transfer control of many departments to the GTA and give the latter greater financial powers caused more rift between Mamata and the GJM. The GJM has been accusing the Mamata Banerjee government of going back on the agreement and making the GTA a lame duck body with little administrative and financial powers. Mamata, in turn, has been demanding political loyalty from the GJM as a precondition to delivering on the GTA agreement. She has reportedly sent many feelers to the GJM leadership promising all help if it severs ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But her overtures have been rebuffed.
The announcement of the formation of Telangana in July 2013 gave the Gorkhaland movement a fresh lease of life. The self-immolation of one Mangal Singh Rajput, a Gorkhaland supporter (he was of Bihari origin and his suicide proved that the demand for Gorkhaland cut across all ethnic lines in the hills), only intensified the movement. A series of indefinite bandhs followed, but the movement fizzled out due to harsh and often undemocratic administrative action against GJM leaders and supporters who were, on Mamata’s express instructions, incarcerated on various charges, many of them trumped up.
Mamata’s bid to capture the hills politically
Mamata stepped up her quest to gain political control of the hills. And she employed a variety of tactics, some quite dishonourable, for this. Using the district administration, which she packed with her loyalist police and administrative officials, Mamata continued her crackdown on the GJM and encouraged dissident GJM leaders and activists to join her party. She poured in a lot of money to strengthen her party in the hills and the Darjeeling unit of the TMC started taking on the GJM, which till then enjoyed unchallenged sway in that part of the state.
One of the primary reasons for Mamata’s deep animosity towards the GJM is said to be the latter’s alliance with the BJP, which helped the BJP nominee S S Ahluwalia win the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Darjeeling. Some BJP leaders, including Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Sushma Swaraj, had voiced support for the Gorkhaland demand. Though the BJP’s stand on the statehood demand is ambivalent now, many senior leaders of the party are said to be sympathetic to it.
Mamata, in a bid to weaken the GJM, started wooing ethnic minorities in the hills, like the Lepchas, Bhutias and Tamangs, and formed separate development boards for them. Till date, 15 development boards have been formed for ethnic groups. “This is part of Mamata’s divide and rule policy to weaken the Gorkhaland movement. She is trying to create fissures within the Nepali-speaking people of the Hills,” GJM chief Bimal Gurung told Swarajya. Mamata has, till date, sanctioned Rs 280 crore for the 15 development boards, not a small amount for a cash-strapped state like Bengal.
Mamata also started wooing top leaders of the GJM who were unhappy with Gurung’s alleged autocratic style of functioning. She succeeded in getting a senior GJM leader, Harka Bahadur Chetri, to quit the GJM in 2015 and form his own party. Chetri, an influential leader from Kalimpong, however, lost the 2016 assembly elections from his native town (Kalimpong), especially since Mamata declared him to be the TMC candidate. Some other senior GJM leaders were also wooed into the TMC. But Mamata’s bid to gain political ground in the hills suffered a setback when her candidates in all the three hill constituencies of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong lost to GJM nominees in the 2016 assembly polls.
That setback, however, did not faze Mamata, who kept up her efforts to take on the GJM. She met with limited success in the civic polls held to the Mirik, Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong municipalities. The TMC posted a handsome win in the Mirik municipality but faced ignominious defeats in the other three municipalities where the GJM-BJP combine retained power. Encouraged by the toehold she had gained there, Mamata continued her political blitzkrieg in the hills.
The fall of Mirik to the TMC sent alarm bells ringing within the GJM, which saw the entry of the TMC as a grave challenge to its existence in the hills. The GJM realised it would face a battle for survival and could even be defeated politically if it did not take early steps to contain the growth of the TMC in the hills. The GJM faced an immediate threat in the GTA elections due a couple of months from now. And the best way to take on the TMC, figured the GJM leadership, was to revive the statehood movement. Gurung did so with his opposition to Mamata’s imposition of Bengali language in schools. This imposition fed on the Nepali-speaking people’s latent fears of being made subservient to the Bengali rulers from the plains.
What also provoked the GJM was Mamata’s presence in the hills throughout the week. Her presence was seen as a direct political challenge to the GJM. And as if to rile the GJM more, Mamata convened a meeting of her council of ministers at the Raj Bhawan in Darjeeling on Thursday (8 June). It was an ill-advised move since the Gorkhaland movement was once again picking up steam.
Ironically, the last time a cabinet meeting was held in Darjeeling was in 1972. And that time, too, it was held with the intention to prove that all was normal in north Bengal. The then chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray convened the cabinet meeting at a time when north Bengal had become the epicentre of the Naxalite movement that was sweeping through the state like a prairie fire. As Darjeeling Lok Sabha MP Ahluwalia pointed out to the Hindustan Times here, Ray had claimed that time that Bengal was normal and Mamata is also now claiming the hills are normal. “Both were far removed from ground reality. There was no need to hold the cabinet meeting in Darjeeling. She (Mamata) did so just to serve her political purpose of crushing the GJM,” said the BJP parliamentarian.
Mamata’s response to Thursday’s violence has been far from mature and nuanced. She retaliated, rather childishly, by withdrawing police security provided to Gurung. She also made good her earlier threat of conducting a special audit of the GTA’s finances. Coming from the head of a party whose leaders are being investigated for various scams and a cash-for-favours sting operation, the move to investigate the GTA’s finances in a bid to expose the alleged financial improprieties of GJM leaders was a bit too rich on Mamata’s part.
On Friday (9 June), she strutted around Darjeeling, where the GJM had called a 12-hour bandh, in an open but another ill-advised challenge to the GJM. The sight of the Chief Minister, hemmed by her security guards and party colleagues, walking around the town – she did it thrice in the course of the day – added fuel to the raging fire in the hearts of the hill people.
“It does not behove a person like Mamata who accuses the Modi government for being undemocratic, using the CBI for political purposes and violating the spirit of federalism to behave like a dictator in Darjeeling. How would she react if Modi were to walk the streets of Kolkata on a day the TMC calls a bandh in protest against some action by the union government?” wondered GJM chief Gurung. He also pointed out that whenever she comes to the hills, Mamata makes it a point to snub the elected representatives of the GTA, the GJM’s MLAs and even the Lok Sabha MP (Ahluwalia). “She never invites any elected representative from the hills to any state government or any other function in the hills. And then she talks about democracy,” said GJM leader Roshan Giri.
Mamata has already let loose her subservient police force and spineless civil administration officials on the GJM and many charges are again being drawn up against them. As the GJM is bound to harden its stance on the statehood demand, Mamata is also sure to step up her vendetta against GJM leaders and activists. And that will only cause more distress for Darjeeling.
Mamata would do well to catch up on the history of the hills. If she does that, she will realise that the Darjeeling hills became part of Bengal only in 1947. And ever since then, it has been administered very poorly. The hills have been starved of funds and kept under-developed. Extremely poor infrastructure, abysmal education and healthcare facilities, grinding poverty, criminal neglect of the hills by the powers-that-be in Kolkata and Bengali majoritarianism have totally alienated the simple hill folks.
Mamata would also do everyone a favour by looking at the economy of the hills. The two Ts – tea and tourism – are the mainstay of the hills’ economy. Darjeeling is Bengal’s prime tourist destination. But little has been done by successive governments in Bengal to preserve the scenic town and improve its rickety infrastructure. Even the roads of the town, which the British named the ‘Queen of the Hills’, would put the worst road in the most backward village of India to shame.
Tourism does not generate a lot of earnings for the locals. That’s because most of the hotels are run by Bengalis from the plains and locals find employment only as poorly-paid waiters and cooks. Many of the owners of taxis and SUVs that ferry tourists to and from the hills are Bengalis living in the plains. “What the hills people get from tourism is the little that tourists spend in buying mementoes and woollens,” said Giri.
As for Darjeeling tea, which fetches astronomical prices in international markets, the hill people are only employed as poorly paid labourers in the tea gardens. No local (Nepali-speaking resident of the Darjeeling hills) owns a garden and there are just a handful of Nepali-speaking managers running these gardens. All the profits made from Darjeeling tea are thus taken away to the plains and the hill people get little from tea.
A separate state of Gorkhaland, where Nepali-speaking people of the hills would be the real stakeholders, thus holds immense promise to the people of the hills. Gorkhaland is, for the hill people, not just a means to improve their financial and social lot but also to establish their identity firmly as Indians. “We are looked upon as migrants from Nepal, even though we have been Indians for generations. Gorkhaland will give us that identity as Indians,” asserted Gurung.
These are issues that Mamata, and her predecessors, have shown little understanding of. The Nepali-speaking people of the hills have quite often been looked down upon and treated as menials by the Bengalis from the plains. Mamata only reinforces the hills-plains psychological divide by trying to stamp her authority on the hills. And this is why the Gorkhaland movement will continue.
The history of the hills
Darjeeling gets its name from Dorji Ling, a Buddhist monastery built by the Denzongpas in 1765 on behalf of the Chogyal (King) of Sikkim. The roughly 3,150 square kilometres of territory that is called the Darjeeling hills today (comprising the hills section of Darjeeling district and the whole of the newly formed Kalimpong district) was alternately occupied by Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal.
In the late 1700s, Darjeeling hills was inhabited by a few hundred Lepchas and was held by Sikkim. But in the 1790s, the Gurkhas from Nepal started invading the area and they eventually defeated the combined Bhutia and Lepcha army of Sikkim. The invading Gurkha army also attacked and sacked Sikkim’s then capital Rabdentse and annexed the Darjeeling hills.
After the defeat of the Gurkha army of Nepal in the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816), Nepal’s rulers were made to sign the humiliating Treaty of Sugauli by which one-third of Nepal’s territory, including Kumaon, Garhwal, Nainital and the Darjeeling hill tracts that were annexed from Sikkim, were ceded to the British. In February 1817, the British returned the Darjeeling hill tracts to the Chogyal of Sikkim under the Treaty of Titalia under which Sikkim became a British protectorate and extended many other facilities to the British.
In February 1829, a dispute arose between Nepal and Sikkim over their borders and the then British governor general Lord William Bentinck sent two officers – Captain George Alymer Lloyd and J W Grant – to mediate between the two kingdoms. On their way to the disputed border at Ontoo Dara, the two officers halted at what they wrote in their memoirs was “the old Gurkha station called Dorji Ling” that was then populated by about a hundred Lepchas. The two were “much impressed with the possibility of the station as a sanatorium”. In June 1829, both Grant and Lloyd urged the government to acquire Darjeeling hill tracts.
Governor general Bentinck agreed with them and also realised that the Darjeeling hills offered strategic advantages as a military outpost and trading hub. The deputy surveyor general, Captain Herbert, was deputed to Darjeeling to examine the area. The court of directors of the British East India Company approved the project. General Lloyd was given the responsibility to negotiate a lease of the area from the Chogyal of Sikkim. The lease was granted on 1 February 1835. The British paid a handsome compensation to the Chogyal of Sikkim in return.
After taking over Darjeeling, the British appointed a physician, Arthur Campbell, as their agent there and one Lieutenant Napier was deputed to lay the foundations of the hill station. The sanatorium was set up in 1839 and Campbell became its first superintendent. A road connecting Darjeeling to the plains was constructed the same year.
Campbell is also credited with bringing Chinese tea seeds in 1841 to grow tea on an experimental basis near his residence at Beechwood in Darjeeling. The experiment was successful and within a decade the British started setting up tea plantations in the hills. They set up many schools, which went on to become the best institutions in this part of the world. The setting up of tea and cinchona plantations, the construction of the railway line and roads and other construction activities brought in migrants from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan who eventually settled down in the Darjeeling hills.
Within a few years, however, the Chogyal of Sikkim got into a dispute with the British, and the latter simply annexed Darjeeling hills and made it part of their Indian dominion in 1850. The British also acquired Kalimpong and the Dooars area of North Bengal from Bhutan after defeating the Bhutan king in the Anglo-Bhutan war (1864-1865) and making the latter sign the Treaty of Sinchula. These areas were clubbed with Darjeeling to form the Darjeeling district of the British India province of Bengal. Darjeeling became part of West Bengal in 1947. Thus, it is clear that Darjeeling was never historically part of Bengal and all the dynasties, including the Nawabs and vassals of the Mughal emperors who ruled over Bengal from the medieval times, never exercised any control over the Darjeeling hills.
Tragedy of the hills
Much like the state of Bengal, the tragedy of the Darjeeling hills is that its best and brightest go away in search of better education and prospects to other parts of the country and even abroad. This brain drain has led to the social, economic and cultural degeneration of Darjeeling. “The best students don’t stay back in Darjeeling after school. And once they go away, they never return. There are no jobs and business prospects here,” said a prominent educationist in Darjeeling who did not want to be named.
This brain drain has also caused an unfortunate intellectual vacuum in the hills. “Had there been opportunities here, bright people would have stayed back and would have provided political leadership. Our present political leadership leaves a lot to be desired,” said the professor who taught English at a very reputable college in Darjeeling. He alludes to the rag-tag bunch of GJM activists and the lumpen that make its cadres. He also recounts the many allegations of corruption and malpractices against the GJM leadership and says that had the political leadership been in the hands of the educated and accomplished people of the hills, the statehood movement would have taken a much different and successful turn by now.
The people of Darjeeling point to Sikkim, which has flourished and emerged as a front-ranking state in the country on many fronts. Darjeeling, they contend, developed much before Sikkim and had much greater potential to emerge as a prime tourist, business, organic, education and healthcare hub. Staying within Bengal, they contend, has ruined Darjeeling. “Darjeeling could have been what Sikkim is today,” rued David Lepcha, a prominent tour operator in Darjeeling. His regret finds resonance across the hills. Bengal’s politicians would do well to introspect why.