Darjeeling shutdown comes to an end after 104 days: A look back at flashpoints in Gorkhaland agitation

By FP Staff

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) on Tuesday night said that the indefinite shutdown in Darjeeling Hills will be suspended from Wednesday morning in response to an appeal by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

In an audio clip from an undisclosed location, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) chief Bimal Gurung had urged Hill residents to resume transport services, reopen shops and schools and colleges. It had earlier been reported that all parties of Darjeeling Hills had pledged to continue with the indefinite shutdown till a separate Gorkhaland state was achieved.

The indefinite shutdown by the GJM for a separate state of Gorkhaland entered its 104th day on Tuesday. It had begun on 15 June.

Representational image. Image courtesy: Pravesh Hingmang

Even though the strike was officially on in the Hills but over the last one week most of the shops and markets reopened defying the diktats by GJM leadership.

On Monday, in view of normalcy returning to Darjeeling Hills, the state administration had decided to lift the restrictions on use on internet services, which was imposed on 18 June.

The demand for Gorkhaland

Even as the GJM accused the West Bengal government of interfering in the working of GTA, it has maintained that a separate state was the only solution for the Darjeeling hills. The demand for a Gorkhaland is one of the oldest in the country as GJM spokesperson Harka Bahadur Chhetri had told Business Standard. The first plea, The Indian Express reported, made for an administrative set-up outside of Bengal was in 1907 to the Morley-Minto Reforms panel. Thereafter, numerous representations were made every few years, first to the British government and then to the government of free India for separation from Bengal.

The demand is based on ethnic identity. "We want a homeland for ourselves ­–­ for our own identity. Although we are bona fide Indian citizens, we are still called 'Nepali'. To get rid of the stigma we feel it's essential that we have our own state," Amar Singh Rai, GJM leader, told Scroll.

In 2017, when asked why was the demand for a separate statehood being revived, Gurung told The Indian Express, "We were fooled by state government when we signed the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). Nearly 50 departments were to come under GTA but only three or four came. Nearly five years have passed and nothing happened. We were not allowed to work and GTA became a sham… Then suddenly, government imposed Bengali on us, making it mandatory to be studied in schools. What about our mother tongue Nepali? Then police lathicharged us."

Language at the heart of it all

The unrest originated after the 16 May announcement by West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee, who said that Bengali should be a compulsory subject from Class 1 to 10 in the state. "From now on, it will be compulsory for students to learn Bengali in schools. English medium schools will have to make Bengali an optional subject from Class I so that the students can study it either as a second or third language,” Chatterjee was quoted as saying.

Asked about the "imposition" of Bengali language, the trigger for the current revolt, GJM general secretary Roshan Giri said, "Our mother tongue is Nepali, why would we learn Bengali? Now if someone says that everybody in India needs to learn Sanskrit, will Bengalis accept? This is the reason all of us have united."

Recognised as an official language of Bengal in 1961, Nepali is the official language in the hills of West Bengal. In 1992, Nepali was recognised as one of the official languages of India.

Ongoing for over decades, language is at the heart of the Gorkhaland crisis. Supporters of Gorkhaland want a separate Nepalese-speaking region, as this report argues.

Losses all around

In August, it was reported the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) has incurred an estimated loss of Rs 2.5 crore due to the Gorkhaland agitation. The tourism industry too was affected as after reports of tourists being trapped in the initial days of the shutdown, many gave the hill town a miss in the vacations.

The tea industry was hard hit as the supply was disrupted due to the agitation. Tea plucking in the 87 gardens in Darjeeling was suspended and the supply of the world-famous tea to auction centres had also been disrupted. According to Darjeeling Tea Association Chairman Binod Mohan, the industry incurred a direct estimated loss of over Rs 150 crore due to the agitation till 8 July.

Education too suffered as with schools closed, class 10 and 12 students had to be accommodated elsewhere in the state to ensure they are ready for board exams due in 2018. It also led to elite Darjeeling residential schools hesitating in admitting foreign students. The ban on internet also meant that youngsters in Darjeeling were not able to apply to colleges online as deadlines are drew near.

 

A divided GJM

The GJM has hardly managed to put forward a united face as Gurung had on 1 September removed party convener Tamang from his post. In an emergency meeting of the GJM leadership, he expelled Tamang and another member, Anit Thapa, from the party. Gurung also slammed Tamang as a "traitor" who was playing into the hands of the state government. "He has been removed as party convenor and a central committee meeting has been convened to decide on whether to expel him from party," he said.

Bimal Gurung absconding

Gurung, against whom cases have been lodged under the UAP Act and a lookout notice has been issued, has been absconding since August. Notice has been issued against him in connection with a grenade blast at the Kalimpong police station and an explosion in Darjeeling town. An arrest warrant too has been issued against him and seven others for their alleged involvement in the arson and violence reported from Darjeeling on 8 June.

The police also discovered a secret location in Gurung's stronghold of Patlebas area of the hills and seized bomb-making materials from it.

In September, a massive search operation was launched in Darjeeling Hills and adjoining areas for Gurung which has not yielded results yet.

A matter for the Central Government?

In July, the GJM had asked the central government to initiate a dialogue on the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland, saying the current agitation was not a mere law and order problem. Ever the willing participant in state politics, the central government had offered to hold tripartite talks with the GJM and the West Bengal government to end the ongoing agitation in the Darjeeling hills.  "We want to hold dialogue with the agitating organisations to ensure peace returns to Darjeeling. In the talks, the West Bengal government's presence is necessary as law and order is a state subject," a home ministry official said.

Earlier in June, a GJM delegation had met Union minister Kiren Rijiju and submitted a two-point memorandum demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for her part said that she could not agree on Gorkhaland simple because it is the matter of the Centre. At the same time, she stuck to her stand that she will not let the state be divided.

Firstpost had earlier reported that the talks between Banerjee and leaders of the hill parties had thrown up more questions than answers.

Constitution of panel to oversee administration of Darjeeling

On 21 September, the West Bengal government on Thursday had announced the constitution of a panel headed by rebel GJM leader, Binay Tamang, to oversee the administration of Darjeeling Hills. This was rejected as "mockery" of the people's aspirations by the GJM, which has been spearheading the agitation.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said, "We have taken an important decision to form a nine-member board of administrators. The BoA will enjoy the same powers as members of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA)." Instead of the chief executive of the GTA, the Board of Administrators (BoA) has a chairman, vice-chairman and other members.

Rebel GJM members Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa were made the chairman and vice-chairman of the board respectively. Six other members belonged to organisations supporting the Gorkhaland cause and the GJM-led agitation. Other members of the panel are Man Ghisingh of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), L B Rai (Mirik), Amar Singh Rai (Darjeeling, GJM MLA), Anu Chhetri, Jaitun Khatun and Sanchabir Subba, besides the GTA principal secretary.

The panel replaced the GTA. The GTA was earlier controlled by the GJM. The state government had appointed an IAS officer as administrator of the GTA under the relevant law after its members resigned en masse protesting against non-creation of Gorkhaland.

 

With inputs from agencies