As I type this on a lazy Sunday morning, the hills that were supposed to be smiling, are actually burning and smack of gunpowder. Reports of fresh violence have trickled in and if some of my friends and acquaintances living in North Bengal and the Darjeeling district are to be believed, there has been a clampdown on Internet services. With a period of relative normalcy and peace in the last few years, the clamour for a separate state of Gorkhaland has found voice again. And this is not just a murmer or a whimper, it is slowly developing into a war cry.
Since the formation of the independent India, various states/ tribes have demanded autonomy. Some struggles have found success, like the creation of a new state in Telengana, some have seen bloodshed like the demand for Khalistan and some like the Gorkhaland movement have hung in a limbo for almost two decades. The Gorkhaland agitation seems to have been the culmination of decades of exploitation and a particular ethnic group being labelled, stereotyped and marginalised.It is independence from the state that this ethnic group sought and not from the country. The complaint was of years of neglect and domination by the Bengali population and intelligentsia, in matters of jobs and opportunities in the government and the private sectors.
In today’s Darjeeling however, the term Gorkha tends to be applied to all Nepali-speaking people. What unites them all is probably their common aversion to the Bengali majority. Despite their immense contribution to the country and society, the majority of the Gorkhas are still second rate citizens and live without any solid base of livelihood and adequate educational and developemental facilities. In the main industries of the Darjeeling district, Nepalis constitute the vast majority of the workforce, but are almost wholly absent from the ownership or management positions wich invariably have gone to the plainspeople.
The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front originally led the movement, which disrupted the district with massive violence between 1986 and 1988. The issue was resolved, at least temporarily, in 1988 with the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council within West Bengal. The Gorkhaland movement distinguished Darjeeling Gorkhas from nationals of Nepal legally resident in India, from Nepali-speaking Indian citizens from other parts of the country, and even from the majority in neighboring Sikkim, where Nepali is the official language. The movement was emphatic that it had no desire to separate from India, only from the state of West Bengal. Gorkhaland supporters therefore preferred to call the Gorkhas’ language Gorkhali rather than Nepali, although they did not attempt to claim there is any linguistic difference from what other people call Nepali. The 1981 census of India, whether in deference to this sentiment or for some other reason, called the language Gorkhali/Nepali. However, when the Eighth Schedule of the constitution was amended in 1992 to make it a Scheduled Language, the term Nepali alone was used. It is to be remembered that in the past SubhasGhising had argued that Nepali was a foreign language and was terribly unhappy with its inclusion in the 8th schedule. This can be primarily traced back to the concern of the Indian Nepalese regarding their sense of belonging, for their long time concern has been to search for an appropriate term which would correctly situate them in the nation’s chronicles and distinguish them from the Nepalese born and originating from Nepal. Such was the vehemence that in 1991, the GNLF activists desecrated statues of BhanubhaktaAcharya, who was the author of the first major work of modern Nepali Literature, claiming that the statues honoured a foreign poet.
It’s the denial of basic amenities and the right to self identity and self-determination that has brought them to a point where many term them secessionist and it is the lack of inclusiveness, dialogue and underdevelopment that has ensured the stubbornness with which Gorkhas seek identity.As members of a sovereign secular country, it is a matter of great shame and concernthat its citizens have to demand for their rights with the national flag in their hands, lest they be construed anti- nationals. This blanket of fear has enveloped most parts of the country, and if the West Bengal government looks to continue to stave off fundamentalist divisive forces, which it has successfully done over the years, it has to ensure that there exists a platform for discussion and debate, without the fear of fear eyeing us all.
With other parts of the country still reeling under violence, seeking a separatist identity, with protests and marches and vigils being organised to voice support to particular communities under the threat of physical and psychological violence being inflicted upon them, it is a matter of concern that the greater section of the Bengali community/ Intelligentsia has chosen to remain silent about the unrest that has been growing in the hills. There has not been support, neither there has been condemnation. Part of the problem might be, that throughout the years, it has become embedded in our psyche to look at this particular community in the hills through a definite filter. I would also add that popular culture has been majorly responsible for the perpetuation of the stereotyped Nepali/Gorkha identity by visualising them as nothing more than soldiers in the army or watchmen/gatekeepers in the cities.To have these people suddenly clamouring for self-determination,is almost an affront to the Bengali sensibility. Moreover, Darjeeling and its neighbouring districts have been a favourite tourist spot for Bengalis over the years. The landscape and its beauty have been up there to be consumed, to be enjoyed, to be photographed, almost a passive docile terrain made by the gods for the plains-people to relax in. To have the majority of the population of that region up in arms against the hegemony of a dominant culture, whose bearers have little idea about the lives of the people in the hills, is a blister in the foot. What complicates matters further is that multidirectional political interests in the hills are leading several people to fish in muddy waters, especially with baits of evocative rhetoric which are often devoid of concrete plans for inclusive welfare.
So where do we go now? The fire has been stoked, people are dying. As it happens in most cases, in chess and in politics, the pawns (read the commoners) are sacrificed in calculated gambits and manoeuvres. If mutual restraint is the order of the day, what should also be on the table is a willingness to solve the impasse before more innocents are killed. Let there be a debate, a healthy one. Let people be aware not only of the geo-political landscape, but also of the convoluted and complex history of an ethnic group. Let there be more people writing about the situation, both for and against autonomy, let more people talk so that Darj might soon be ‘Healing’ from the wounds and scars of unrest and bloodshed. The Argumentative Indian and the Opinionated Bengali can surely make room for a contented Gorkha.