Asia-Pacific, India, Politics, World

Darjeeling – Gorkhaland: The Need for Identity

More than a century ago, in 1907, denizens of Darjeeling and neighboring regions felt that, with their ethnicity and unique identity, a separate state should be formed. It was needed for the citizens of the land to identify themselves as to who they were.

Nevertheless, various memorandums submitted in 1907, 1917, 1929, 1930 and 1941 to various British Viceroys and Secretary of the State of India were without progress.

They fell on deaf ears, and after the partition, the ‘Gorkhas’ were grouped with Bengalis with whom they had neither the language nor the ethnicity similar. Analog to what happened in British India; the Independent India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took no notice of the pleas of people of Darjeeling.

With time, people of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, and Mirik united and under the leadership of former soldier and poet Subhash Ghisling and revived their demand for a separate state in 1986 – The Gorkhaland. With his call to action, GNLF or Gorkha National Liberation Front – a party set up by Ghisling – began the agitation. The violent protests left 1200 people dead.

Then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, relented under tremendous pressure from the people and set up Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), creating a state within a state. However, the demand for Gorkhaland rose again in 2007 with Bimal Gurung in the lead. Gurung broke off from the GNLF and created his party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The revived protests ended with the creation of another council, this time Gorkhaland Territorial Administration which replaced DGHC in Darjeeling.

2013 Protests

From the events of 2007 to the formation of the GTA in 2011, to the unrelenting, aggressive protests of 2017, Darjeeling went through numerous brutal events. The assassination of Madan Tamang by GJM supporters, discontinuation of ongoing talks and nine days of infinite strike for the GJM activists that were shot. These events also led to Mamta Banerjee informing that Darjeeling will remain an integral and integrated part of West Bengal, thus, ending all the Gorkhaland Movement and the ongoing talks.

The chaos came full circle when the state of Telangana was formed. This led to the rebirth of the demand for Gorkhaland in West Bengal and Bodoland in Assam. After a three-days bandh, GJM called for an infinite strike until 3rd of August 2013. Armed with the notice from Calcutta High Court, state government declared the bandh illegal and sent ten companies of paramilitary forces in the city. Prominent GJM leaders and various party workers were arrested. The GJM asked people to stay in their homes voluntarily on the 13th and 14th of August and declared a unique, non-violent Janta bandh. A major success, GJM, after an all-party meeting marathon, convened in Darjeeling and declared that the protests were to continue even after 18th August.

2017 Demonstrations

As the protests for the creation of Gorkhaland remained on and off throughout the years, the West Bengal government, in the midst of all the demonstrations, passed a law stating Bengali to be the mandatory language in all schools in the state. This was, for the people of Darjeeling and nearby regions (who spoke Nepali), an imposition of a culture foreign to them.

Fuelled by the want and need to preserve their identity, language, and culture, they took to the streets. A simple protest revived the desire for a separate state – The Gorkhaland. While many think of these protests as a hindrance to the development of the state and the city, it is necessary for an individual to want a place where their identity is not taken or forgotten. The agitation is in its 43rd day and is regularly marked by arson, riots, torching of vehicles, homes and government property.

Why does West Bengal want to keep Darjeeling?

West Bengal is one of the economically backward states in the country. Due to the enormous burden of debt (over 2.5 crores), the state is virtually bankrupt and dependent on the Central government. West Bengal relies upon the tourism revenue generated by the proposed Gorkhaland. If Gorkhaland is formed, the state will lose about 40% of its revenue. Despite all the “love” and “amity” that the state government shows, they cannot lose the goose that has been laying golden eggs for them.

Ignoring the fact that the Gorkhas are ethnic to the land, Bengal has always maintained a colonial and parochial attitude towards them. Many famous Bengali scholars and politicians such as Sumanta Sen, Mr. Ashok Bhattacharjee and Dr. Mukund Majumdar still call the Gorkhas foreigners. A minister in the CPI(M) government, Late Subhash Chakraborty even went the lengths to say to the Gorkhas “khetey diyechi, sutey chai?” (Meaning: “we have given you food to eat, now you want a space to sleep?”).

With such views, how can the Gorkhas not ask for an identity of their own? The agitation that has been continuing for more than a month is not about the need for development or financial aid; it is about the identity of the people who belong to the land. As the tourism industry of Darjeeling pays for state expenses, money becomes the only reason why the Bengal government cannot seem to let go.

Sikkim’s Stand

In the midst of all the protest and demonstrations, Sikkim’s Chief Minister, Pawan Kumar Chamling, openly supported the Gorkhaland movement through a letter to Union Minister Rajnath Singh. Dated June 20th, the letter created ripples in the political environment of India. While Bengal’s ruling government, Trinamool Congress, loathes the attention and support the issue of Gorkhaland is getting from the Centre and the neighbouring state, they are not letting go of their golden goose just yet.

About Shagun Benipal

Writer by day, reader by night, Shagun is known for her love of coins, old photographs and books. She loves to share her thoughts on politics, world and space.

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