Last month, my phone kept buzzing with messages from friends, school seniors and juniors. I was a little taken aback. Many of the messages were from people I had not interacted with since leaving school in 2004. There was also a sense of apprehension. Was everything all right at home? The Gorkhaland agitation had resurfaced and television channels were beaming footage of destruction and violence. After four years, the dormant movement had sprung to life.
One of the messages read: “Please treat this message with all seriousness”, followed by a series of instructions. Use a hashtag with the name of either flowers, cultural artefacts, and other things indigenous to the hills, and post it as a Facebook status. Confused, I scrolled down. There appeared a list of 14 names — all known largely for their involvement in politics and education. If one chose the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader Neeraj Zimba, one had to use #Saipatri (marigold). The others in the list included GJMM chief Bimal Gurung (Sarangi) and Jana Andalon Party (JAP) leader Harka Bahadur Chettri (Guras). The purpose of the exercise was to gauge the mood of people on who ought to speak for the Gorkhaland cause.
At first I dismissed the message. But somewhere, it had struck a chord. My Facebook wall and my newsfeed was flooded with hashtags from the list in the message. My generation, and those younger than us, are desperate to find a leader for a movement that is now over a century old. We are desperate to find someone who will not betray the nine lakh people of the hills; one who will lead from the front and not from “in hiding”.
In 1988, the betrayal came with the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) and in 2011 with the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). When the first accord was signed, I was not born. But I have heard horror stories about how during the 1986 agitation, my uncles transported dead bodies in jeeps from the mortuary to homes, and lived in jungles at night as security forces randomly picked up men from their homes. I have grown up seeing the burnt ruins of sericulture and hospital buildings, which remain till today.
Twenty-eight years have gone by since then. I saw my brothers and sisters leave home for higher education and jobs to metropolitan cities. I did the same too. Because nothing has changed in the hills. There is not one central university, no jobs and we fight for basics like road, water and electricity.
Then came the wave of 2007, when Bimal Gurung captured the popular sentiment. He was a great orator. I can never forget his first speech — “2010 sama Gorkhaland layena bhane moh afno nidar ma goli thokera marchu” (If I don’t get Gorkhaland by 2010, I will place the gun on my forehead and shoot myself). Since then I have seen violence, people immolating themselves and innumerable strikes. The public suffering eventually led to the tripartite agreement that led to the creation of the GTA.
The money that came to the GTA, however, did not go to the people. Even the relief fund after the earthquake and landslide did not reach its intended beneficiaries. I can give a first-hand account of this. When the earthquake hit the hills in 2013, Gurung visited my house and that of many others but the fund promised never arrived. A year later, my father rebuilt the damaged part of the house with his own money. Many others who could not afford to do so, continue to live in damaged homes.
It is here that the Trinamool Congress government seized the moment and poured in funds in the name of the development board. I come from a small village in Kalimpong district, largely populated with the Lepchas, Bhutias, and I have seen people getting pucca houses from the mud structure they lived in.
This is where our political leadership failed. Mamata Banerjee divided, and started to rule. She was so much emboldened that she showed no remorse when people died and police opened fire at unarmed public in June this year. The public has now taken on the protest. The newer generation has dismissed the present leadership.
But without a leader, no movement has achieved its logical conclusion.
This is what my generation wants. A leader who can put forward our cause and explain it to the world — a dynamic, educated leader who this generation can take pride in, someone who will not make a mockery of the movement on national fora, and who can state that this is not a separatist movement.This strike is entering its 24th day. It is evident neither the state government nor the Centre cares: We are too small an electorate. The people are united but we need a leader who can take the activism to the ground from the social media space.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Waiting for a leader’)