On July 9 in Delhi, over 10,000 people marched from Rajghat to Jantar Mantar carrying a 110-metre-long flag of India. Three days later, more than 2,000 km away in Chennai, some 2,000 people gathered at Rajarathinam Stadium on a rainy day to release black balloons into the air.

The events were aimed at making ordinary Indians aware of an agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state that has now been underway in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal for three months. They were the initiative of a single person – Bandana Rai, a 35-year-old lawyer from Delhi who has become one of the most prominent young faces of the movement.

“We need new ways to make us noticed,” Rai explained. “In order to get people on our side, it is important that the rest of India knows us well. Our image, sadly, is still limited to that of warriors ready to shed blood. But we are much more. They must get to know us.”

As she attempts to make people across India understand why many Nepali-speaking Indians want a state for themselves carved out of West Bengal’s Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts, Rai has won many fans among Nepali-speaking Indians in the country and abroad. She is admired for her innovative ways of explaining the statehood demand and nimble use of social media, and a personal style that is argumentative, direct, blunt, sometimes irreverent and sometimes self-effacing.

“I think she is very bold... gutsy, is to the point and has no pretences,” said Bandana Brahmin, who works with an education-based media company in Bengaluru. “She is the kind of people we need at the forefront.”

Posted Sonu Bhutia from Israel on Facebook: “It’s a woman’s turn to lead our long neglected demand.”

Gorkhaland supporters march with a 110-metre-long tricolour in Delhi on July 9.

Social media campaigner

Rai’s popularity has a lot to do with her creative use of social media. Through her YouTube channel, she addresses supporters directly and shares videos of her speeches at various functions. She makes short news clips and conducts interviews with experts on the subject of Gorkhaland. She is also active on Facebook.

Social media “is an important tool not only for us to network but also to communicate with others”, Rai said. “Mainstream media has limitations. Even if they give us coverage, they soon move on to other things and our plight fades away from public memory.”

Rai’s messages are more familiar to Gorkhaland supporters outside Darjeeling than those living there. This is mostly because for over three months now, the internet has been suspended in Darjeeling.

Rai spent much of the past decade acquiring the skills that have put her at the forefront of the Gorkhaland statehood movement in Delhi. Born to a teacher and businessman, Rai left her hometown about 10 years ago after graduating in commerce from Darjeeling’s St Joseph’s College. She came to Delhi “in search of better opportunities” since Darjeeling had “little to offer”.

She holds an MBA degree and has been a human resource consultant. Armed with a diploma in videography and editing, she has worked on documentary and feature films. She has also authored a book, Gorkhas: A Warrior Race, published in 2009.

As a social activist, she has worked to rescue women, many of them from West Bengal and the North East, from either being trafficked or working under exploitative conditions in India’s big cities. She has tried to fight racism. Two years ago, she helped organise a momo-making class for non-Nepalese residents of Delhi as a way to fight cultural and food stereotypes, and labels such as “chowmein” and “momo” for the hill people.

The Gorkaland campaign isn’t her first tryst with community affairs. As founder-vice-president of the All India Kirat Khambu Rai Association, she has been fighting for Scheduled Tribe status for the Kirat Khambu Rai community, a Nepalese sub-group, since 2014.

The black balloon procession in Chennai.

Inspired by Anna Hazare

Rai has been at the forefront of Gorkhaland demonstrations in Delhi since the statehood demand gathered pace in Darjeeling in June. She and other supporters in the Capital came together to form the Gorkhaland Sanyukta Sangharsh Samiti soon after the June 18 incident in Darjeeling in which three statehood supporters were allegedly killed in police firing – a charge denied by the state government. “Initially, it came up as a protest against the West Bengal chief minister’s atrocities on common people,” Rai said. “Eventually, it has evolved as a pressure group, a platform for pro-Gorkhaland supporters.”

She explained, “I just cannot stop myself. If I see anything wrong, I have to speak out. And, I speak the truth.” Inspired by social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign in Delhi in 2011, in which she participated, she is of the view that a true people’s movement can make anything possible, even Gorkhaland.

Unlike the previous Gorkhaland agitations of 1986 and 2007, which were largely led by political parties, this movement is “people-led” (a term used by participants and politicians alike). Ordinary people have taken to the streets in large numbers seeking separation from West Bengal.

Rai is angry at the ignorance of people in “mainland” India about Nepali speakers. “When I first began working in Delhi, I was amazed with the ideas people here had about us,” she said. “When I would say I am from Darjeeling, they would say, ‘Achha, Darjeeling is in Nepal!’…These people just don’t know that there are many Nepali speakers native to India. Our ancestors did not cross the border. Our origins are here.”

She is angry with the governments both in West Bengal and at the Centre. “All they see of Darjeeling is its tea and tourism, not its people,” said Rai. “Look at West Bengal. The chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, says she won’t allow the division of the state till she is alive. But has she ever made any effort to project the people of Darjeeling as integral members of her state?”

But Rai is also angry with her own people, especially the political leaders. “Time and again they have failed us,” she said. “This time also they seem rather clueless. They suddenly called an indefinite general strike, which is now on for three months. More than 10 people have died in clashes. People’s passions are running high. But the leaders still do not seem to have a clear roadmap regarding how to take forward the agitation.”

Rai and her teammates have been trying to meet as many influential people as possible to win support for their cause. Among the people they have spoken to are Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Naresh Kumar. “This is part of our goal to reach out to as many people as we can to make them aware of Gorkhaland and why it is needed,” she said. “It is surprising that many high-ranking people, including politicians, have no idea what our fight is all about.”

‘Not working for electoral politics’

Rai isn’t without her critics. Some point to a confrontation she and her teammates got into on August 1 with members of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee – a three-month-old, 14-party group set up to press the statehood demand. Rai was accused of heckling Kalyan Dewan, vice-president of the Gorkha Janmukti Mocha, the leading political party in Darjeeling. Morcha supporters said they were taken aback by Rai’s “body language” and rudeness while taking to a senior leader. Many saw her as a “divisive force”, trying to question the Morcha’s authority.

A few days later, Morcha chief Bimal Gurung accused certain “political and apolitical” organisations in Delhi of collecting funds from India and abroad “in the name of Gorkhaland” and holding meetings in five-star hotels. He did not mention names but the insinuation was unmistakable.

Rai denies these allegations. Dewan “was not heckled and we were not impolite, we have video proof of that”, she said. “We have the right to ask questions to our leaders. I just exercised that right. I asked him all that the common people want to know. Leaders are answerable to the people. This is a people’s movement.”

She also denied the charge of financial impropriety. “Our organisation is not registered. It is a fluid body open to anybody from anywhere who supports the cause of Gorkhaland,” she said. “We have no account, and we have sought no funds. Our events were organised and funded by participants themselves.” She does not hold any post in the organisation.

Some say that a more significant shortcoming is that Rai has no experience of working in Darjeeling. Kranti Dewan, a research scholar at Sikkim University, believes that Rai’s true mettle as a leader is yet to be tested. “Her potential as a leader will be known once she addresses the masses in the hills directly”, she said.

Rai, of course, has a different view on this. “I am not working for electoral politics,” she said. “This is a mass movement and everyone should join from wherever they are. I am in Delhi and this is where I am doing what I can. Besides, Delhi is very important for the success of the movement.”

All photographs courtesy Bandana Rai.