Demand for Gorkhaland: How Bengali language derailed peace in Darjeeling
The crisis that has paralysed Darjeeling, one of the country’s most popular hill stations, seems to be the result of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s (GJM) apprehension of the Mamata Banerjee government forcing Bengali as a compulsory subject for school students in the hills.
The origin of the fear – which seems misplaced now – lies in the May 16 announcement by Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee that Bengali should be a compulsory subject from Class 1 to 10 in the state.
The statement was enough to provoke GJM, which rules the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), that interpreted it as an imposition.
Nepali is the official language in the hills of Bengal, recognised as an official language of Bengal in 1961. In 1992, Nepali was recognised as one of the official languages of India.
“The people in Mirik and other places would switch off their lights every day from 6 pm to 8 pm till June 8 as a mark of protest against the state government’s decision to make Bengali compulsory,” Binoy Tamang, GJM assistant secretary, said on June 4.
The state government ignored the initial reactions of the GJM and chief minister Mamata Banerjee said the morcha leaders were making “an issue out of a non-issue”.
GJM president Bimal Gurung led protest rallies in the hills between June 5 to 8, when the chief minister was present, to highlight their opposition to the state’s decision. They demanded that there should be a cabinet resolution stating Bengali will not be compulsory in Darjeeling.
The government softened its tone after the GJM stepped up its protest. After the cabinet meeting at Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling on June 8, the chief minister clarified that Bengali will be an optional subject in the hills.
But Gurung and other GJM leaders refused to take the decision just on face value and decided to intensify agitations. When the situation went totally out of control, the state administration sought army help.
Peace came temporarily and on June 10, the chief minister repeated her announcement that Bengali will be an optional subject.
But the GJM refused to relent, scaling up the agitation to the old demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.
On June 13, the statehood demand got a push after an all-party meeting attended by all hill-based political outfits and the BJP, where an unanimous resolution in favour of Gorkhaland state was adopted.
The battle of attrition reached a flash point on Thursday when the police raided the office of the GJM at Darjeeling and seized weapons, cash and radio sets from there.
By the end of the day and beyond, different pockets in the hills turned into battlefields with violent clashes between police and GJM activists.