Pic courtesy: @DarjeelingChronicle
The Darjeeling hills have been engulfed in political turmoil, bringing normal life, including tea production, to a standstill for nearly a month now. Around five people have lost their lives in alleged police firings. The second flush, or the summer harvest of tea, for this year is close to being written off. This would be perhaps for the first time in nearly three decades that political troubles have scuppered a major tea season in Darjeeling.
Political agitation is not new to Darjeeling. In the mid-1980s the hills rocked with violence as an armed agitation for a new state of Gorkhaland erupted. The locals were demanding separation from the state of West Bengal where Darjeeling is located. This demand is over a century old; but until the 80s it had been peaceful.
The seeds of trouble
Some of the seeds of the current turmoil lie in the history of Darjeeling. The hills were once part of the kingdom of Sikkim which was annexed by Nepal in the late 18th Century. It became part of British India only in 1850 after successful military expeditions by the East India Company first against the Nepal Kingdom and then Sikkim. Even some parts of the Darjeeling region were wrested off from the Bhutanese King by the British.
The other issue that feeds the demand for separation from West Bengal is the ethnic divide between the Darjeeling hills and the rest of Bengal. The majority of the people living in Darjeeling are Nepalis, Lepchas and Bhutias mountain tribes that not only feel different but discriminated against by the state government, which is represented overwhelmingly by the Bengali population.
Why the name Gorkhaland?
Hill people, especially the Nepalis, prefer to call themselves Gorkhas. The term Gorkha, or Gurkha, was made popular by the British through their military regiment composed exclusively of Nepali people. It was a regiment that fought alongside the British during the World Wars and many of its other expeditions. They are celebrated for their valor, and even today the British Army retains its Gurkha regiment.
Unfortunately, the West Bengal government since Independence (1948) has done little to bridge the gulf between the hills and the plains, arguably more because of its ineptness than a deliberate discriminatory policy. Bengal had its hey days in the early part of the British Empire, but ever since has lived on its past glory. Today it lags in most development metrics compared to rest of India.
This is not to deny that a small section of the Bengali population does harbor “anti-Nepali” feelings which they do not hesitate to display occasionally.
In the hills, the lack of economic development has deepened the sense of alienation. There are no industries in the hills barring tea and tourism. Both of which are controlled largely by people from outside the hills. Basic amenities like drinking water, healthcare, sanitation and roads are in appalling shape.
The hills were granted an “autonomous” local council after two rounds of violent political agitation, one in 1986-88 and then 2007-11. (We left Darjeeling for the States during the second round of agitation.) However, in practice the state authorities have been hesitant to cede real power to the hill council, while the latter on its turn has also been as inept and corrupt as the state government itself. Layer in the autocratic tendencies of the hill politicians and we have a general populace that feels cornered from every side.
The current round of troubles began when the government, in an ill-thought move, announced that Bengali was going to be made a compulsory language in all schools statewide. It was enough to light the powder. Later pronouncements by the government that the hills would be exempted from the aforementioned policy did little to quell the protests. Hill people were back on the streets with the demand for Gorkhaland, this time more agitated than ever.
The protestors have burned down government property including police stations. The state government has called in for police and military intervention. So far five protestors have been killed in alleged police firing. Also in an rare move, the authorities have pulled the plug on internet services in the region.
What a strike (or bandh) means.
The entire region is in a state of lock down after a general strike called by the hill political parties, demanding Gorkhaland. During a general strike, everything remains closed – commercial establishments, schools, private and government offices, banks and vehicles cannot be on the roads. And most difficult, access to food is very limited because the food supply chains have been severed. The strike began on 8 June.
Although the locals are suffering under this self-inflicted strike they are not complaining yet, hoping that the authorities will meet their demand. Unfortunately, the strike came during the peak tourist season and the beginning of the second flush tea production. This is a massive economic hit for the region. The strike means going into debt for many businesses and families. It also means going frugal on diet for most, and near starvation for the very poor. It means social functions like marriages and death ceremonies are difficult to organize. It is nearly impossible to visit relatives or friends out of town because road travel is not permitted. For the sick, it’s difficult to get in and out of hospitals.
We’ll have to see how long this stand-off continues.