An otherwise-quiet community centre of a Roman Catholic religious order, some 5 km from Siliguri, in North Bengal, has recently taken up a new role.

From last Wednesday, it started functioning as an off-site school for students of Classes 10 and 12 of a reputed century-old school from Darjeeling, 62 km away, run by the same religious order. In all, 90 students, 78 of them boarders, have started classes. The school authorities decided to make this arrangement for students facing board examinations next year as the ongoing shutdown in the Darjeeling hills is showing no signs of being withdrawn anytime soon, and schools remain suspended indefinitely. The general strike called in the hills in June in demand for a separate Gorkhaland state has brought normal life to a standstill for more than 50 days now.

The school has made similar arrangements for about 100 day scholars in the hills. The school authorities are tight-lipped about this. “We don’t want any trouble,” said a school coordinator, adding that authorities were worried about any run-in with the strike supporters. “The only reason to hold these classes is to help students clear their syllabus backlog,” he said.

Well known for its boarding schools, Darjeeling has attracted students from far and wide, even from Europe, to its iconic British-era institutions. Members of the royal families of Bhutan and Nepal were educated here. With time, however, the hill town has lost its sheen as an education-destination, especially since the 1980s, when it first saw a violent agitation in demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.. Over time, Indians shifted their loyalties to boarding schools in other places such as Dehradun and Mussoorie, but Darjeeling is still popular among students from Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand.

Robindra Subba, director of Himali Boarding School in Kurseong, said there are about 30,000 to 35,000 school students in about 52 schools in the Darjeeling hills. Of them, about 12,000 to 15,0000 students are boarders.

Along with tourism and tea, the education sector is a big part of the hill economy. Especially Kurseong, which, according to Subba, is almost entirely education-based. There are about 16 high schools and countless junior schools in this town, which is about 30 km from Darjeeling.

Students from a boarding school in the Darjeeling hills at Siliguri. Photo credit: Passang Yolmo

Political turmoil

Political turmoil came to the hills on June 8 with clashes between the police and members of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha protesting against the state government’s move to make Bengali a compulsory paper in state schools. In the initial stages of the strike, schools were exempted. However, after the June 17 incident in which the Morcha has claimed three people were killed in alleged police firing – the government has denied the firing and acknowledged only one death – it intensified its strike and withdrew all exemptions.

Kalimpong schools were on a summer break already, and Kurseong and Darjeeling schools were set to close on June 24. On June 23, the Morcha gave boarding schools a 12-hour window to evacuate their out-station students. “It was a day of frantic arranging of logistics to safely transfer hundreds of students to Siliguri in the plains, from where their parents would pick them up,” said an official with a Kurseong school.

The summer vacations eventually ended, but not the strike.

Board exams

School authorities said that they appealed to the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee – the 14-party hill body formed more than a month ago to lead the agitation – to at least allow board students to attend classes. But the request was turned down. “We even proposed that in order to maintain the spirit of the strike, students will not wear uniforms and day scholars will walk to school and back,” said the senior official at a Kurseong school. “But that didn’t help either.”

Many schools have since then begun to hold off-site classes in Siliguri, outside the area under strike, for their students, especially those facing board exams next year. “As many as 10 schools have already started off-site classes “some formally and others informally [like private tuitions],” said an educationist, who looks after the affairs of several schools in North Bengal.

Several hills schools are also tying up with institutions in Kolkata. “Classes for our Kathmandu students have been arranged at the campus of the school run by our religious order there [in Kolkata],” said the coordinator at the pastoral centre.

“As a local from Kurseong, I sympathise with the cause of Gorkhaland,” said Himali Boarding School’s Subba. “But such is going to be the damage to students because of the bandh that we just couldn’t sit and watch. So we decided to hold off-site classes for at least the board examinees in Siliguri.” Himali has booked a community hall, usually hired for weddings, where 40 students will stay and attend classes “until the strike is called off”.

A teacher at the temporary school at the community centre outside Siliguri said that the syllabus is still manageable for board examinees. “We are now teaching six days a week, instead of the usual five,” he said. “With a shortened Puja break and winter vacation, we should be able to make up the syllabus for our Class 10 and 12 students. If there were any delay in starting these classes, there would have been a serious problem.”

A Class 12 boarder from Thimphu, Bhutan, is worried that his performance will suffer. “Being in Thimphu, I was unable to take private tuitions,” said the boarder. “We have a different education system and syllabus there. Thank God for these classes.”

Photo credit: Passang Yolmo

Alternatives not for all

But given the logistics and costs involved, not all schools have managed to arrange offsite classes. Many children, local and outstation alike, have been enrolled privately with coaching centres in Siliguri while some have started taking private tuitions.

“My sister is thinking of renting a room in Siliguri with her son, who is in Class 10, so that he can join a coaching centre there,” said a Kurseong resident. They are keeping the plan a secret. “The people here are not complaining about their children’s education. Their attitude is, ‘If our children have to lose a year for Gorklahand, so be it.’ My sister supports Gorkhaland too but cannot help worrying about the future of her son.”

Even the schools that have started offsite centres are not confident of sustaining their arrangements for an indefinite period of time. At the pastoral centre, 30 beds now fill a dormitory meant for 20. Classes, five in all, are being held in the dining hall and the chapel, apart from the assembly halls. “We are prepared for only 12 days now,” said the school coordinator. “We are worried about what happens if the strike is not withdrawn by then.”

Long-term impact

The Darjeeling-based educationist said that the strike was a “big blow” for students. “Young minds work differently,” he said. “It is not like they can just pick up from where they left and get going. School students can never make up for losses incurred due to such a long disruption in their learning process. Education is not just about completing the syllabus.”

The educationist added, “This is a complete violation of a child’s right to education.”

There are also worries that the long break may cause the school drop-out rate to go up, particularly among day scholars. “They are home with nothing to do in such politically turbulent times. This may have long-term effects; the number of drop-outs may increase.”

The bigger worry looming over Darjeeling’s famed education sector is recovery.

“Unlike other sectors, education doesn’t recover easily,” said Subba. He said that schools were just about recovering from the 2013 turmoil when this one hit. In July that year, the decision of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government to create the state of Telangana gave fresh impetus to the Gorkhaland agitation. The hills saw a 44-day strike led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. Schools were given 48 hours to evacuate their out-station students.

An official at Darjeeling’s North Point School said the number of their outstation students fell by 10% after 2013, while many other schools saw a sharper fall in the number of boarders. “This time also I am getting calls from harried parents who want to take their children away if the situation remains grim,” he said.

Said Subba: “It will take at least eight or nine years of hard work, and a lot of confidence-building measures, to get back to where we were before this agitation broke out.”