The hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong in West Bengal have been simmering for close to three weeks now.
The unrest began early in June, after Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government said the Bengali language would compulsorily be taught in schools across the state. The move met with strong resistance in the hill districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, home to predominantly Nepali-speaking Gorkhas.
But the language proposal was just the latest flashpoint for a resentment that had been brewing over decades and the protests refused to die down even after Chief Minister Banerjee clarified that the rule would not apply to the hill districts.
The agitation had metamorphosed into a widespread movement demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland – a movement that gained traction in the 1980s and has intermittently cropped up since – led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. Starting June 12, the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha launched an indefinite strike in Darjeeling, which entered its ninth day on Tuesday. The shutdown has brought normal life to a standstill and driven tourists out of the hill district.
Several incidents of violence were reported in Darjeeling and Kalimpong over the last two weeks as protesters allegedly torched vehicles and clashed with security personnel. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha alleged that three of its supporters had been killed after security personnel opened fire at protesters on June 17. The state government has responded to the protests by increasing deployment of armed forces and paramilitary personnel in the state and enforcing an internet shutdown.
The movement for the creation of Gorkhaland had peaked between 1986-’88 under the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front led by Subhash Ghising, and according to various estimates, more than 1,000 people were killed during the agitations and the subsequent police crackdown.
“I was eight years old when people in combat uniform came to our door, all of a sudden we heard a gunshot, we ran out to see my father lying in a pool of blood, panting!,” said Nereus Mukhia, whose father David Mukhia was killed in 1986. “No matter what benefits or facilities the government gives, the wound of loss is always there and it will only be superseded once we get our land. Though the government turning a deaf year to us right now, the agitation is going to get stronger day by day...I believe in the people who are at the forefront will not give up under any circumstances.”
Prabhat Ghisingh, a Gorkhaland activist, also lost a relative to the violence of 1986.
“I was 10 or 12 when a security personnel killed my aunt, a senior citizen,” he said. “They shot her in the head...Now, we have reached the state where we are firm with our stand of a separate state Gorkhaland.”
While the violent protests and parleys between the Centre, state and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha have grabbed headlines, on the sidelines, several independent and non-violent rallies and marches have also been held in parts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong as a people’s movement of sorts emerges in response to the call for a separate Gorkhaland and the crackdown on protestors.
The movement has also found support in Sikkim, which has a large Gorkha population.