Tourists fled Darjeeling on Monday as the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung asked them to leave the hills, warning that “anything might happen”. The hills of West Bengal have seen a violent agitation by the GJM since Thursday, sparked off by the West Bengal government’s decision to make the study of Bengali compulsory in all schools across the state. Even after Chief Minister Banerjee had made it clear that the Bengali compulsory rule will not apply to the mostly Nepali-speaking hill regions, the agitation has continued, pointing to deeper reason for discontent.

Darjeeling in Bengal

The hill regions of West Bengal were originally a part of the Kingdom of Sikkim. In the late 19th century, Nepal captured Darjeeling from Sikkim. In 1816, the British in turn wrested it from Nepal. Rather than give it back to Sikkim, the British decided to keep it, merging it with Bengal. In 1947, as Bengal was partitioned, Darjeeling was made a part of West Bengal, thus bringing it to its current status.

Almost immediately after 1947, however, the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of Darjeeling started to agitate for a linguistic state of their own, separate from West Bengal, under the leadership of the All India Gorkha League.

For a number of reasons, this demand had little traction. New Delhi was always wary of Nepali language nationalism given that Nepal would be next door to the proposed Gorkhaland. For example, in 1985, when Anand Pathak of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) moved a bill asking for greater autonomy for the hill districts of West Bengal, the Union Home Ministry had this to say:

These are very dangerous implications, if a proposal of this nature is accepted. It would be interpreted all over the country as a victory for separatist forces.

Kolkata itself was not very keen to see West Bengal divided – especially given the revenue Darjeeling earned via tea and tourism.

The Gorkhaland movement

Due to long years of neglect, Darjeeling erupted in violence in the 1980s, under Subhash Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation Front. Ghising’s main demand was for a new state of Gorkhaland for India’s Nepali-speaking citizens. Ghising pulled no punches using violence and scare tactics – he even warned of a plot to create a “Greater Nepal”. Ghising also demanded an abrogation of the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty. Journalist and political commentator Romit Bagchi writes that Ghising’s movement was supported by Nepal as a way to scotch demands that Indian-origin people get Nepali citizenship in the Terai.

In 1988, giving in partially to the movement, West Bengal formed the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. In 2011, this gave way to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration with expanded powers. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration controls 54 subjects including the lucrative tea plantation sector. Yet, it is significantly weaker than other autonomous regions such as the Bodoland Territorial Council, which even has the power to make news laws.

Trinamool divide and rule

Matters are made trickier for the Gorkhas by the local strategic politics of the Trinamool. The hills of West Bengal are rich in ethnicities. And while Gorkhas are the main group, they aren’t the only one. Since 2011, the Trinamool government has assiduously wooed these minority ethnicities in the hills, creating six boards for the Lepcha, Tamang, Rai, Sherpa, Bhutia and Mangar communities. Even the Trinamool candidate for the 2016 Assembly elections from Siliguri town was a Bhutia – India’s best-know footballer, Baichung Bhutia.

The Trinamool’s politics came to fruit last month as it won the Mirik municipality in Darjeeling district. This win is highly significant as it is the first time a non-Gorkha party has won anything in the hills for three decades – ever since the Gorkhaland movement took off under Subhash Ghising.

More than anything, the Mirik win might explain why the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha is keen to start an agitation around the issue of language identity even after the Trinamool has backtracked from its Bengali-is-compulsory stand. Painting the Trinamool as a Bengali party would help unite the all the hill ethnicities taking it back to the situation of the 1990s where the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha held sway over the region.