West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that Bengali will be a compulsory subject in all schools in the state till standard X triggered turmoil in Darjeeling. Given that language has been a fraught issue in the Darjeeling hills for more than a century, it was imprudent, in the first place, for the chief minister to have made the announcement without consulting the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the semi-autonomous body that runs the affairs of the hill town. Though Banerjee later clarified that her government has no intention of making Bengali compulsory in schools in Darjeeling, the damage was done.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which runs the GTA, described the announcement as “language imperialism” and demanded that the West Bengal government pass a bill in the assembly “assuring that Gorkha Nepali shall remain untouched and assure us of the protection of our language”. Instead of trying to bring calm, Banerjee has made matters worse by calling the army, threatening to take action against the GJM leaders and accusing the protesters of making “an issue out of a non-issue”.
The stiff positions also have to do with recent political configurations in the Darjeeling hills. Elections to the 45-member GTA are due this year. The GJM won all the seats when the semi-autonomous body last went to the polls in 2012. But Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is attempting to make inroads into the GJM stronghold. It secured a breakthrough of sorts in the Darjeeling hills in May by winning the civic body polls in Mirik. Control of the GTA is, however, just one facet of the flare-up. It has also become enmeshed in the TMC-BJP conflict in West Bengal, with Banerjee often evoking Bengali identity and linguistic pride to counter the BJP’s thrust in the state. That the GJM is a BJP ally has given a new dimension to the century-long Bengali-Gorkha tension in West Bengal.
The GJM — and other Gorkha parties — are not wrong in resisting “imposition of Bengali”. But identity politics aside, there is something utilitarian about learning a language. The Nepali-speaking people in the Darjeeling hills have more than a passing acquaintance with Bengali. Learning the language, formally, will only help expand their economic avenues in West Bengal. For that to happen, however, all parties concerned will have to shed their intransigence, and look at the issue beyond immediate political gains.