A YEAR AGO in September, Mamata Banerjee made what was one of several trips to the distant town of Kalimpong. It was a trip like no other. In the prior months, she had selected various tribes and communities that form a minority in the Darjeeling hills and created and pumped money into development boards for them. She was expected to make Kalimpong a district by itself, removing it from the then administrative control of Darjeeling, which she eventually did some months later. A new local party had emerged, not particularly insistent on the demand for a new state and challenging the popularity of Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the hills. Several important leaders were also beginning to switch from the GJM to the Trinamool Congress. For the first time in decades, Darjeeling, a problem for so many West Bengal chief ministers before her, it appeared, was being tamed. Some months later, the results of her efforts were evident when the Trinamool Congress won elections in Mirik, the first time a party from the plains had won polls in the hills in more than three decades.
Banerjee’s official motorcade that day into Kalimpong was a small one, and it began to swell as several local cars and organisations joined in; a journey that should not have taken too long now stretched into several hours, as cheering people jostled one another to get closer to her each time she stopped her vehicle to accept an eager garland.
Less than a year later, the scenario has completely changed. The hills, clamped by an almost a month-long strike, are a tinderbox, ready to burst into flames.
The situation first began to deteriorate when the state government declared that the Bengali language would be made compulsory in all schools across the state. Although Banerjee later stated that the Darjeeling hills would be exempt, the situation by then had snowballed into a demand for a new state. According to Swaraj Thapa, a former journalist and a current member of the GJM, when the issue first erupted, Banerjee was harsh in trying to smother it . “She filed cases against people, both politicians and [those in] the civil society, for speaking up against the imposition of Bengali in schools. She had the police conduct raids on Bimal Gurung’s office. And when protests began, she didn’t let it be. She began to use excessive force to crush it.”
In the first round of demonstrations, three youths were killed and several injured when, according to the GJM, the police fired upon them. There was an uncertain calm for several days after, despite protests and occasional incidents of arson, when the police restrained themselves. It deteriorated yet again over the weekend, when the body of a 29-year-old man who had stepped out to buy medicines was recovered. According to Thapa, he was probably the victim of a trigger-happy cop. Three more deaths occurred in the protests the following days.
While the violence has abated for now, there is a growing shortage of food and other essentials. Some locals are walking for almost an entire day to reach banks and ATMs in Sikkim so they can withdraw money from their accounts. Those in need of medical care have to take permission from local leaders to leave the hills. Mukunda Majumdar, president of the Bangla O Bangla Bhasa Banchao committee, an organisation dedicated to protecting the Bengali language and against the formation of Gorkhaland, admits that there were some instances of trucks carrying food into the hills being targeted. “But these were just some miscreants. And it is not happening anymore.” GJM workers, however, claim that Trinamool Congress cadres are behind this blockade, tacitly supported by the police. “It is like a way of saying, ‘Let me see, how long you can carry on this strike’,” a senior GJM leader says.
There are hardliners like Majumdar in Siliguri, who has been organising anti-Gorkhaland rallies, who claim that a majority of Nepali speakers in Darjeeling are not Indian but Nepali citizens—a claim that strikes at the core of the anxiety of India’s Nepali speaking population. According to Majumdar, the state and Central governments have been appeasing Nepali speakers in this region for far too long. “I don’t think Mamata has been excessive. In fact, I think she been too soft. She should have used a lot more force to check these protests,” he says.
The use of force on the protestors has meant that many residents are all the more convinced of the region’s need for statehood. One local party member reveals that locals are so incensed this time that no party can even think of negotiating for anything other than a new state.
It was widely expected that a recent all-party meeting of local parties, called ahead of schedule because of the rising violence, would result in a relaxation of the strike and the re-opening of banks. But the leaders have instead decided to continue with the stir and intensify it by also calling for an indefinite hunger strike. “I think the situation is going to get a lot more out of control now,” says the local party member.