One recent day, colourful flags added cheer to the grey, pre-monsoon morning in the West Bengal hill station of Kurseong, 30 km from Darjeeling. With the football World Cup less than a fortnight away, the hills have come alive with the flags of Argentina, Germany and Brazil sticking out of shared cabs, decorating shop fronts and fluttering on the streets.

There are also flags across Darjeeling, part of an effort by the alumni association of its most famous school and members of other civic groups to attract more tourists by branding the hill station a World Cup town. “We want to give a message to the people that Darjeeling is absolutely peaceful and normal these days,” the president of the Darjeeling North Point School Alumni Association told the Hindustan Times.

But underlying the festive spirit in the football-crazy hill areas is an evident sense of loss. At this time last year, the hills were in the grip of a different kind of euphoria. Huge numbers of people, now divided by football loyalties and political inclinations, had come together in an unprecedented uprising to demand a separate state of Gorkhaland. June 8 marks the first anniversary of clashes with the police that would result a week later in a 104-day shutdown in the hills of Darjeeling district and parts of Jalpaiguri district – a period marked by possibility and uncertainty, hope and despair.

A better future

“I wanted a separate state for a better future for my son, and last year I was really hopeful that Gorkhaland would be formed,” said Mandira Sarki, a home-maker in Kurseong who had participated in road-corner meetings and joined rallies in the bazaar. “In fact, all of us [neighbours] were sure that we were hoping to hear an announcement of a separate state.”

Participants had come to see the movement as the antimyuddha, the last fight, for Gorkhaland and were willing to keep at it till their dream of statehood was realised. When news came on September 26 that the strike had been withdrawn, there was widespread disappointment. Said Sarki, “...We were taken aback.”

Sahadev Sharma, the owner of a small grocery store in Kurseong, was more outspoken. “We were all taken for a ride,” he declared. “The people were fighting for Gorkhaland, starving their children and crippling their lives, and the politicians were just making deals with the government to save their own skins, and make money.”

Sharma hasn’t had a haircut since the strike. “My hair is a constant reminder of all that we went through for nothing – the futility of the whole exercise.”

Sahadev Sharma owns a small grocery store in Kurseong. Credit: Anuradha Sharma
Sahadev Sharma owns a small grocery store in Kurseong. Credit: Anuradha Sharma

Language agitation

The Gorkhaland agitation to demand a separate state for Nepali-speaking Indians was reignited last June when the West Bengal government attempted to make Bengali a compulsory subject in schools. This led to protests early in June 2017 spearheaded by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha party. On June 15, the state police conducted raids on the premises of Bimal Gurung, who at the time was head of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha as well as chief executive of the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration that administers the Darjeeling hill areas and Kalimpong districts. This led Gurung to call for an indefinite strike in the hills. In no time, the anti-language imposition movement was transformed into a full-blown agitation for a separate state.

As a result of the enthusiastic participation by ordinary folk, the agitation came to be described as a janata ko andolan or people’s movement. At some point, the tepid political leadership almost lost all control over the swelling crowds, whose fervour kept the strike going for 15 weeks. Over the course of the agitation, 13 people, including a policeman and a civic police volunteer, were killed. Several government buildings were destroyed.

Over the weeks, Bimal Gurung became marginalised as his lieutenant Binay Tamang’s proximity to the state government increased. By the end of the strike, Gurung was forced to flee Darjeeling. Tamang, backed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, took over the reins of the party and also of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. He suspended Gurung, who is still on the run.

Sense of resignation

A year after the strike was withdrawn following multi-party talks with the state government, the supporters of the janata ko andolan are still at a loss to comprehend the turn of events. Road-side conversations and discussions in tiny momo shacks are marked by general feeling of hurt, of betrayal in the hands of local political leaders and the state and the central governments. Somewhere, a sense of resignation: Gorkhaland is now an impossible dream.

That was evident from the conversation with Sahadev Sharma, the grocery store owner who has not cut his hair for a year. “Gorkhaland has been reduced to a begging bowl now,” Sharma said. “Politicians use this as a rallying point, get us all involved in its name, every time they want to fill their own coffers.”

Participants in a rally for Gorkhaland in 2017. Credit: AFP
Participants in a rally for Gorkhaland in 2017. Credit: AFP

Altered political landscape

For now, Gorkhaland has taken a backseat in hill politics.

“Right now our focus is on restoring peace and progress in the hills,” said Suraj Sharma, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha spokesperson. “No one can take away the dream of Gorkhaland from us. It stays lodged in the heart of every Gorkhali. But right now, it is time to work for peace and development.”

The Gorkha National Liberation Front has gone back to its demand to bring the hills under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which gives tribal areas greater autonomy. Said Front spokesperson Neeraj Zimba, “Keeping in mind today’s reality, Sixth Schedule is the best alternative.”

The agitation has given the Gorkha National Liberation Front new life. The party founded by Subhash Ghisingh in 1980, was completely decimated after Morcha came to power in 2007. It has now made a comeback in hill politics. Green GNLF flags are visible once again and the party is holding meetings and rallies in the hills for the first time in the past decade. Local journalists say that it has emerged as the second-biggest hill party.

The GNLF’s gain has come at a cost to the Trinamool Congress, which until the beginning of the agitation, was a credible opposition to the Morcha. But few have forgiven the party for attempting to make Bengali compulsory in schools and for the police violence they faced during agitation. “Our supporters were forced to quit the party, fearing for their lives,” said Rajen Mukhia, the president of the Darjeeling district hill Trinamool Congress. “But now they are coming back...Our priority right now is to work with the state government and local parties to keep peace in the hills, consolidating our party support base can wait.”

A solitary voice

With political parties taking a break from Gorkhaland, the onus of carrying forward the statehood demand has fallen on the apolitical National Gorkhaland Committee which was established in September. “The primary role that the NGC sees for itself is that of intervention at appropriate levels of policy formulation, opinion making, consensus building, and discourse creation,” said Munish Tamang, a Delhi-based academic who is the general secretary of the committee.

He doesn’t believe that last year’s agitation was fruitless. “Calling it a complete waste would be far from accurate and totally unfair on the people who participated in it sincerely and wholeheartedly,” said Tamang. “It underlined people’s agency and created an outlet for their latent will and desire for Gorkhaland. Until then, Gorkhaland was primarily the call of political parties and people were only passive participants in a largely political drama.”

Though a sense of normalcy has returned to the hills, there is a question lurking in the back of many minds: “What if Bimal Gurung returns one day?” The Morcha leader is on the run, having reportedly been booked by the West Bengal government in more than over 350 cases, including under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. It was last rumoured that he has been sheltered in Sikkim. His opponents say that his career is finished. But, should he return, will there be another agitation?

The answer can wait. For now, it’s time to Live it Up during the World Cup in Russia.