Language is basis for Darjeeling unrest: West Bengal's hills echo with the sound of Gorkhaland demand

The current agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state has struck a chord with the hill people and local political parties, a throwback to the 1980s when a prolonged movement led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) under Subash Ghisingh had rocked Darjeeling.

Cutting across religious, political and ideological divides, the overwhelming view is that Gorkhaland is a "sentiment" that can no longer be ignored.

"Such unity among the people of the hills was last witnessed in the 1980s. Gorkhaland is a sentiment of the people of the hills, which you cannot afford to ignore. It can be suppressed for some time but can't be wiped out," Jan Andolan Party (JAP) chief Harka Bahadur Chetri said as tension continued to simmer, 11 days after the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite shutdown on 8 June.

Chetri, a former GJM MLA, had formed his own political outfit last year after differences with GJM supremo Bimal Gurung. He has now extended his full support to the cause of Gorkhaland as have GJM's arch-rivals GNLF, All-Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), Gorkhaland Rajya Nirman Morcha (GRNM), Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh (BGP) and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM).

In a disturbing development for Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, a section of local leaders of her Trinamool Congress (TMC) has backed the statehood demand along with local CPM leaders.

 Language is basis for Darjeeling unrest: West Bengals hills echo with the sound of Gorkhaland demand

Activists of GJM take out rally in Darjeeling on Sunday. PTI

"Gorkhaland is not a political rhetoric, but a sentiment and a passion which has grown stronger over the years," said a leader who did not want to be named. There were signs of a split in views in the local BJP leadership as well.

BJP district general secretary Shanta Kishore Gurung said, "I may have difference with the GJM and its style of functioning, but on the issue of Gorkhaland we are on the same page. I am also a Gorkha, how can I betray my Gorkha brothers and sisters?"

West Bengal BJP secretary Dilip Ghosh, however, declined to comment on what Gurung said, but maintained that his party was against creation of a separate state. GNLF, an ally of ruling TMC and an arch rival of the GJM, has also broken ranks with the TMC and thrown its weight behind the agitation for a separate state.

"We have our own differences, but... we have decided to keep aside our differences and fight for Gorkhaland. The GNLF has, since its inception in the 1980s, been fighting for Gorkhaland. We now feel that the atmosphere in the hills and at the Centre is fully conducive for the creation of a separate state," Neraaj Zimba, GNLF spokesperson, told PTI over the phone.

Such unity was witnessed during the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s then spearheaded by the GNLF under Subash Ghising. The ABGL, whose founder-chief Madan Tamang was murdered in broad daylight on a street in Darjeeling in 2010 suspectedly by the GJM, also endorsed the agitation.

"Yes it is true we have our differences. But presently we need to keep aside differences and respect the sentiments of the hill people," a senior ABGL leader said.

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.

Language at the heart of crisis

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.

Ongoing for over decades, language is at the heart of the Gorkhaland crisis. PTI

Ongoing for over decades, language is at the heart of the Gorkhaland crisis. PTI

Historically, until 1905, when the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, effected the partition of Bengal, Darjeeling was a part of the Rajshahi division, now in Bangladesh. From 1905 to 1912 Darjeeling formed a part of the Bhagalpur division now in Bihar. It was given back to Rajshahi in 1912 and remained with the Rajshahi division till Partition.

The demand for a Gorkhaland is one of the oldest in the country. Speaking to The Business Standard, GJM spokesperson Harka Bahadur Chhetri recently said, "This demand is among the oldest such demands across the country." 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 free India's government for separation from Bengal.

The demand for Gorkhaland 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.

More and more supporting the movement

Opinion on the street also appears to veer towards supporting the movement, although the current turbulence has rekindled bitter memories of the 80s disturbance which had all but destroyed the local economy overwhelmingly dependent on tourism.

"We have been branded as foreigners, but the fact is that our land and our forefathers were born here. Darjeeling is being treated as a holiday home by the people of Bengal. Gorkhaland is not just a state for us, but a matter of our identity," Smreeti Rai, a professor of St Joseph College, Darjeeling, told PTI.

Mahendra Pradhan, a retired school teacher, echoed Rai. "We are the most neglected community in this country who did not get their due."

Mustaq Ahmed, a shop-owner who has lived in Darjeeling for five decades and considers himself a "Gorkha Muslim", also feels that the demand of Gorkhaland is completely justified as every community has the right to its own identity.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jun 19, 2017 18:58:00 IST