Gorkhaland protests: Elite Darjeeling residential schools now fear admitting foreign students

Darjeeling, West Bengal: Schools and colleges in Darjeeling, which is known as much for its fine educational institutes as for its scenic beauty, are staring at a delayed academic calendar and a high dropout rate as the town remains mired in violence.

Gorkhaland protests: Elite Darjeeling residential schools now fear admitting foreign students

St Joseph's North Point School in Darjeeling. Image courtesy Syeda Ambia Zahan

The West Bengal government's decision to make learning Bengali compulsory till class 10 sparked protests from the Gorkhas, who accused the state of imposing the language on them. The dissent escalated into high-intensity protests for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Amid mounting tension and violence, educational institutes have remained closed since 8 June. On 15 June, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite bandh, which is now into its fourth week.

According to the schools' original schedule, they were set to reopen in the first and second weeks of July after summer vacations. However, given the volatile and violent situation, all have indefinitely postponed the reopening date. The website of Goethals Memorial School says they will decide how to make up for the lost time depending on how long the shutdown continues. The notice urges the parents to ensure children study on their using free learning apps.

Southfield College had set 15 June as the last date for admission but has now extended it to August. Its principal Anuradha Pradhan told Firstpost they might have to delay it further if the situation in Darjeeling doesn't improve. She said she didn't believe students would wait this long for admission. Also, she said she didn't think that students from Nepal, Bhutan and Phillippines, who had visited the campus before trouble started brewing, would be interested in taking admission here anymore.

In fact, she said schools and colleges are wary that a huge number of boarders will take admission elsewhere. She said that after Gorkhaland protests in 2009 and 2013, Darjeeling schools had seen a threefold increase in the number of students dropping out. Pradhan explained that parents are sceptical about sending their children back here as they can’t compromise on their ward's safety. She said they might opt for other institutes in safer places.

Then there is the ban on internet imposed by the district administration, which is not letting youngsters in Darjeeling apply to colleges online as deadlines are drawing near.

"The Gorkha movement has spoiled the educational reputation of Darjeeling. We have some of the best schools in South-East Asia. But as the foreign students have gone to their respective countries following the movement, we do not know whether they will come back or not," teacher of a residential school who wished to remain anonymous told Firstpost.

Currently, more than 1,500 students from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and other countries study in Darjeeling. On 23 June, the GJM had given a 12-hour window to schools and colleges to evacuate students, following which these students went back to their country.

Schools of repute

According to a rough estimate, there are about 10,000 students in Darjeeling's 52 primary schools, 67 high schools and five colleges. Owing to its cool weather, Darjeeling was favoured by the British. Thus, the hilly town saw the emergence of public schools on the line of England's famous schools like Eton, Harrow and Rugby. St Paul's School in Darjeeling's Jalapahar is 194 years old. The distinguished alumni of Darjeeling schools include two-time Bhutan prime minister Yeshey Zimba, former king of Bhutan Birendra Shah and world billiards champion Michael Ferreira.

But now, Darjeeling institutes are asking themselves if it would be wise to welcome foreign students, given how agitations like the current one can leave them high and dry. The GJM-enforced indefinite shutdown in 2013 had left 1,000-odd foreign students stuck in their hostel as they were unable to make travel arrangements on a quick notice, unlike Indian students.

Darjeeling Government College general secretary Ropgoi Rai said schools and colleges in Darjeeling are getting discouraged year by year from accepting students who a need hostel. He asked how the authorities will meet the food requirement of the boarding students in case of a total shutdown. During the shutdown of 2013, school managements had expressed that once they ran out of food stock, they would need police protection to get ration from Siliguri. Rai said separatist leaders should take these things into account.

All is fair

Prakash Gurung, president of the youth wing of the GJM, had this to say: "Everything is fair in love and war. We agree that students are suffering, but this is for a greater cause. In an independent state, the education system in Darjeeling will flourish like anything."

A renowned educationist from Darjeeling who does not wish to be named said the Gorkhaland movement is an issue of identity. He said more than a thousand people have lost their lives for this cause and there is no looking back now. He said Gorkha students cannot be kept away from the movement since they are the future. He said the students should take this movement forward.

This line of thought resonates across Darjeeling's tea community. "We are out of wage and our children are not going to schools, but we are for the movement. We will not send our children to school until and unless our demands are heard by the Prime Minister. Bimal Gurung [founder-president of GJM] is going through so much suffering while fighting for the rights of the Gorkhas. Our children will pay this small price for their own land," said Sahana Rai, who works in Happy Valley Tea Estate, eight kilometres away from Darjeeling.

Indeed, the GJM's rallies outside the town have seen participation of more than a hundred children. Mostly, these children are from the tea garden areas. Sabita Rai, a worker at Happy Valley Tea Estate, explained the decision. "Yes, our children are also participating in the protest rallies. We have taken them out from home so that they know what is movement is about, what is their right and what should they fight for."

The author is a Guwahati based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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Updated Date: Jul 20, 2017 19:38:04 IST

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