It’s been a summer of discontent in the hills of North Bengal. Over the past few weeks, Darjeeling has erupted in intermittent protests that are growing stronger and louder with time. The protests are targeting Chief Minister West Bengal Mamata Banerjee and what they call “her forced imposition of the Bengali language’’ on the Gorkha people. The protesters, initially comprising mainly workers and supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (the regional Gorkha party in North Bengal that runs the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration), have grown to include students, teachers and Nepali academics and linguists.
Exactly a month after a parliamentary committee proposed the introduction of the Hindi language as a compulsory subject in schools across the country, an increasingly alarmed Trinamool-led West Bengal government announced that the Bengali language will be made mandatory in all schools across the state. The announcement was made by West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee on May 15, and then reiterated by the Chief Minister herself in a Facebook post on May 16.
The decision has been seen by many, especially members of the Opposition, as a knee-jerk, desperate reaction of a political party that is fighting off increasing advances being made by the BJP and its Hindutva brigade in the state. During Ram Navami celebrations, an alarmed Trinamool watched as processions were taken out across the state, in many places by schoolchildren, holding swords. Since then, the Trinamool Congress has tried to position itself as a secular force opposing right-wing Hindutva politics. Statements have been issued by the Chief Minister on how West Bengal supports the fundamental right of the people to choose what they eat in the face of a possible beef ban across the country.
Banerjee is making concerted efforts to stave off what she has called an alien culture to Bengal – to the extent of herself, as of now, writing and composing a ‘state song’ and designing a state symbol. But her ‘re-enforcing’ of Bengali culture has effected a severe backlash in the Nepali-dominated hills. That too at a time, when after years of trying to make inroads into North Bengal, the TMC finally managed to wrest its first electoral victory in Mirik municipality in the municipal elections held last month.
While the response from the GJM to ‘Bengali-must’ policy was expected — the party is allied with the BJP and has been fighting for a separate Gorkhaland state — it is the response of the GNLF, a TMC ally in the hills, which has caused ripples in the Trinamool camp.
The spokesperson of Gorkha National Liberal Front recently issued a statement questioning Banerjee’s move, saying if she felt ”that what people `eat’ is their fundamental right and freedom and no one should interfere in people’s choice of food, then why do you mindlessly interfere and force-feed what language students need to study in schools as their third language? You vehemently advocate for ‘one’s choice for food’ to impress certain sections of voters and save your minority vote bank, but on the other hand, you forcefully, divisively and undemocratically issue a diktat imposing the 3rd compulsory Bengali language option…’’.
The decision has given a fresh life to the GJM, which had been steadily losing ground to the TMC since the West Bengal Assembly elections held last year, with the outfit having revived its demand for a separate state. It has also given the BJP further traction in the area. From the Gorkhas of Darjeeling, the party has turned its gaze towards the Rajbanghshis of Cooch Behar, who have also been demanding a separate state and the recognition of their Kamtapuri language.
Under pressure, Mamata has now “clarified’’ that Bengali will be an option in Darjeeling Hills. She has also announced that Nepali will be recognised as an official language by the state, another long-standing Gorkha demand. The GNLF has since softened, saying following her announcement, their alliance with the TMC remains intact. But Mamata’s flip-flop has put her in a precarious position.
It has made her government look indecisive and her decision reactionary; it has definitely given the upper hand to both the GJM and the BJP, who, insiders say, will now up the ante to create a division between a Bengali-dominated South Bengal from a more tribal-dominated North. But what has probably been most damaging for the West Bengal Chief Minister over her decision to make the Bengali language compulsory, is that she been accused, and rightly so, of cultural imperialism, bringing in a draconian, undemocratic law and breach of fundamental rights — the same accusations that she has been making against the Narendra Modi-led central government.