It is a disturbing message, of colonialism, through the use of state apparatus that Mamata Banerjee is attempting to send across in the Darjeeling hills, pushing the region to boiling point. Last week, Banerjee drove cowboy-style around the hill station with a loud hailer in her hand, urging tourists on to “feel safe”. This was a day after a three hour-long face-off between the police and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters, very near the Raj Bhavan, after the latter was prevented from holding protests against the chief minister. Many were injured; about half a dozen vehicles were burnt. Not only were the hills flooded with security personnel, Banerjee even called in the army.
Banerjee’s actions, looped endlessly on Kolkata TV channels, may have endeared her to mainland Bengal. They prompted some to say that the TMC had devised a regionalism plan to counter the BJP’s apparent rise in Bengal. But, to the Gorkhas, they were a depiction of domination tantamount to colonialism.
The immediate provocation was the announcement by the state government that the Bengali language would be made a compulsory subject in all schools in the state. State education minister Partha Chatterjee gave a press conference on May 15 on the issue; a day later, Banerjee posted on her official Facebook page that one of the three languages under the three-language policy in the state would have to be Bengali. Protests scaled up thereafter in the hills where the Nepali-speaking majority sensed that Bengali was being imposed on them. The confusion multiplied when Banerjee walked into Mirik and announced Bengali would be optional in the hills — but with the rider that it will be taught as a fourth language. Opposition reached a crescendo after GJM supremo Bimal Gurung synchronised dharnas and rallies with Banerjee’s visit to Darjeeling and her declaration of holding a cabinet meeting there after a gap of 45 years.
Banerjee responded with a crackdown against GJM cadres. Worse, she did not spare civil society. She slapped criminal cases for hate speech against several persons, including two eminent literary figures, both Sahitya Akademi award winners, two school principals, including the head of the prestigious St Paul’s School, as well as yours truly. But criticism of government is the hallmark of a democracy. If anyone criticises the government, should this be seen as hate speech?
The conflagration was a manifestation of the underlying tensions between the GJM and the TMC-led government.The tripartite agreement is in shambles: The GJM has decided to go back to its demand for the separate state of Gorkhaland. It has also appealed to other hill outfits for support, who have responded positively. The TMC-led government is in no mood to give and take. And the Centre is unable to take a call on intervening.
The Darjeeling hills always had a special status because of its Nepali-speaking majority and distinctions vis a-vis mainland Bengal. This is why successive governments experimented with various formulations including creating an autonomous council and a “state within a state” concept. Jyoti Basu set up the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) after violence in Darjeeling. This was the basis on which the GTA was set up as an interim administrative body with an autonomous character. That the Centre too is a party to the negotiations underlines the special status of the region.
But Banerjee has attempted to change all that. She makes it a point to speak in Bengali in the hills. She has plastered the walls in the hills with posters in Bengali lauding the government’s achievements. She held the anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose in Chowrasta for two consecutive years, bringing Baul singers and Bengali pop artists, a concept disliked instantly. Her latest move to hold a cabinet meeting in Darjeeling and her decision to create a mini secretariat in the hill station was also seen in the same light.
The deployment of the army in Darjeeling was another nail in the wall. For a people who always wanted to join the Indian mainstream through the dream of a separate state, so that their identity issue is resolved, calling in the army was almost akin to the suggestion that they were indulging in anti-national activities. Most families also have someone in the army, which only endears them closer to the defence services.
For a region surrounded by three international borders and a terrain that is difficult to manoeuvre, the trouble does not bode well. The GJM has announced it will tread the path of a statehood demand again. Containment by force won’t work. Banerjee seems to have decided to play with fire, but any political or security instability in the region will mean that anti-national forces too may get a playground to act against national interest.