India’s oldest hill station, Darjeeling, is limping back to normalcy after what has arguably been the longest shutdown in the country’s recent history. The 104-day shutdown imposed on June 15 by the (GJM) to demand a separate state of on Wednesday last.
But while there was a palpable sense of relief among the two lakh-odd people of the Darjeeling hills at the end of the bandh, it has now become clouded by an acute sense of disappointment, helplessness and anger as well. Because the long shutdown, which has devastated the economy of the Hills and brought acute sufferings and hardships on the people, has not really achieved anything tangible. The simple hill folk are now asking if their sacrifices, hardships and sufferings, which they had all borne willingly in order to achieve their dream of Gorkhaland, were worth it.
The Triggers For Trouble
The unrest in the hills was triggered by the Mamata Banerjee government’s in mid-May making Bengali compulsory in schools across the state. The hill people, most of them Nepali-speaking, were angry. Mamata tried damage control after a few days by that the language formula would not apply to schools in the hills, but the damage was done.
Even as the Morcha-led protests against this ‘imposition’ of Bengali, Mamata laid out the recipe for disaster by announcing an of the GJM-run . That was taken by Morcha and its chief as a direct challenge to their authority in the Hills. True, there have been widespread allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement in the GTA, which failed to account for the Rs 1500 crore it received over the past five years. Many Morcha leaders have been accused or are perceived to have enriched themselves exponentially over the past few years. But there was no need to make a public announcement of the audit; it could have been ordered quietly and financial mismanagement and fraud, if any, detected and the people responsible dealt with as per the law.
In the first week of June, when sentiments against the Mamata Banerjee government were running high in the Hills, the chief minister took another ill-advised step by holding a cabinet meeting in Darjeeling. Meetings of the state council of ministers in Darjeeling are not a routine occurrence and this cabinet meeting was held after a of 45 years. The people of the Hills saw the holding of the cabinet meeting as an attempt by Mamata to forcibly stamp her authority over the Hills. It was like, as a Morcha leader said, Mamata Banerjee telling the people of the Hills that she cared two hoots for their sentiments and for their demand for Gorkhaland.
The Morcha called a bandh even as Mamata was holding a cabinet meeting at the Darjeeling Raj Bhawan on June 8. While the meeting was on, some young men (alleged to be Morcha activists) indulged in arson. The police intervened and there was more arson and violence on subsequent days. It was downhill from then on and the Morcha called for an indefinite bandh from June 15 after evacuating all tourists from Darjeeling. The Morcha, whose popularity was reportedly on the wane, capitalised on the situation and revived the demand for Gorkhaland. It, thus, managed to revive its political fortunes and re-emerge as the voice of the people of the Hills.
The people of Darjeeling Hills had no idea in the initial days that the bandh would stretch for over a hundred days. After the first week, the rations that they had stocked up ran out and there was a desperate scramble to procure foodstuff and other essentials. With business establishments remaining shut, the poor and the middle classes were hit very badly. As were students since educational institutions closed down. Most of the townsfolk migrated to the plains to stay with their relatives and friends. Hundreds rented houses in Siliguri, the trading town in the plains, and barely managed to live off their savings and by doing odd jobs.
Those who didn’t have the means and had to remain in the hills managed to survive on local vegetables and ran up huge debts with their neighbourhood traders. Their survival in the face of overwhelming odds brought about by a total shutdown was nothing short of superhuman resilience and a triumph of a human’s survival instinct. Many had just one meal a day, and that too just local vegetables and creepers. The worst affected were the daily wage earners and tea garden labourers who did not earn a single rupee over the last three months.
Tourism and tea, the mainstays of the Hill economy, took a debilitating blow and its effect will be felt for a long time to come. Government property worth a few crore rupees was damaged and with the Morcha withdrawing from the GTA, as well as with all government offices being forced to close down, development in the Hills came to a grinding halt. Students also suffered immensely and perhaps irretrievably; after all, a loss of a hundred plus days in one academic year is impossible to make up.
Mamata Banerjee, not quite a tolerant ruler, unleashed the full might of her state police on the people of the Hills. Lathi charges on demonstrators proudly bearing the tricolour, midnight raids to arrest people on trumped-up charges, hounding of Morcha activists, an internet ban and a news blackout, apart from a witch-hunt against the top leadership of the Morcha, led to the Darjeeling Hills turning into a police state.
The top leaders of the Morcha were forced to seek refuge in other states and many allegedly false cases, including attempt to murder and rioting, were lodged against them. As many as eleven agitators were killed in alleged police firings and, in what can be termed as unprecedented in the history of India, the state never owned up to the firings or paid a single rupee as compensation to the families of the victims. This, as Sunita Thapa, a mid-ranking government officer at the District Magistrate’s office pointed out, doesn’t happen even in Kashmir. “Even when government forces kill pro-Pakistani terrorists, the killings are acknowledged. Here, not a single police firing was acknowledged and the government tried to suggest very ridiculously that Gorkhaland agitators fired and killed their fellow agitators,” she said.
The police, with central para-military forces in tow, let loose a reign of terror on the people of the Hills. Masked men—locals allege they were cops in mufti—had launched unprovoked attacks on houses in small hamlets and towns in the middle of the night, barged into isolated houses and beaten up residents and generally terrorised the local populace. During daytime raids on houses in the name of ferreting out Morcha leaders and activists named in FIRs, cops in uniform had beaten up members of their families, ransacked the houses and even assaulted school-going children, torn their school books and threatened them.
Why the terror tactics failed
However, the reign of terror and police brutalities did not break the will of the people. Simply because the hardships they willingly faced in their lives for 104 long days—acute shortages of foodstuff, no earnings leading to their being reduced to utter penury, no access to banks and government offices, closure of schools and suspension of education for kids—were much greater than the terror tactics of the police.
The common refrain among the people of the Hills was that they are willing to sacrifice all comforts of their lives and even their lives for the cause of Gorkhaland. They lived on half-empty or near-empty stomachs, but their support for Gorkhaland did not waver in the face of even extreme hardships. Businessmen and traders rued their losses, but asserted they would be ready to sacrifice more for achieving statehood.
What’s more, this total support for Gorkhaland was not limited to the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of the Hills alone. Bengalis, Marwaris, Biharis, Lepchas, Bhutias and all other communities were unequivocal in their support for Gorkhaland. The Muslim community could not celebrate Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramzan in end-June and even Eid al-Adha in early September with traditional fervour and gaiety, but they did not complain. Till the shutdown was called off last Wednesday, the Bengali Hindu community in the Hills was prepared for a scaled-down Durga Puja and the Gorkhas for a perfunctory celebration of , their biggest festival.
Even those who left the Hills and started living temporarily in other parts of the state were firm in their support for Gorkhaland. They contributed to the coffers of the Morcha and helped in many ways to keep the agitation going with funds and logistics. They reached out to other communities and people across the country and got their support for the cause.
Apart from hounding Morcha leaders and forcing them to go underground, the Mamata Banerjee government also created a within the Morcha after three months of relentless efforts by winning over GJM assistant secretary Binay Tamang in early September. Tamang was one of the firebrand leaders of the Morcha and a vociferous proponent of Gorkhaland. But though the state government got him to announce the withdrawal of the shutdown, his call evoked little response from the people. And as newsreport correctly says, even while on the run, Bimal Gurung called the shots.
But creating this rift did not really help because the Mamata Banerjee government committed a fundamental flaw in its assessment of the Gorkhaland agitation. The state government equated the Gorkhaland agitation with the Morcha and believed that creating a rift within the Morcha and isolating Bimal Gurung and other hardliners would lead to a collapse of the agitation. Here they were wrong: what kept the agitation going was not just the Morcha’s diktats but people’s heartfelt and total support for Gorkhaland. What the government failed to understand is that Morcha or no Morcha, people of the Hills will always remain committed to Gorkhaland simply because they have had enough of being part of Bengal.
But was it worth it?
This is a question that many in the Hills are asking now. What has the 104-day agitation that disrupted their lives and caused so much suffering achieved? Bimal Gurung called off the agitation simply on an appeal by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He had earlier demanded that the Union Government call for tripartite talks. Singh never offered any assurance that the issue of Gorkhaland would be discussed in any future tripartite talks. The status of the demand for Gorkhaland remains the same today as it was in early June before the Morcha-sponsored shutdown started.
Perhaps, say many, the Morcha erred in jumping to the extreme step of calling for a total shutdown. This call was meant to demonstrate the support of the people of the hills for Gorkhaland and for the Morcha which was leading the statehood agitation. No such demonstration was really required; there has never been any doubt over the commitment of the people of the Hills for Gorkhaland and the people of Darjeeling (Hills) will back any party that works for this goal.
Many feel that the Morcha should have called for a limited agitation and gradually scaled it up. And also kept its options open. “If someone takes an extreme step right in the beginning, it is difficult to back off without losing face,” observed a senior leader of the Darjeeling-based (CPRM) that had backed the shutdown.
Dashain is being celebrated across the Darjeeling Hills now, but the spirit of festivity is lacking. There is a overhanging sense of disappointment, of defeat. But the dream of Gorkhaland remains alive in the hearts of the people.
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