DARJEELING UNREST - THE CALL FOR GORKHALAND

Text and Images by Vivek Singh

Gorkhaland_statehood_protests_darjeeling

Darjeeling erupts in violent protests for a separate Gorkhaland, even as the State government tightens its grip over the tourist hotspot bequeathed to it by colonial history

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” I had found John F Kennedy’s words on a wall in Darjeeling in 2013, during the last major Gorkhaland agitation that I covered in the region. 

Nothing has changed, and nothing better describes the ongoing imbroglio and how it came to the present impasse. Years of resentment festering in the hills has burst open now, as thousands gather every day to demand a separate State.

On a cold, wet day — June 23 — away from the sweltering heat of the plains of north Bengal, a large crowd is starting to gather at the Darjeeling railway station. A long rally is planned, like most days in June. 

Sandeep Limbu is short, around 5 ft, but is tall in spirit. Later that day, this firebrand 31-year-old leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which initially coined the word ‘Gorkhaland’, delivers a heartfelt speech from atop a shed in the Chowk Bazaar area, a popular protest venue. On the wall opposite are fresh posters demanding statehood, put up daily. 

  Sandeep Limbu delivers a fiery speech from atop a tin shed in Darjeeling. Thousands reply to him in unison when he asks for Gorkhaland and calls on the names of those who have died over decades for a separate state .

Sandeep Limbu delivers a fiery speech from atop a tin shed in Darjeeling. Thousands reply to him in unison when he asks for Gorkhaland and calls on the names of those who have died over decades for a separate state.

Limbu’s emotive outburst reflects the region’s prevailing sentiment. The town has observed a near-complete shutdown after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee decided to hold a Cabinet meet here for the first time in 45 years, on June 8, rubbing salt into wounded Gorkha pride. 

As Limbu observes later, “If a cow is killed, the whole Parliament shakes, but when three Indian Gorkhas are killed here, not one national political leader raises the issue. This is sad. Is the value of the Indian Gorkha less than that of a cow? We sometimes think, if you cannot give justice to the Gorkha, then make us a cow, make us a buffalo; the cow is getting justice — you cannot cut them, you cannot sell them — but you can shoot the Gorkha.” The State government has so far remained silent on the alleged killing of three Gorkha agitators by security personnel during a rally in Darjeeling on June 17.

All three victims belonged to Bijanbari. We arrive at this remote town at the end of a three-hour drive through difficult terrain, crumbling mountain roads and British-era iron bridges that somehow still connect the people in these parts. Sunil Rai’s home, a ramshackle tin shed in the Relling gram panchayat area, which can be reached only after a half-hour uphill climb from the nearest motorable road, bears an air of sorrow on the celebratory day of Eid. The shutdown has been relaxed in the hills for the festival. Hundreds have flocked to young Rai’s house to express their solidarity and sorrow. Rai died on June 17 after being shot twice in the head, when a rally in Darjeeling turned violent and led to clashes between protesters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and the various columns of police and paramilitary forces deployed there. 

  Bandhana, the wife of slain Gorkhaland supporter Sunil Rai, with their year-old son Annirudh at their home in Rellin g.

Bandhana, the wife of slain Gorkhaland supporter Sunil Rai, with their year-old son Annirudh at their home in Relling.

On that fateful morning, when he left home at 8, Rai promised to return by 5 pm after the rally. He had told his wife that she could beat him with a stick if he failed to return by then. He never did. A carpenter, he took care of his elder brother’s children along with his son, Annirudh, who turned one a week after Rai was killed. Bandhana, his wife, would have celebrated their second wedding anniversary on July 2. She isn’t a skilled worker like her husband and is unsure how she can make ends meet in future. She says the GJM has promised her monetary relief and an ex-servicemen’s association helped meet the expenses for the last rites and other related ceremonies. 

“I don’t see any justification in shooting a man in the face; we saw the body, his face was riddled with bullets,” says a protester. After images of the dead and injured began circulating online, the State administration — increasingly functioning from a ghettoised district magistrate’s office, which is guarded by scores of police in riot gear — banned the internet. As I write this, the ban has been extended by eight days. Journalists covering the agitation have had a harrowing time filing, forcing some to shift to the plains.

At Darjeeling’s scenic Mall Road — a popular hangout for locals and tourists — a group of young people from a citizens’ forum are collecting signatures on a petition for Gorkhaland. They direct me downhill, along a narrow street canopied by trees, to where another group of young students are all hooked to their phones over an intermittent internet signal that, they say, is beaming down from Sikkim. One young man, who identifies himself as only Abdul, says, “We want Gorkhaland, but before that we want the internet.” On this evening, hanging out with this group of young millennials, I send my first images in over a week of demonstrations and rallies that I have covered across the hill town, patching up with various mobile devices to get information out. It takes me three hours to send eight low-resolution images. In town, many of the news channels that are perceived by the State government as having a pro-Gorkhaland editorial stance have been blacked out. The GJM now plans to petition the Supreme Court against the internet ban. 

A young Bengali, who chooses to be identified as a teacher working in Darjeeling for the last few years, says, “Back in Kolkata, all these Bengali channels have been trying to project a Bengali chauvinism, calling this (Gorkhaland movement) the division of Bengal. Whomever I meet back home, I keep telling them, ‘why do you call it division, call it an administrative demerger’. If it wasn’t yours to begin with anyway, how can you call it division? East and West Bengal, fine, you can call it division, because they are culturally contiguous. But this, it was never culturally contiguous... the language changes, the topography changes, the demography changes. Everything changes.”

Adding to the above argument, Balram Uprety, an assistant professor of English at St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling says, “For most Bengalis, Darjeeling is a bagaanbadi (picnic spot). They got Darjeeling as a colonial inheritance and they don’t want to let go. They want to come here and sit in the toy train. There are no locals even in their films that depict Darjeeling, no communities, no ethnicities.” Uprety’s colleague, Ashish Chettri, chooses to draw an analogy: “It’s like a typical Hindi film where they show the feudal set-up — there’s a Thakur (landlord) in a village, there’s a beautiful wife of this poor villager, the wife is coveted and the villager is kicked out. Darjeeling for Bengal is like that.”

  The blood-soaked back of a Gorkhaland supporter. Stuck on his back are thousands of pieces of tube light.

The blood-soaked back of a Gorkhaland supporter. Stuck on his back are thousands of pieces of tube light.

On June 27, at the tightly packed Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling, six young men have formed an unbreakable chain, and all of them are naked waist up. Stuck on their bare backs are thousands of tiny broken pieces of tube lights — the spread of white phosphorus on their backs is interspersed by thick trails of dried blood. A woman waves her hands continuously to prevent any bees from settling on the open wounds. Just minutes earlier, people armed with tube lights had broken them on the backs of these six young volunteers. The message? “If Mamata wants blood, we’re not afraid.” At the centre of the chain, old wooden fruit crates are piled up — I had been told earlier that they were going to make a spectacle of burning the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) accord and agreement, and a spectacle it is, indeed. 

  Protesters cheer as they burn copies of the Gorkha Territorial Administration Act and agreement on June 27 at Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling.

Protesters cheer as they burn copies of the Gorkha Territorial Administration Act and agreement on June 27 at Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling.

Television news reporters jostle for space as hundreds of photocopies of the accord and agreement are thrown into a fire that is now raging in the centre of the commotion, and, in a sense, in Darjeeling itself. In the background, at least 20,000 residents of the hills chant “Jai Gorkha, Jai Gorkhaland”. Slogans against Banerjee rend the air, as also demands for the recall of Central paramilitary forces, which the protesters blame for the three killings a fortnight ago. 

The Gorkhaland movement is 110 years old. Along the way there have been various treaties, agreements, promises of autonomy and even a sixth-schedule protected status. An agitation that turned violent during 1986-88 under the GNLF leadership claimed no fewer than 1,200 lives. The people are restive again and out on the streets every day in thousands, raising slogans, protesting, demanding. The security forces are shooting to kill. And as violence begets violence, police and civilian vehicles have been burnt down, scores of policemen and protesters injured in the initial days of the agitation. Darjeeling and the surrounding hills are hanging by a fragile thread and a fortnight of peace, which threatens to snap at the slightest hint of a crackdown by the State. 

As a hard rain falls, this monsoon could prove one of the toughest for the residents of these stunningly beautiful hills as they refuse to back down.

A version of this story appeared in "The Hindu Business Line INK" on July 07, 2017.