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Darjeeling: yearning to return to normalcy

Friday, October 13, 2017
By Ranajoy Sen

Darjeeling is seemingly returning to normalcy. The illustrious tourist destination and a hub of tea gardens had been paralysed for the about 104 days. It began from the first week of June and stretched till the final week of September. The reason: same old, nagging utterances of “Gorkhaland”. The proverb “old wine in a new bottle” comes to mind. To the extent that this proverb is applicable to the turbulence and violence which had gripped the Himalayan region of West Bengal, for the aim of carving out a separate state, it is analogous to the recurring chant of “Gorkhaland” by successive political formations. Nevertheless, the nature of the wine and the bottle appears to be rather undesirable. It brought in its trail hatred, destruction, killings, and an outpouring of cynical and destructive political process.

Bengal rides out crisis with aplomb
To its credit, the West Bengal government rode out the crisis with aplomb. It took steps to constrict as far as possible the pernicious effects of the orgy. Furthermore, the government decided to tire out the troublemakers by increasing the length of the rope it had started to unloosen for the Gorhaland Mukti Morcha (GJM) leadership and its active, vocal adherents. The state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee and her cabinet made it abundantly clear that any articulations indicating a demand for a separate state were ludicrously and detestably out of context. But, they were receptive for talks. The GJM rejected the government’s opinion with contempt. It unleashed a prolonged spell of violence and destruction of public property and infrastructure in the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The victims of casualty were the people of the two concerned districts, of whose potential welfare and desires the GJM claimed to be looking into!  

The violence was actuated on a day in the first week of June, when state cabinet of West Bengal was in session in Darjeeling. The GJM also tried to capitalise on a rather appropriate directive by the state government, which entailed the necessity of studying Bengali, at least as one subject, till class eight in all schools – government or private - in the state. Using that as a pretext, the GJM unleashed violence. The sheer speciousness almost required to be seen to be believed! The welter was initiated in the height of the tourist season in Darjeeling town and across the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong.       

Much has been written in newspapers and newsmagazines on this matter. What needs reiteration was the sheer alarming position that the GJM leader, Bimal Gurung, took in June of this year. As if the hurling of bombs and grenades was not enough of an anti social position to strike, arms and weapons were found stacked up in various places, used by the GJM party! Gurung reiterated that the government could arrest him if it had the audacity to do so.

Various reports stated that a group of trained militia was guarding him and he was repeatedly shifting his base across Darjeeling district, to escape from the comprehensive chase and the trawl that the state police had initiated against him and his acolytes. It was galling to discern that here was a group with a demand which notwithstanding the sheer unacceptability of it was yet beginning to sound somewhat akin to secessionist articulations!
Darjeeling was designed and developed by the British. Such was the cool, salubrious climate of the place that the summer capital of the Bengal government would shift to Darjeeling to escape the sweltering heat of Calcutta’s summer. Subsequently, a section of the Bengali gentry also contributed significantly to the overall development of the place. The Darjeeling region was sparsely populated by an indigenous community known as Lepchas. The sprouting of tea gardens gave rise to the demand for cheap labour. The British brought in droves of people from Nepal to work as labourers in the plantations.  

India achieved independence in 1947. The pulls and pressures of geopolitics demanded that India and Nepal have good relations. Consequently, an India-Nepal treaty was signed in 1950. Among other things, it stated that people from both countries could travel to the other country with a less hazardous paperwork attendant with it, essentially regarding economic contribution. But, as has been the bane of Indian politics, droves of Nepali-speaking people arrived in Darjeeling, in search of a better livelihood. The procedure went on; desired checks and verifications procedures were often given a wide birth. The “Gorkhaland” agitation has been essentially conceptualised and spearheaded by a section of the Nepali speaking people, living in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal.

In the winter of 1986, a “Gorkhaland” movement by the “Gorkhaland National Liberation Front” (GNLF), under the leadership of Subhash Ghisingh, took effect. It was a narrative of violence, destruction, pain and a loss of nearly 1200 human lives. Additionally, political rivalry, among the then Marxist ministry led by Jyoti Basu in West Bengal and the Congress ministry at the centre under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi, also played out its undesirable dynamics for a while, surrounding the “Gorkhaland” movement. Ultimately a treaty was signed by Basu and Ghisingh circa 1990, with the central government presiding over. The demand for a separate state was dropped by Ghisingh. For that, he was given some powers to administer the hill region of West Bengal.       

Ghisingh’s decline, Banerjeee’s rise
A lack of vision, mismanagement and credibly alleged theft of huge funds allocated for development purposes came to be hurled upon Ghisingh and his associates. By 2007, Ghisingh was shunted aside unceremoniously. The political fortunes of West Bengal also underwent a change. In 2011 Mamata Banerjee rode to power. She appeared to be concerned for the Darjeeling hill region. Meanwhile the GJM, formed with Gurung at its fount, agreed to work in cohort with the state government for the welfare of the hill region.

But, gradually Banerjee’s party increased its foothold in the hills while Gurung and the GJM appeared to be receding political ground. They chose to respond with a prolonged disturbance, exceeding 100 days. The net outcome of it has been that Gurung and his acolytes have been completely marginalised and are absconding. The Central government has also realized the inherent dangers of continued social turbulence in a sensitive region, with the international border with China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh in propinquity.  

The GJM leadership has been currently taken over by Binay Tamang. He has criticised the earlier activities of the party and has stated his resoluteness of thwarting strikes and violence. Tamang has also expressed his intention to work in harmony with the state government, while administering the local governing organizations of Darjeeling.

The question on many mouths and minds is whether the time to detect, disenfranchise and deport some people from Darjeeling region is arriving in haste. Have some people exceeded their stay and welcome in India? Certain utterances and acts appear to indicate toward such an arrangement. Surely, the West Bengal government and the Government of India are aware of it.

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