With the strike seeking a separate Gorkhaland entering the 18th day, tensions between Bengali and Nepali communities of the region are coming to the fore. While a state minister has issued a statement promising safety of people from the hills in the plains, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) that is spearheading the demand for Gorkhaland has accused the government of inciting “communal hatred” and “division” between the two regions.
Meanwhile, reports are coming in of harassment of people from the hills and Sikkim in towns such as Siliguri, which has an overwhelming population of Bengali-speaking people, and of people even leaving.
On Saturday evening, GJM supporters tried to set afire three finders in Kurseong, in the first such attack on emergency services. This followed repeated attacks in the plains on vehicles travelling to the hills. Vehicles crossing Siliguri on their way to Sikkim with essential items and food via National Highway 10 continue to be vandalised.
Recently, West Bengal Tourism Minister Gautam Deb said the government will ensure that people from the hills are safe in the plains. “We are identifying the miscreants. Steps are being taken to ensure people of the hills who are in Siliguri and others parts in the plains for work or education do not feel threatened.” In a statement on Sunday, the GJM said, “Anti-Gorkhaland forces and TMC government-sponsored elements have been actively inciting the people of Siliguri, Odlabari, Malbazar, Meteli and parts of Dooars in communal hatred and division between hills and the plains.”
A number of apolitical rallies have been taken out in Siliguri against the demand for a separate Gorkhaland. Apart from pro-Bengali groups and organisations, which have again become active, ruling Trinamool Congress workers are a prominent presence at such rallies.
The latest agitation for Gorkhaland was sparked by an order from the government making Bengali language mandatory from Class 1 in all schools across the state. Khushiranjan Mondol of ‘Amra Bangali’, a pro-Bengali organisation which was active during the 2010 Gorkhaland protests, says, “Bimal Gurung should be immediately arrested. We will not let Bengal get divided. The bandh in the hills should be immediately called off. One must remember they are dependent on the plains for food stocks.”
Mukunda Majumder, the president of the ‘Bangla of Bangla Bhasha Banchaon Committee’, justifies the anger in Siliguri. “While vehicles from Bengal are being ransacked on their way to Sikkim, Sikkim vehicles are collecting stocks from here. How can this be?”
A student of Nepali origin, originally from Darjeeling and living in Siliguri to prepare for the civil services examination, said they were in panic. Refusing to be identified, he said, “Some of our neighbours here in Pradhan Nagar have stopped talking to us. There are whispers when we visit a local shop. Most of us, especially women, don’t venture out after dark. I have also seen videos in social media of a guy from Sikkim being forced to say ‘Joy Bangla’.”
Condemning the attacks on Sikkim vehicles in Siliguri, the GJM has said it would write to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. “We would request the government of India to take steps to ensure the safety and secure of Sikkimese and Gorkhali people in Siliguri. The state police are acting as bystanders when incidents of violence take place,” it said.
In its statement on Sunday, the Morcha said, “The GJM on behalf of all the Gorkhas worldwide condemns the harassment being meted out to the people of Sikkim in Siliguri. Sikkim and Darjeeling have always shared a cordial and warm relationship. Sikkim coming forward in support of Gorkhaland is an example of it. India being a democracy, everyone has the right to voice their opinion, that does not mean that Sikkimese vehicles should be vandalised and Sikkimese people harassed in broad daylight in Siliguri.”
The GJM also accused “anti-Gorkhaland forces” and the TMC government-backed elements of instigating violence to defame its agitation. “The GJM finds it intriguing as to how these arsons and attacks on government offices and properties are taking place in the presence of a large number of West Bengal Police and CRPF personnel,” it said.
“The GJM demands an inquiry into all the arson (incidents), police atrocities, breach of communal harmony in the plains in the last three weeks, including police firing on 17th June which led to the death of 3 of our Gorkhay brothers and left 33 injured. We demand immediate intervention of the CBI in these matters as well as intervention of the Central government to stop the draconian governance of the Mamata Banerjee-led Bengal government.”