This subcontinent’s oldest, and once its premier hill station has been convulsed by violence and unimaginable human suffering for over three months now. Darjeeling has remained shut from 15 June, ever since the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) announced the indefinite strike in protest against the Mamata Banerjee-led Bengal government’s ill-advised attempt to make Bengali compulsory in schools across the state.
The Darjeeling Hills, populated by Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, erupted in anger and the popular resentment against the state government’s move soon turned to the renewal of the century-old demand for Gorkhaland. The shutdown led to the inevitable police and administrative crackdown on Morcha leaders and activists as well as the common folk of the hills. Killings by the police – a dozen have died so far, even though the Mamata Banerjee government diabolically denies that the deaths were caused by police firing –brutal lathi charges, raids, indiscriminate arrests, a complete news blackout, shutdown of internet services and blatant violation of human rights have traumatised the local people.
However, despite the brutalities, the will of the people and their desire for a separate state (within the Indian Union) of Gorkhaland has not been broken. And this is evident from their willingness to undergo extreme hardships for their cause. Severe food shortage, subsistence living on debt, managing with just one meal a day, no salaries or earnings, living under the shadow of a gun, having their rights violated brutally--none of these has dimmed the intensity of their demand for Gorkhaland. If anything, with each passing day and every charge of the police baton, with every death and with every hardship, their resolve to achieve Gorkhaland has only hardened.
A part-time teacher at a small private school in Darjeeling Mayarani Gurung has not received her salary for the past three months. Widowed four years ago with three children aged between 6 and 10 to look after, she is desperate and has been living on the generosity of her elder brother, a government contractor. But since government offices stopped functioning three months ago and no work or bills are coming his way, her brother Sushil is also facing a crisis. Last week, Mayarani sold a gold earring that was part of her dowry.
But Mayarani, her children and her brother Sushil as well as his family, are unfazed by the hardships and the state terror they face. “For Gorkhaland, we can sacrifice everything, even our lives. Having just one meal a day or surviving on ‘squish’ (pear squash, which grows abundantly in the hills) or edible roots and leaves is no big issue. All Gorkhas are willing to even die for the cause,” says Mayarani emphatically. “We Gorkhas are a hardy people and used to extreme hardships. Our strength lies in our ability to withstand hardships and the harder life gets, the stronger we become. That is why Gorkhas make such good soldiers,” says Sushil.
Many residents of Darjeeling and other towns and villages in the Hills have migrated temporarily to Siliguri and other places in the foothills where they have friends and relatives. Many have rented small houses in the plains, awaiting the end of the shutdown. But that doesn’t mean they are opposing or are apathetic to the demand for Gorkhaland. They bristle at even an oblique criticism that they have abandoned the bandh-affected hills for the relative comfort of the plains.
Karnabahadur Thapa, 69, an ex-soldier, has been staying with his sister’s family at Matigara on the outskirts of Siliguri for the past one month. “I came down here with my son’s family since I am a diabetic and need regular treatment. My son’s two kids have also been enrolled in schools here because education cannot be interrupted. Gorkhaland will need educated people to run its affairs,” he reasoned. Vinay, his son, used to run a small grocery store in Darjeeling’s Alice Villa. “I have set up a small shack where I sell homemade noodles and other such stuff in Matigara. My earnings here are less than a fifth of what I used to earn there. But I donated Rs 500 to the Morcha last month. I had to forego one meal a day for a week for that, but so be it,” he said.
The state government has been trying desperately to engineer rifts in the Morcha and get the bandh lifted. But such attempts have largely failed till now. Mamata Banerjee has succeeded in winning over a senior Morcha leader – Binay Tamang, who has been expelled from his party. His appeals to the people to lift the bandh and open their shops and establishments and his attempts (with the help of the state police) to force them to do so have met with barely any response till now. That is not because people are scared that attempts to defy the Morcha-sponsored bandh will invite retaliation from Morcha cadres, but because they do not want to give up their demand for Gorkhaland.
“We have come a long way in these past 94 days (the bandh entered its ninety-fourth day on Saturday). We have sustained a lot of hardships, but not just because we support the Morcha. Many people may not be Morcha supporters at all. But we all are supporters of Gorkhaland,” said former police sub-inspector Shirish Pradhan who now runs a transport business in Kurseong. He admits he is not a Morcha supporter. “I don’t like (Morcha chief) Bimal Gurung. But that doesn’t matter. I am all for Gorkhaland,” he says, warning that if the Morcha lifts the bandh this time, without getting a firm promise for the formation of a separate state of Gorkhaland from the Union and state governments, no one will ever support any agitation that the Morcha or any other party calls in the name of Gorkhaland.
This is what the Morcha fears: that if it calls for a withdrawal of the bandh now without attaining anything, it will perpetually lose the support of the people. And no Gorkha will ever support a call for a strike or shutdown for Gorkhaland in future. Having gone through two long shutdowns – in 2010 and 2013 – without achieving anything tangible, the Gorkhas are now saying that if the Morcha does that yet again, it will forfeit the trust and support of the people and no party or organisation will receive any popular response for an agitation for Gorkhaland in future. Bimal Gurung realises this, and that’s why he now says it is up to the people to either continue with or lift the bandh.
Most realise that Gorkhaland may not be achieved in the very near future. But they are unwilling and loath to let go of the tremendous hardships they have endured without getting anything in return. “Even if New Delhi says a separate state of Gorkhaland cannot be given now, it should promise that our demand is genuine and will be conceded in future. We have to be given a time frame for the formation of Gorkhaland and, as an interim arrangement, something like an autonomous status like that of a Union Territory. We don’t want our struggle over the past three months to go in vain, And the fact is that we do not want to be part of West Bengal anymore,” said Dipendra Lama, a teacher in a college in the Hills.
Right now, there is no knowing which way the popular mood turns in the days ahead. But one thing is for certain: the hardy Gorkhas are willing to subject themselves to more hardships in the days, weeks and months ahead. But only if they are promised light at the end of the dark tunnel that they are now passing through.
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