Unrest is back in northern West Bengal hills with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) now calling for an indefinite shutdown from Monday. This is in the wake of widespread violence last week as GJM supporters fought pitched battles with the police, protesting the State government’s decision to make Bangla compulsory in schools up to Class X. The GJM is hitting back by campaigning for Nepali language, while ordering that signboards in Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and other places in the Dooars and Terai region be written only in Nepali and English. As it gears up for another showdown, the GJM seems anxious not to disrupt normal life and hurt tourism — leaving out schools, colleges, hotels and transport from the bandh’s purview, while announcing that banks will open twice a week for public transactions. The GJM’s thrust is primarily non-cooperation with the Bengal government, targeting all its offices along with mines, rock quarries and power stations to choke off revenue. It is also wooing tea garden labour unions to participate in the strike. Reviving the call for a separate Gorkhaland state, GJM chief Bimal Gurung has alleged that ‘resources are being looted from Darjeeling hills, while its people are getting nothing in return’. He has also warned against Kokata’s ‘divisive politics’, a clear allusion to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s strategy to isolate the majority Gorkhas by aiming to keep other smaller ethnic groups happy. As part of this policy, development boards have been constituted for communities like Tamang, Lepcha, Sherpa, Bhutia, Rai and Mangar; she has been promising more such boards for communities like the Newars, Drukpas and Muslims.
Expectedly, Chief Minister Banerjee is breathing fire and brimstone over the latest disturbances, warning that the GJM bandh call is illegal and any violence will be ‘dealt with accordingly under the law’. She has also clarified that there is no move to impose Bangla, while highlighting initiatives taken by her government like holding a cabinet meeting in Darjeeling recently for the first time ever, and going ahead to build a secretariat there. In turn, she has alleged that the GJM controlled Gorkhaland Territorial Administration has done precious little for the people — and with GJM’s recent loss in the municipality elections and its term set to end in a month, it is fomenting trouble to distract voters. She has also trained guns at the CPI(M), Congress and BJP of playing ‘dirty politics’ in Darjeeling. Clearly, the Trimool supremo stands to exploit Bengali tiolism to the hilt once again if Darjeeling goes on the boil. For the BJP fancying its chances to replace the Left front as the main opposition force in Bengal — pandering to the separate Gorkhaland demand will only be a tactic to needle the Trimool regime, despite the saffron party’s perceived closeness with the GJM. After all, the BJP has been distancing itself from its earlier support for smaller states, ever since it returned to power at the Centre in 2014. The ground reality is that the Darjeeling hills region remains undeveloped to this day, keeping alive the Nepali vs Bengali ethnic divide. The development councils set up in last five years remain mired in sleaze allegations. Carved out by British colonialists from erstwhile princely Sikkim state and grafted onto Bengal presidency, Darjeeling’s lot has hardly improved in West Bengal state. A long-drawn agitation by Subhash Ghising-led Gorkha tiol Liberation Front (GNLF) during the Eighties resulted in the setting up of semi-autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, followed by Gorkhaland Territorial Administration with more powers after another uprising by GJM in 2007. It remains to be seen whether the people in this sensitive region stick to their identity politics fostered by resentment against Kolkata, or respond to more sensitive initiatives in governce in the coming days.