Darjeeling’s bitter brew

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The GJM has terrorised the hill town, but the locals will bear it all for a separate state. Shobhita Naithani reports from the heart of ‘Gorkhaland’

The Darjeeling market
The Darjeeling market
Photo: Neelam Ghimeeray

KALIMPONG, ONE of three subdivisions of Darjeeling district, is barely a stone’s throw away when a band of youth — girls and boys not more than 18 years of age — flags your car to a halt. They order the doors and boot of the car unlocked. As the others rummage through our belongings, one of them asks, “Rakshi (liquor)?”

Not very far away, past a rutted road running 80 kilometres, a similar group has gathered atop an isolated platform in Darjeeling town. You ask them what brings them there and a Class 9 dropout who claims she is 18 — but looks not a day older than 16 — answers readily, “Our maa (mother), mitti (soil) and Gorkhaland.” Rashmika Thapa is one of the 8,500 members of the “peacekeeping” outfit Gorkhaland Personnel (GLP), a wing of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) led by its self-appointed chief Bimal Gurung.

The task of the group, which is being trained by ex-servicemen in seven camps across the West Bengal hills, is to enforce bandhs called by GJM, ensure locals wear traditional Nepali attire to exhibit their cultural differences to a larger audience, seize and smash liquor bottles and protect Gurung himself. What they get in return is a promise of being absorbed in police services once Gorkhaland, a separate state for Nepali speakers in the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling (Kalimpong, Kurseong and Darjeeling), the Siliguri Terai and the Dooars area, is created.

Meanwhile, the GJM has adopted the trappings of a state without being elected or nominated. Gurung, 44, the prince-in-waiting, in 2007 overthrew his chief, Subhash Ghising, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) chief who spearheaded a bloody movement demanding a separate state in the 1980s. Tension between the two had been brewing ever since Ghising, gauging opposition to a separate state, proposed that the West Bengal government grant the area Sixth Schedule status. Under the schedule, the district council would get legislative and executive powers similar to those enjoyed by the autonomous district councils of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. Gurung was against the dilution of the demand.

Youth brigade The GLP comprises of girls and boys between 18 to 26 years.
Youth brigade The GLP comprises of girls and boys between 18 to 26 years.
Photo: Mohan Lama

But the real catalyst, oddly enough, was Prashant Tamang, who won the Indian Idol TV reality show in September 2007. The entire Darjeeling hills rose up in support of Tamang. When Ghising refused to publicly support him, Gurung seized the opportunity and extended his support to Tamang, earning him the mantle of “the man with guts”. Gurung then deftly harnessed public support for Prashant towards himself, spoke out against Ghisingh and his failing administration of 20 years and marched unopposed to Ghising’s chair. The GJM was launched in October 2007.

It is alleged that after the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), an autonomous body that looked after the administration of the hill town in 1988, Ghising detached himself from active management and gave his councillors and associated contractors a free hand. The West Bengal government did not interfere as long as the hills were peaceful. That the annual funds of over Rs 250 crore sanctioned for the council by the state and the Central governments has not been judiciously used all these years is evident from one look at the dilapidated roads, chaotic traffic and almost nonexistent water supply in the area. “No audit was conducted all these years. And no one had the guts to challenge Ghising because of the absolute power he had,” says Prof Amar Rai, a member of GJM’s study forum, a body which brings out papers and documents arguing for a separate state. By then, people had found a new leader in Gurung who “understood their emotions” and supported him in his efforts to bring Ghising down.

Running the show Bimal Gurung has promised people that he will get them nothing short of a separate state
Running the show Bimal Gurung has promised people that he will get them nothing short of a separate state
Photo: Neelam Ghimeeray

Gurung, a Class 8 dropout whose parents worked in the tea gardens is a product of Ghising’s Gorkhaland agitation. The second oldest of five siblings, Gurung jumped in the 1986 agitation at the age of 16. He went underground till 1991 before he surrendered to the police. He joined the All India Gorkha League (AIGL) for two years and then steered clear of politics till 1999, when he contested the DGHC elections as an independent. With few organisations to choose between and drawn by the amount of funds the GNLF could attract for development work, Gurung joined the organisation.

A remorseless purge followed the Ghising-Gurung split. Ghising, his party members and those who refused to switch sides to the GJM were attacked, their houses of many years burnt and they and their children were driven out from the smouldering hills to the calmer plains. Ask Gurung why he didn’t stop anyone and he says, “They did it out of aavesh (rage). They would have killed him (Ghising). I stopped them.”

Two years hence, though the fires have died out, the hills continue to simmer; bandhs are called from time to time, halting traffic right up to Sikkim, which is connected to the plains via Darjeeling. A hush of forced restraint cloaks Darjeeling. Though its citizens are united in demanding a separate state, they know that Bimal Gurung is Darjeeling’s new Subhash Ghising, sans the violence that marked the latter’s rule.

8,500 youth are being trained as part of the GJM’s ‘peacekeeping outfit’

SO WHAT, say people, if Gurung has banned liquor, told the entire area to stop paying taxes, power and phone bills to the state government and has made shop owners display the Gorkhaland flag outside their shops? They are willing to support, or at least tolerate it all, as long as a separation from a “prejudiced West Bengal” nears; implying improved socio-economic conditions, a brighter future for their children and the preservation of the identities of the non-Bengali majority.

Tea, tourism and tuition, the three fundamental entities that make up Darjeeling have all suffered. While hotel owners deny a loss in business, District Magistrate Surendra Gupta admits that tourism has taken a beating. “This year was slightly better than last, but it wasn’t good enough,” he says. The tea industry, which produces over 10 million kilogramme every year, barely produced nine million kg this year. Tuition, says Father Kinley Tshering of the 120-yearold St Joseph’s school, has suffered as fewer applications for new students are being received, adding, “There is a fear among parents following the agitation.”

Darjeeling knows Bimal Gurung is the new Subhash Ghising, sans the violence

March 2010 is approaching. Gurung has promised that Gorkhaland will be attained by then. All eyes are on the critical fourth tripartite meeting between the Central government, the West Bengal government and the GJM, which is scheduled for December 21. As for Ghising, he is underground – so much that his party workers feel it’s high time he spoke out. “We won’t give up,” says GNLF leader Rajen Mukhia, who is reorganising the party.

The opposition to a separate hill state comes from the foothill tribes of the Dooars and the Terai. Dominated by ethnic Santhals, Mahtos, Bhils, Mundas and Oraons, they make up over 60 percent of the population in the region dominated by Bengali and Hindi-speakers who too don’t want to be included in a Nepali-dominated state.

‘We can open fire anytime,’ says Urban Development Minister Ashok Bhattacharya

But while the hills are planning, Minister for Urban Development Ashok Bhattacharya, who “assists and advises” West Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya on the hill region, is firm that separation is not on the cards. He admits that Gurung is running Darjeeling district, but clarifies: “It doesn’t mean we are weak. We can open fire anytime but we’re restraining ourselves because we want to solve the problem through negotiations,” he warns.

If December 21 doesn’t bring statehood, it will yield strong dissatisfaction and disappointment. “Darjeeling is a time bomb waiting to erupt,” says journalist-turned-activist Varsha Dewan. The GLP is preparing itself.

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