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Darjeeling clashes: Why the queen of India’s hill stations is burning

The reason for the violent protests appears to be Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s (GJM) resistance to the announcement by chief minister Mamata Banerjee that Bengali will be taught to all students in the state till class 10.

india Updated: Jun 09, 2017 17:12 IST
Pramod Giri
Pramod Giri
Hindustan Times, Darjeeling
Darjeeling clashes,Gorkha Janmukti Morcha,Mamata Banerjee
Darjeeling : Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters during their protest in Darjeeling on Thursday.(PTI)

The sight of burning vehicles and buildings, exploding tear gas shells, stone-pelting protesters and bleeding policemen appear a little incongruous in peak tourist season in one of the country’s most popular hill stations. But the precipitating factors for the mayhem in Darjeeling dates back decades with a trigger in the immediate past.

The reason for the violent protests appears to be Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s (GJM) resistance to the announcement by chief minister Mamata Banerjee that Bengali will be taught to all students in the state till class 10. GJM leaders described it as an imposition that was assault to their identity and vowed to oppose it.

On Friday, a day after the violence, Mamata Banerjee refused to agree that teaching of Bengali was a non-issue.

She claimed the reason for the violence was to divert the attention of the people from the non-performance in Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the semi-autonomous body that runs the affairs of the Darjeeling hills.

“Try to understand that the GTA term has come to an end and the elections are near. This is just to turn the attention of people from the real issues. Whenever elections come after five years, they start flexing muscles,” Mamata Banerjee said on Friday. At a public meeting on June 5 in Mirik, she said Bengali would be an optional subject in the hills.

But to mount pressure on GJM president Bimal Gurung, who is also the CEO of GTA, the chief minister also announced a special audit of GTA finances. The idea is to highlight financial misconduct, if any.

All these pressures have come against the backdrop of Trinamool Congress posting its first victory in the civic elections in the hills in Mirik municipality -- a first by a party of the plains in decades.

That Gurung was under pressure was evident before the May 14 civic elections, and he pitched the polls in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik on the Gorkhaland-versus-Bengal platform.

Darjeeling parliamentarian SS Ahluwalia, who won the 2014 Lok Sabha election with GJM support, blamed Banerjee for Thursday’s trouble. “There was no need to hold the cabinet meeting in Darjeeling and the meeting was held just to serve a special purpose of the chief minster -- to crush GJM,” he said adding former chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray held the last cabinet meeting Darjeeling in 1972 when the Naxalite movement was at its peak in Kolkata.

“Ray had then claimed that Bengal was not bleeding. The chief minister is now claiming that Darjeeling is smiling. Both were far from ground reality,” Ahluwalia told Hindustan Times.

CPI (M) politburo member and Lok Sabha MP Md Salim said the chief minister “is playing with fire”.

“In 1972, the state cabinet meeting was held in Darjeeling to crush the Naxalites and this time to crush the GJM,” the BJP MP alleged.

Darjeeling : A police vehicle in flames after being torched by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters in Darjeeling on Thursday. (PTI)

“The state government already knew the situation was bad over the Bengali language issue and the decision to hold the cabinet meeting only aggravated the situation. The vindictive attitude will not serve the purpose,” the BJP leader said.

GJM has been alleging that the state government was interfering in the functioning of the GTA and not abiding by the GTA agreement.

The GJM-government relation deteriorated after the state government formed 15 development boards for different hill communities. GJM leaders interpreted it as a move to divide the hills communities and to weaken the movement for Gorkhaland, a separate state for the Gorkhas. Mamata Banerjee argued that these long neglected communities urgently needed development.

The chief minister has labelled GJM’s agitation as similar to Kalidas’s famous act of chopping off the very branch of tree on which he was sitting.

“Tourists are the Lakshmi of Darjeeling. If tourists cannot come to the hills, how will people earn here,” the chief minister said.

The previous Left government compromised and encouraged GJM, so did the Centre, said the chief minister.

Nepali is the official language in Darjeeling hills -- recognised as state language in 1961 and in 1992 it was recognised under the eight schedule of the Constitution. GJM was formed in 2007 with the principal demand of Gorkhaland.

The first violent struggle for a separate state was launched in the mid-eighties by Gorkha National Liberation Front leader Shubhas Ghising.

First Published: Jun 09, 2017 17:11 IST