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Gorkhaland protest: Darjeeling internet ban may extend, people say curbs are ‘oppressive’

The picturesque but volatile Darjeeling hills in north Bengal was engulfed by public unrest after the Mamata Banerjee government made it mandatory to learn Bengali in the state’s schools.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2017 20:11 IST
Pramod Giri and Probir Pramanik
Pramod Giri and Probir Pramanik
Hindustan Times, Darjeeling
Darjeeling,Gorkhaland agitation,Internet ban
Hundreds take part in a vigil to pay respects to those killed in clashes with police during an indefinite strike in Darjeeling on June 19, 2017. Protesters on June 18 paraded with coffins containing the bodies of two men they claimed were killed in clashes with Indian security forces in Darjeeling, as the hill resort reels from separatist unrest.(AFP Photo)

The West Bengal government reportedly plans to extend an internet ban in the restive Darjeeling hills till June 26 in a move to halt rumours from spreading through social media.

But people alleged that the proposed step will violate their freedom of expression, a fundamental right.

The picturesque but volatile Darjeeling hills in north Bengal was engulfed by public unrest after the Mamata Banerjee government made it mandatory to learn Bengali in the state’s schools. The majority in Darjeeling speaks Nepali and they opposed the government’s move.

The language protest reignited the region’s longstanding demand — a separate Gorkhaland state.

Internet service providers were asked to suspend services till the midnight of June 20, a day after three Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters were killed in police firing and policemen were wounded in clashes on June 18. Only phone voice calls remained active.

The latest plan to extend the ban till June 26 was not officially announced till Tuesday afternoon. But an executive with a private service provider said the telecoms were asked to stop services till next Monday. “We have no option but to follow the government directive,” he said.

According to district magistrate Joyoshi Dasgupta, Internet services were suspended till Monday midnight but extended by another 24 hours.

“It was necessary to stop spreading of rumours. People in the hills are generally emotional and sentimental. They could get carried away by rumours. So, the state government had to order suspension of internet services for some time,” she said.

The internet ban frustrated the strategy of GJM leaders and supporters, who were coordinating their protest through social media and mobile apps such as WhatsApp.

The GJM called the ban an attack on the people’s rights.

“Using social media to spread our views is part of our right to freedom of expression. The clampdown on internet services is an oppressive measure by the state to curb that freedom,” said Jiten Rai, chief advisor of the Gorkha Janmukti Yuva Manch, the GJM’s youth wing.

The restrictions are stopping the GJM from responding to chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s allegation that the Darjeeling organisation is equal to insurgent groups in the Northeast, he said.

“Stopping internet connections is a deliberate attempt to stop GJM from clarifying its stand.”

Critics of the ban called it a measure to silence dissent.

“Dissent is the essence of a vibrant democracy. If the government wants to stop rumours it should be done through the use of its own propaganda machinery,” said Asish Chhetri, an assistant professor of English at St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling.

For youngsters whose life revolves around social media and the internet, the curbs are like pushing them to the dark ages.

“The internet is a daily necessity, not a luxury. Without it, everybody is bound to suffer … People can’t send or receive important mails,” said Sandhya Chhetri, a college student from Kalimpong.

First Published: Jun 20, 2017 20:11 IST