The demand for a separate Gorkhaland state in Darjeeling has existed for six decades, never really off the table in any election. What gave the movement a renewed intensity was the announcement by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee last month that Bengali would be made compulsory in schools across the state.
Language itself has been a longstanding issue in the hills. Now the “imposition of Bengali” was, in the words of a political commentator, simply a manifestation of what the Gorkhas have been facing in Bengal for decades — “a systematic repression and treatment of second class citizens”.
Additionally, the protests arising out of the announcement about compulsory Bengali in schools — and the subsequent intensification of the Gorkhaland movement — have given the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha renewed relevance after the ruling Trinamool Congress had gained much ground in the hills.
The demand for recognition of the Nepali language in the state is a longstanding one — Mamata finally agreed to this during her recent visit to Mirik — along with the inclusion of Nepali as an option in the West Bengal Civil Services Examination.
“The imposition of the Bengali language is simply a trigger. Bengali is already an optional subject in schools in Darjeeling and many students take Bengali as a subject and often major in it as well later,” said Upendra Pradhan, a political commentator who runs a portal called Darjeeling Chronicles. “The issue is about the continued domination of the Gorkhas by the West Bengal government. This is what has made people really angry this time.”
Pradhan says the politics of language has been the mainstay of the Gorkhaland movement since Independence. “In 1949, there was a census to find out how many Nepali-speaking people there are in this region. The census found that Nepali was the mother tongue of just 49,000 people — which is not a large number. There are different tribes in the hills, such as the Tamangs or Mewars or Lepchas. We all have our own dialects. But Nepali is the lingua franca that binds all the tribes together. This was not taken into account and it was believed that since so few called Nepali their mother tongue, there was really no need for a separate Gorkha state,” Pradhan said.
“In 2014 we realised that we couldn’t opt for Nepali as a language for the West Bengal Civil Services, whereas French and Pali and Arabic are options.,’’ he adds.
In 2014, Kurseong MLA Dr Rohit Sharma raised the issue in the assembly. He was assured that Nepali would be included as an option. This has not yet happened, though GJM representatives have often raised the issue.
“There are many other signs of Bengali domination,” Pradhan said. “This region is populated by Gorkhas, adivasis and Rajbangshis — and Bengali is not the mother tongue of any of these communities. Nevertheless, all government signs and banners are written in Bengali. In Mirik, the government had ordered that all government forms be issued only in Bengali. There are a number of Nepali schools in the region where all subjects are taught in Nepali. Many times, these schools don’t receive books for months… The feeling in the hills is that they they will never be treated as first citizens in West Bengal.”
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha general secretary Roshan Giri says the movement has gone beyond the Bengali language issue now. “It is all about Gorkhaland. We are forming a political consensus among all parties. The concept of autonomy for Gorkhas has failed, the Gorkha Territorial Administration has failed. It is time for a separate state,” said Giri, before leaving for Delhi to meet BJP Darjeeling MP S S Ahluwalia.
While other Gorkha parties, such as erstwhile Trinamool Congress ally Gorkha National Liberation Front, had fought the recent municipal elections on the platform of development, the GJM has consistently maintained the demand for Gorkhaland. As the Trinamool Congress gained ground in the hills in 2016, the decline of the GJM pushed the Gorkhaland narrative out of focus. Gorkha leaders have been accusing Mamata of introducing divisive politics among Gorkhas through 15 development boards for 15 different tribes.
Her ally, the GNLF, has now switched sides to support the GJM. “Yes the GJM is our main rival. And yes, we were a TMC ally,” said GNLF spokesperson Neeraj Zimba. “But this was an electoral alliance and not written in stone. There is no ideological similarity between the TMC and the GNLF. As far as we are concerned, what the public wants is paramount. It was our leader Subhas Ghising who first coined the name Gorkhaland and asked for a separate state.”
The GNLF had initially criticised the government on “forced imposition of the Bengali language” but after Mamata’s speech in Mirik where she clarified that the language would be optional, the GNLF said it would continue to be a TMC ally in the hills. But amid public support for Gorkhaland, the GNLF had little choice but to switch sides.