It’s time for New Delhi to step in and defuse Gorkhaland

On Sunday, Nepali speaking people in Hong Kong took out a procession in support of Gorkhaland. Organisers claimed similar marches were taken out on Sunday in 100 cities across the world

Photo courtesy: Facebook\Gorkhaland Supporter
Photo courtesy: Facebook\Gorkhaland Supporter

Uttam Sengupta

Arguably, Mamata Banerjee can herself defuse the Gorkhaland agitation in Darjeeling Hills by making concessions and conciliatory gestures. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), led by Bimal Gurung, would certainly hope that she bails them out by announcing that the demand for Gorkhaland would be taken up with Centre or at least debated in the state assembly. That would give GJM a face saver to withdraw the agitation that has crippled normal life in the hills for the past one and a half months.

The question, however, is whether she can or even should walk this extra mile. There is no question for the dire need for peace. With people in the hills running out of provisions, the famed residential schools in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong closed indefinitely, even Sikkim cut off from the plains and with Gorkhas threatening to take up arms and lay down their lives, neither West Bengal nor Centre can afford much more time to lapse before ending the stalemate.

But just as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot afford to overtly support the demand for Gorkhaland, for the same reasons it is virtually impossible for Mamata Banerjee to accept the demand or even appear to be sympathetic to it.

Partition is a sensitive subject for any state and in Bengal, which has witnessed partition of its territory more than once, it is even more so. There are reasons to believe that BJP has covertly encouraged and possibly funded the Gorkhaland agitation. But BJP in West Bengal will oppose it tooth and nail due to fear of losing popular support in the rest of the state.

Mamata Banerjee is not given sufficient credit for restoring and maintaining peace in Darjeeling Hills for five years and more since 2011. Whether she made a mistake by trying to expand her own party’s influence to the hills, contest municipal elections and even wrest one of the municipalities is also debatable. If BJP can align with GJM and win the solitary Lok Sabha seat of Darjeeling, on what ground can one object to All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) contesting the municipal election in the hills? Yet, several political observers seem to suggest that this decision of hers made the GJM leadership so insecure that they were forced to rake up the old demand for statehood.

She can, however, be faulted for not doing enough, or doing little, to integrate the people in the hills with the people in the plains. Like the earlier Left Front government, her government too appears to have made the mistake of taking the Nepali speaking people in the hills for granted, thinking that they would remain content while serving as coolies, porters, taxi drivers, waiters, cooks and watchmen or as policemen and soldiers in the army.

In the state capital of Kolkata, one rarely finds a Nepali speaking teacher, doctor, nurse or an accountant for example. Similarly, the percentage of Nepali-speaking people in government offices in the plains is also negligible. When the Gorkhas, therefore, say that they are ethnically, culturally, linguistically very different from the Bengali speaking people of the plains, they are merely stating the obvious.

Why indeed should people in Darjeeling Hills learn Bangla language when no Bengali cares to learn Nepali? While the state government has clarified that Bangla will not be compulsorily taught on Darjeeling Hills, this decision continues to be cited as the final straw for demanding a separate state.

Arguably once again, there is a strong case for Gorkhas learning Bangla and for Bengalis learning Nepali, at least for a few years in school. The highest number of tourists visiting Darjeeling Hills being Bengali speaking, it makes sense for the people there to learn Bangla. For similar reasons, one would think, it should be perfectly normal for West Bengal to make Nepali a compulsory language to be learnt for two or three years in school.

The Centre can scarcely get away by putting the onus on the state government, plead that law and order is state subject and wash its hands. Indeed the BJP government at the Centre can help in ending the stalemate in no time. All that it needs to do is to convey to the GJM that the time is not ripe for initiating talks on Gorkhaland and that it should bide its time. When sustained unrest in the Kashmir valley have failed to move the Indian state, what chance do Gorkhas have of having their way with violence? The Centre indeed would be well advised to desist from playing with fire and mishandling Gorkhaland as it has done with Kashmir. At the same time, it should convey to Mamata Banerjee a list of steps she needs to take to give GJM a face saver.

Banerjee is right in saying that no government worth its name can allow itself to be held hostage at gun-point. Isn’t it the same argument that BJP makes in Kashmir? No government will put up with violence or threats of violence. And the least the GJM can do is to walk half the mile and commit itself to scale down the rhetoric, shun violence and reach out for a dialogue.

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