The Big Story: Downhill

The Calcutta High Court on Tuesday refused to let the Centre withdraw security forces from the disturbed region of Darjeeling in West Bengal. The court put a stay on security forces being removed, and gave the Union government time till October 23 to respond to the state government’s plea against the withdrawal of forces. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government welcomed the decision, saying that the court has helped ensure that law and order will be maintained in the region, despite the machinations of the Centre.

The hilly region around Darjeeling has faced disturbances in law and order for several months, ever since the movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland flared up again earlier this year. The agitation led to clashes and violence, as well as a crippling shutdown, which hurt not just tourism but access to staples for those living in the region. The violence peaked around June 10, prompting the Centre to move paramilitary forces to the hills to maintain law and order.

At the end of September, after trader associations decided to defy the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s strike and following some deft politicking from Banerjee, the strike was called off – immediately after an appeal from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. But that did not end the violence. As recently as October 13, a police sub-inspector was killed in clashes with supporters of the Morcha. Authorities also found a huge cache of arms and some believe that the Morcha is hoping to turn its agitation into a sustained insurgency.

In light of this, the Centre’s decision to withdraw troops seemed odd, especially when the state government was dead set against this. The reason given in court was even less convincing: the Centre said the forces were required to help conduct elections in other states. As the court pointed out, elections have only been announced in one state, Himachal Pradesh, and moreover, that is not a compelling reason to remove troops, given that the danger of unrest in Darjeeling remains.

There is no doubt that the Gorkhaland agitation has become part of a Trinamool Congress-BJP tug of war to win political points. But to treat a law-and-order situation as a political event that can be won or lost is dangerous. While the BJP and Banerjee continue to battle over who is responsible for the Gorkhaland violence and what is to be done about it, neither side should compromise over the lives of people in the hills who have already had a difficult few months. The Court is right to have stepped in. The Centre should now provide compelling reasons for its troops to withdraw in defiance of the wishes of the state which is, after all, responsible for the maintenance of law and order.

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  1. “Instead of prejudging the final outcome of the current round of jousting between Washington and Rawalpindi, Delhi must find ways to effectively intervene in the limited but inviting strategic space that is opening up between America, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” writes C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express.
  2. “The concentration of more power in the hands of the government will only further disempower the individual against the state, and achieve a temporary illusion of security at the cost of a permanent loss of freedom,” writes Gautam Bhatia in the Hindu, arguing against the power for government to shut down the internet as it wishes.
  3. Neither Ujala programme nor Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana offer any compelling explanation for the sudden spike in brightness of India’s night-time light satellite images, write Ishita Trivedi and Swapnil Bhandari in Mint.
  4. Megha Rajagopalan in Buzzfeed describes the frontline laboratory for surveillance that is Kashgar in China, where the state has combined dystopian technology with human policing for a truly terrifying picture.


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Ofer Tchernichovski writes about research that tells us how birdsong is passed down from generation to generation, allowing the culture to accumulate instead of collapsing into chaos – and what that might mean for our own communication, including Twitter.

“Juveniles acquire their songs by imitating the songs of adults. In this way, the vocal repertoire of one generation of birds is culturally transmitted to the next. The accumulation of song imitations over many generations can create local ‘song dialects’ that can remain stable for decades. In many temperate-climate species, only males sing but, even then, females have an important role in cultural transmission: they can instantly tell a local male from a foreigner by his dialect (and yes, they often prefer the locals).

What mechanisms allow birdsong cultures to accumulate, instead of collapsing into either high conformity or chaos? In the lab, the emergence of song culture can be studied by establishing a new songbird colony, starting with an isolated bird that never had an opportunity to learn a song from an adult tutor. This new song will be abnormal: isolated songs are often not even recognisable as belonging to the species. Juvenile birds, however, will readily imitate the abnormal song of their isolated colony founder, as will their offspring. But with each generation, the songs become slightly more similar to the typical species ‘format’, and within four generations a culture of wild-type songs will emerge de novo. This is because birds have an innate sense of aesthetics: while imitating a song, the bird modifies it a little to make it sound ‘right’.”