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Battleground Bengal: Gorkha voices matter

Most constituencies where polling was held in phase five have large population of Gorkhas, a community whose concerns have been falling on deaf ears for decades

Sabrangindia 17 Apr 2021

Image Courtesy:thefederal.com

Polling for phase five of assembly elections took place across 15,789 polling stations in the 45 constituencies in West Bengal today. At the close of polls just over 78 percent of voters had exercised their right to vote. Districts where polling took place were North 24 Parganas Part I, Darjeeling, Nadia Part I, Kalimpong, East Bardhaman Part I and Jalpaiguri.

The Gorkha community that resides predominantly in the hills of North Bengal and has a significant population in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and parts of Jalpaiguri stands to be impacted the most by the outcome of this phase of the election. This is because successive governments have ignored their concerns over the last few decades, and even now, the non-Gorkha parties are only making vague promises.

For example, when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited the region on April 13, he promised a “permanent political solution” using “double-engine government of the BJP – one at the Center and one in Bengal”, and that Gorkhas will not have to resort to agitations any more. But he failed to acknowledge why Gorkhas had to resort to agitations in the first place.

It is easy to club aspirations of all people as that for economic and infrastructural development. But in doing that one ignores not only history, but also the fact that who people are, plays a role in determining what they want. Thus, development means different things to different people: to some it is glitzy shopping malls with glass facades and international coffee shop chains, to others it means autonomy, cultural recognition and respect for traditional way of life, to yet some others it means freedom to conduct small businesses for sustenance, running water, electricity, internet…

One cannot simply replicate one region’s development model into a completely different region, and one cannot ignore the aspirations of people whose lived experience determines their political demands.

Let us first understand what the Gorkhas want. Because it is not just the BJP, but even the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is not off the hook for ignoring the demands of the community.

Demand for Gorkhaland

The demand for Gorkhaland goes back to even before independence. The proposed state of Gorkhaland would include hill regions of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, the Dooars regions including Japaiguri, Alipurduars and parts of Cooch Behar district. This works out to a state that would be larger than Goa and Sikkim put together and be home to approximately 4 million people including Gorkhas, as well as people of many other ethnicities including Rajbongshis, Adivasis, Bengalis and others.The demand for a separate state was primarily based on the grounds that Gorkhas were culturally and ethnically distinct from West Bengal.

After independence the movement continued to quietly simmer, but gathered momentum in the 80s. However, at this point things took a violent term and as many as 1,200 people died during the agitation. In 1988 the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) was formed and operated with a certain degree of autonomy for over two decades.

But in 2007 the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) revived the demand for Gorkhaland. Bimal Gurung emerged as a key leader of the movement at this point. But what followed was a period where there were differences and clashes between different Gorkha groups. Things took a particularly dark turn with the assassination of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League leader Madan Tamang. His group pointed fingers at the GJM. This also threw a spanner in the works, effectively halting all discussions with the West Bengal government that now filed FIRs against GJM leaders. But the bloodbath did not stop here. In February 2011, when Bimal Gurung was leading a padyatra (march), three GJM activists were shot dead as they tried to enter Jalpaiguri district. Violence erupted in Darjeeling and GJM called for the strike. The entire area was shut down for nine days at that time.

The demand for a separate state once again gathered steam in 2013 after the creation of Telangana. There was a largely peaceful “bandh” (shutdown) in August in response to a call by GJM and on August 16, all pro-Gorkhaland parties came together to informally form a joint action committee.  

2017 blockade

The memory of the 2017 blockade that lasted 104 days is still fresh in the minds of those for whom it was their lived experience. Trouble began when the West Bengal government announced in May that Bengali should be made a compulsory language in all schools. This was seen as an imposition of Bengali on a population that largely speaks Nepali.

The protests were peaceful, but intensified between June 5 and 8 that year when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was visiting the area. The state government was forced to soften its stand and conceded that Bengali would be an optional subject in the Hills. But the GJM did not stop at this and intensified the agitation. On June 9, paramilitary forces were called in by the state government. Sporadic clashes between protesters and police erupted all over the region. But matters took a dark turn after police raided the GJM office. After this the GJM called an indefinite strike and thus began the blockade.

What followed was a period of violent protests. It wasn’t just about holding rallies any more. There was widespread rioting, and even instances of houses, government property and vehicles being set on fire. At least ten people were reported to have been killed during this period. On June 18, internet services were suspended across the Hills.

Protesters even held a march in New Delhi in July. Several rounds of talks followed, and it was only after a meeting with Rajnath Singh who was the Home Minister at the time, that the strike was called off by GJM leader Binay Tamang. With several charges slapped against him, some even under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Bimal Gurung was forced into exile.

Split in the GJM

In 2017, the GJM split into two factions; one led by exiled leader Bimal Gurung and another by Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa. The Bimal Gurung faction was initially a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) but walked out of the alliance in October 2020 and joined the alliance led by Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. On October 21, after three years in exile, Bimal Gurung was finally spotted in Kolkata.

In March this year, Gurung addressed a rally saying, “Regionalism is under threat (from the BJP). I appeal to the GNLF, the CPRM, the ABGL and all other hill parties to come together, let us work together. Without regional parties, regional issues cannot be raised.” Gurung lost two of his men when they jumped ship to the BJP; Subha Pradhan is the BJP candidate from Kalimpong, while BP Bajgain who is the BJP candidate from Kurseong is also a GJM (PG-faction) turncoat. The demand was statehood appears to have been put on the back-burner for now as the primary objective appears to be defeating the BJP.

The Binay Tamang-Anit Thapa faction was already a TMC ally. Meanwhile, BJP has fielded the sitting Darjeeling MLA, Neeraj Zimba as their candidate. He is a Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader. But given how both GJM factions have pitched candidates, the political fates of all remain at peril.

Gorkhas and NRC

Meanwhile, there is another major concern of the Gorkhas to which only Mamata Banerjee has given any clear solution. After several Gorkhas living in Assam found themselves excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), there were concerns raised by the members of the community living in West Bengal. Amit Shah has made a rather vague promise on the subject.

“The NRC has not been implemented in Bengal…. Some people are spreading lies. Even if it is implemented, not a single Gorkha needs to be bothered about it,” Shah said while addressing a rally held at Gorkha Stadium in Lebong, Darjeeling on April 13. But failed to explain what he meant when he said that Gorkhas needn’t bother about the NRC. He did not clarify if the community would be exempt. However, Mamata Banerjee has categorically said that she will never allow NRC in West Bengal, a promise that actually allays fears.

Now that voting has concluded, Gorkhas, like everyone else will have to wait for results to be declared on May 2.

Related:

Battleground Bengal: EC denies request to club remaining phases, reduces campaigning hours
Battleground Bengal: Demand for clubbing phases after surge in Covid cases
Battleground Bengal: Fake news flourishes, videos go viral on social media

Battleground Bengal: Gorkha voices matter

Most constituencies where polling was held in phase five have large population of Gorkhas, a community whose concerns have been falling on deaf ears for decades

Image Courtesy:thefederal.com

Polling for phase five of assembly elections took place across 15,789 polling stations in the 45 constituencies in West Bengal today. At the close of polls just over 78 percent of voters had exercised their right to vote. Districts where polling took place were North 24 Parganas Part I, Darjeeling, Nadia Part I, Kalimpong, East Bardhaman Part I and Jalpaiguri.

The Gorkha community that resides predominantly in the hills of North Bengal and has a significant population in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and parts of Jalpaiguri stands to be impacted the most by the outcome of this phase of the election. This is because successive governments have ignored their concerns over the last few decades, and even now, the non-Gorkha parties are only making vague promises.

For example, when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited the region on April 13, he promised a “permanent political solution” using “double-engine government of the BJP – one at the Center and one in Bengal”, and that Gorkhas will not have to resort to agitations any more. But he failed to acknowledge why Gorkhas had to resort to agitations in the first place.

It is easy to club aspirations of all people as that for economic and infrastructural development. But in doing that one ignores not only history, but also the fact that who people are, plays a role in determining what they want. Thus, development means different things to different people: to some it is glitzy shopping malls with glass facades and international coffee shop chains, to others it means autonomy, cultural recognition and respect for traditional way of life, to yet some others it means freedom to conduct small businesses for sustenance, running water, electricity, internet…

One cannot simply replicate one region’s development model into a completely different region, and one cannot ignore the aspirations of people whose lived experience determines their political demands.

Let us first understand what the Gorkhas want. Because it is not just the BJP, but even the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is not off the hook for ignoring the demands of the community.

Demand for Gorkhaland

The demand for Gorkhaland goes back to even before independence. The proposed state of Gorkhaland would include hill regions of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, the Dooars regions including Japaiguri, Alipurduars and parts of Cooch Behar district. This works out to a state that would be larger than Goa and Sikkim put together and be home to approximately 4 million people including Gorkhas, as well as people of many other ethnicities including Rajbongshis, Adivasis, Bengalis and others.The demand for a separate state was primarily based on the grounds that Gorkhas were culturally and ethnically distinct from West Bengal.

After independence the movement continued to quietly simmer, but gathered momentum in the 80s. However, at this point things took a violent term and as many as 1,200 people died during the agitation. In 1988 the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) was formed and operated with a certain degree of autonomy for over two decades.

But in 2007 the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) revived the demand for Gorkhaland. Bimal Gurung emerged as a key leader of the movement at this point. But what followed was a period where there were differences and clashes between different Gorkha groups. Things took a particularly dark turn with the assassination of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League leader Madan Tamang. His group pointed fingers at the GJM. This also threw a spanner in the works, effectively halting all discussions with the West Bengal government that now filed FIRs against GJM leaders. But the bloodbath did not stop here. In February 2011, when Bimal Gurung was leading a padyatra (march), three GJM activists were shot dead as they tried to enter Jalpaiguri district. Violence erupted in Darjeeling and GJM called for the strike. The entire area was shut down for nine days at that time.

The demand for a separate state once again gathered steam in 2013 after the creation of Telangana. There was a largely peaceful “bandh” (shutdown) in August in response to a call by GJM and on August 16, all pro-Gorkhaland parties came together to informally form a joint action committee.  

2017 blockade

The memory of the 2017 blockade that lasted 104 days is still fresh in the minds of those for whom it was their lived experience. Trouble began when the West Bengal government announced in May that Bengali should be made a compulsory language in all schools. This was seen as an imposition of Bengali on a population that largely speaks Nepali.

The protests were peaceful, but intensified between June 5 and 8 that year when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was visiting the area. The state government was forced to soften its stand and conceded that Bengali would be an optional subject in the Hills. But the GJM did not stop at this and intensified the agitation. On June 9, paramilitary forces were called in by the state government. Sporadic clashes between protesters and police erupted all over the region. But matters took a dark turn after police raided the GJM office. After this the GJM called an indefinite strike and thus began the blockade.

What followed was a period of violent protests. It wasn’t just about holding rallies any more. There was widespread rioting, and even instances of houses, government property and vehicles being set on fire. At least ten people were reported to have been killed during this period. On June 18, internet services were suspended across the Hills.

Protesters even held a march in New Delhi in July. Several rounds of talks followed, and it was only after a meeting with Rajnath Singh who was the Home Minister at the time, that the strike was called off by GJM leader Binay Tamang. With several charges slapped against him, some even under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Bimal Gurung was forced into exile.

Split in the GJM

In 2017, the GJM split into two factions; one led by exiled leader Bimal Gurung and another by Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa. The Bimal Gurung faction was initially a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) but walked out of the alliance in October 2020 and joined the alliance led by Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. On October 21, after three years in exile, Bimal Gurung was finally spotted in Kolkata.

In March this year, Gurung addressed a rally saying, “Regionalism is under threat (from the BJP). I appeal to the GNLF, the CPRM, the ABGL and all other hill parties to come together, let us work together. Without regional parties, regional issues cannot be raised.” Gurung lost two of his men when they jumped ship to the BJP; Subha Pradhan is the BJP candidate from Kalimpong, while BP Bajgain who is the BJP candidate from Kurseong is also a GJM (PG-faction) turncoat. The demand was statehood appears to have been put on the back-burner for now as the primary objective appears to be defeating the BJP.

The Binay Tamang-Anit Thapa faction was already a TMC ally. Meanwhile, BJP has fielded the sitting Darjeeling MLA, Neeraj Zimba as their candidate. He is a Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader. But given how both GJM factions have pitched candidates, the political fates of all remain at peril.

Gorkhas and NRC

Meanwhile, there is another major concern of the Gorkhas to which only Mamata Banerjee has given any clear solution. After several Gorkhas living in Assam found themselves excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), there were concerns raised by the members of the community living in West Bengal. Amit Shah has made a rather vague promise on the subject.

“The NRC has not been implemented in Bengal…. Some people are spreading lies. Even if it is implemented, not a single Gorkha needs to be bothered about it,” Shah said while addressing a rally held at Gorkha Stadium in Lebong, Darjeeling on April 13. But failed to explain what he meant when he said that Gorkhas needn’t bother about the NRC. He did not clarify if the community would be exempt. However, Mamata Banerjee has categorically said that she will never allow NRC in West Bengal, a promise that actually allays fears.

Now that voting has concluded, Gorkhas, like everyone else will have to wait for results to be declared on May 2.

Related:

Battleground Bengal: EC denies request to club remaining phases, reduces campaigning hours
Battleground Bengal: Demand for clubbing phases after surge in Covid cases
Battleground Bengal: Fake news flourishes, videos go viral on social media

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