THE agitation by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) for a separate state of Gorkhaland is far from ebbing away. The demand for Gorkhaland is old; the recent agitation was triggered by the Mamata government’s decision to make Bengali compulsory in all the schools in West Bengal. Though the government amended its notification to exempt the Darjeeling Hills area, the agitation had revived the demand for a separate state. The area has seen two mass movements for Gorkhaland, one under the Gorkha National Liberation Front (from 1986 to 1988) and other under the banner of GJM from 2007 till date. These organisations demand a Gorkhaland for the Nepali-speaking residents of the Darjeeling Hills claiming they are ethnically and culturally similar and identify themselves as Indian Gorkhas. The Gorkhas allege they suffer negative discrimination in West Bengal as politicians, policy makers and people of the state have the notion that they are Nepalis ( from Nepal), even though they are bonafide Indian citizens.
For the current crisis, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is to blame. They perhaps got reckless after having made some political inroads in the hills with a win in the Mirik municipality during the civic polls in 2017. The Mamata government should have known the sensitivity of the people of Darjeeling Hills to their ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage and excluded the Hills area from the decision to make Bengali compulsory in schools. The decision has boomeranged on them. The GJM has been opposing Bengali to be made compulsory in schools and demanding that Nepali be introduced as a language in schools instead. The Mamata government made it worse by ordering police firing on protesters. The GJM walked through the streets with the bodies of the deceased. Police killings have been known to excite violence, rather than curb it. Even if it curbs it temporarily, the wounds in the hearts of the agitators remain fresh and the agitation gets revived with the slightest provocation soon.
There is surely politics involved. The TMC is trying to build on its success in the civic elections and expand in the Hills. On the other hand, Bimal Gurung, the main leader of the GJM, has been trying to revive the organisation’s political fortunes after the TMC made history by registering its first victory in a hill municipality in Mirik. Gurung was losing popularity. The latest controversy has given him a good opportunity to pull himself up himself politically and to rebuild the support base of the GJM. Bimal Gurung has little ground to demand a separate state. He has signed a tripartite agreement with the Centre and the state and settled for an autonomous administrative council instead of full-fledged statehood. However, with the ordinary people sympathetic to the Gorkhaland cause coming out in the street, he has been firing radical salvos at the state and central governments for denying the Gorkhas a separate state.
The central and state governments have to handle the situation with great care. The paramilitary forces should stay on in the Hills to prevent mob violence and to protect tourists. However, there should be no more police violence. The central and state governments must engage the GJM and other groups in talks to end protests and violence. The role of the central government is crucial in resolving the crisis in the Hills as the Bharatiya Janata Party had during the 2014 parliamentary elections promised to consider the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state. During the current agitation the BJP has taken no stand, except the central government trying to hold tripartite talks with the state government and the GJM. None of the BJP leaders in the state or at the Centre are willing to commit on the separate state.
The immediate need is to assuage the fears of the Nepali-speaking population losing its cultural identity with the imposition of Bengali in schools. The first priority of the central and state governments therefore is to remove all such fears from the minds of the people. They must reassure them that they have freedom to study in their languages and maintain their ethnic and cultural identity. There is urgent need to end violence and ensure that it does not spread to other areas. While the language issue has to be settled for temporary peace, it would be better to deal with the people’s demand for a separate state too. The demand has been rejected by the central government on several grounds in the past. For managing their own affairs, the Gorkhas have been given a semi-autonomous council. The council could be given more powers and money to be effective.