Hills on the edge: Police excesses have reopened Darjeeling’s old wounds
How do I start this article? I’m not a writer or columnist, but I am impelled to pick up the pen, or rather my laptop, to share something of far-reaching consequence with my fellow Indians and the world at large. If I qualify to be called an Indian, that is. My heart is full of grief and doubt.
Married to an Indian diplomat who represented his country abroad for three and a half decades, I too was very proud and fulfilled with my role of representing a great country. As a spouse, in my own way, I did whatever I could to project the best image of India and to support my husband in his assignments; be it with propagating Indian culture, food or yoga or cultivating the spouses of important local personalities.
However, being of Nepalese origin and not looking like an archetypical North Indian, I’m often treated like a foreigner in the capital of my own country. Even educated people ask me whether I’m from China. “Are you from Pakistan?” I promptly retort, “You do look like a Pakistani.” This is light-hearted banter and said in jest. But let me tell you what’s really weighing on my heart right now. It is far from being light-hearted.
I’m not sure how many readers of this piece are aware of the problems of Darjeeling and its surrounding hills. The current round of violence is not the first. I have known much worse in 1988, when people in the hills wanted to separate from West Bengal, demanding their own state called Gorkhaland. They weren’t seeking independence from India but rather wanted their distinct identity to be recognised within the Constitution of India. The then government of West Bengal tried to suppress the demand with the use of brute force in an inhuman manner.
Those were the days before social media, or even the internet. The West Bengal government had barred all media personnel from entering the disturbed territory. A curfew was imposed and the CRPF was given shoot at sight orders, even when the situation didn’t warrant it. Imagine the innocence of the hill people who ventured out from their homes to go and ‘see’ the curfew!
It was against such simple and innocent people that the CRPF went on an aggressive rampage, killing them as if they were terrorists or enemies of the nation. My own family in Kalimpong became a victim of armed police excesses that was later documented by the BBC. My brother-in-law, husband of my elder sister, was shot dead in cold blood by the CRPF, with his three daughters, a toddler son and my younger sister as witnesses. He was home with them when the forces arrived at their place. Wanting to protect the girls from being raped, which had become a frequent occurrence then, he walked through the door with both his hands up. Without provocation or any questions asked, the CRPF pumped bullets into him, killing him on the spot. He was not even 40 at the time. I was then on the other side of the world in Panama, where my husband was serving as India’s Ambassador. I rushed to Delhi and on to Kalimpong immediately. The curfew was still on, so I travelled with an army convoy to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral.
That very day, a young innocent nurse was killed by the CRPF after she was gang-raped in her home. Later, she was labeled an informer. How convenient and utterly preposterous! These were not isolated incidents. They were part of a larger trend of oppression and abuse the innocent population of Darjeeling district was subjected to over a number of years. Enough time has passed since then for us to forget the past and live our lives. But the scars on our souls will always remain.
What’s happening now in the region has reopened those old wounds. The police excesses and killings that occurred almost three decades ago have returned. The difference is that the people are no longer ignorant. They are better educated and are more politically aware. Though the Mamata government is trying its best to keep all that’s happening away from the media; Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter are beyond Didi’s control. The world can see the atrocities committed on the people of our land. Yet, everyone is silent.
The mainstream media - national newspapers and major TV channels, are dishing out to the public what the Mamata government is feeding them. The central government is mostly keeping mum out of political expediency; no word of sympathy for the victims of the police brutality, what to talk of the demand for statehood! Innocent youth are being wounded and killed by the police almost on a daily basis. But our fellow citizens of the same country are indifferent. Because what’s happening in the Darjeeling Hills barely touches their lives, if at all it does.
A political game is being played with the innocent hill people as pawns. The state government says it is for the Centre to carve out a separate state. The central government says it can act only if a proposal comes from the state government. The bare truth is that both, the state and the centre, lack seriousness in addressing the Gorkhaland issue. They view the demand only through the lens of electoral calculations. The priority consideration in their minds is the effect the conceding to the demand for statehood would have on the ruling parties’ prospects in next year’s state assembly elections.
Separate states have been created with far less ethnic, cultural or linguistic distinctness. Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand), and more recently Telangana are clear examples. Why then is a deaf ear being turned to the people of the Darjeeling Hills, who have no affinity with the rest of Bengal? These hapless people are being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, as if they are aliens. Most other Indians aren’t even aware that the Nepalese of the Darjeeling Hills are not migrants from neighbouring Nepal; they are very much sons and daughters of Indian soil. They have belonged to that land for centuries. All they’re asking for is recognition of their distinct identity.
These people subscribe to a national identity as Indians, with patriotic fervour, just as the rest of us Indians do. But how long will this patriotism and sense of belonging last if the Indian state refuses to hear their voices? Soon, the hills of Darjeeling may begin to nurture anti-national sentiment and subsequently, much worse. Do we want another Kashmir?
(Rinku Singh, an Indian of Nepalese origin, is the wife of a former Indian diplomat, who has served as India’s Ambassador to a number of countries across five continents.)