This week, Darjeeling in west Bengal has seen paramilitary forces, State Armed Police Force, counter Insurgency Forces (created to battle Maoists), seven companies of Central Armed Police Forces (CRPF) and six columns of the army, who have been stationed in the district by the government.
Flag marches staged by the Indian army are being pitched against unarmed peaceful protesters demanding one thing – The formation of Gorkhaland.
The demand is for a separation from the state of West Bengal, and the formation of the state, that comprises the northern regions of West Bengal, including Darjeeling and territories of Dooars. Some protesters are also seen holding the Indian flag, chanting ‘Jai Hind’.
On may 16, 2017, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee announced that the Bengali language be a compulsory subject in the schools of Bengal, including in the areas that fall under the proposed state of Gorkhaland.
This attempt at linguistic hegemony was met with strong condemnation. After a cabinet meeting was held in Darjeeling a week ago, one that did not include Bimal Gurung – President of Gorkha JanMukti Morcha and Chief Executive of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, a semi-autonomous administrative body in the region, protests by the GJMM supporters followed, which were dealt with lathi charge and tear gar by the state police.
An indefinite shutdown has followed since, and the clashes between the protestors and state forces have cost four lives already.
This quest for a separate state that recognizes the ethno-cultural identity of Gorkhas living in India is not new, but dates back to 1907. The protests have erupted time and again, with the 1986 agitation led by Gorkha National Liberation Front being the most violent and the movement claiming 1500-2000 civilian lives. The demand largely stems from the alleged discrimination of the Gorkhas by the State Government and broad consideration of them being ‘foreigners’ or ‘Immigrants from Nepal’ even though history of Gorkhaland the region long predates independent India.
Much like the protests held after the GJMM campaigned for Gorkhaland since 2007, this time too, unarmed protestors are fired upon by the state forces. On 17th June, the women wing of GJMM had conducted a peaceful protest rally and chanted pro-Gorkhaland slogans.
At this gathering, the state force fired tear gas shells, which outraged the youth supporters, who then responded by pelting stones and torched government vehicles.
The resulting clash left four Morcha supporters dead in the police firing. A woman in her early 20s was shot at a point blank range on her forehead for shouting pro-Gorkhaland slogans.
Local news channels have been suspended from day 1 of the unrest and the Indian nationalist media reported that the firing was done by GJMM supporters, even though video footage of the police firing has been seen, and uploaded on social media. Internet too, has been blocked.
On 15th June, the police raided Bimal Gurung’s home cum office and seized traditional bows and arrows, fire crackers, knives, calling it ‘weapons stacked for armed resistance’.
Items from Gurung’s house were reportedly stolen during the raid; a police personnel was also seen wearing Gurung’s jacket in photographs taken post the raid.
Consequently, reports of many people being arrested and tortured have further escalated the terror surrounding the hills of Darjeeling.
Vikram Rai, an Assitant Professor and a Media executive was dragged by the police from his house on 17th June. Residents of Ghoom in Darjeeling have been threatened by the CRPF to be ‘ready to face death’ bringing back memories of 1986 when the CRPF had launched a cordon and search operation after a Khukri armed agitation by the people.
Historically, in the 18th century, the Gorkhas of Nepal invaded Sikkim, which then included Darjeeling and Siliguri. The British prevented the Gorkhas from expanding their territories which led to the Anglo-Gorkha war in 1814. Having been made to sign the Sugauli Treaty in 1815, the Gorkhas were made to surrender all the annexed territories of sikkim.
Darjeeling and the other areas that fall under the proposed Gorkhaland map was leased by the British from the kingdom of Sikkim in 1835 and was incorported in West Bengal in 1947.
However, many TV channels like ‘Aaj Tak’ have tried to malign the Gorkha movement by reporting, to ignorant viewers, that labourers from Nepal have settled in the land that belonged to Bengal, and are now asking for separation.
Although the political leadership of the GJMM cannot be called perfect, the democratic demand for Gorkhaland, a separate linguistic, cultural and ethnic land and the resulting peoples’ movement, still holds.
This demand by the people of Darjeeling, has been responded with excessive force, where human right have been severely violated by the State.
Drishti Bagdas is a filmmaker from Darjeeling, and has pursued her Bachelors in Political Science (Hons) from Presidency University, Kolkata.