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1 Aug 2017

Movement in the mountains: Gorkhaland agitation is marked by a new sense of urgency. Someone will have to take note

Anand Soondas, TOI | in One For The Road | Economy, India | 31 July 2017: Sometime in the late ’80s, three boys barely in their teens headed towards a gushing mountain stream that goes by the name of Dhobikhola just outside Kurseong, an unassuming town overshadowed by the glamorous beauty of Darjeeling to its north and the pivotal importance of Siliguri to its south. The fog had lifted in the morning and there was promise that the sun would be out. Tiny ponds used to form in the crevices of kholas then – all dried up now – and young men would clamber up the slippery rocks to take a dip in the cold, clear pools.

Chad Crowe

The boys, on a break from school, had packed sandwiches and tea in a flask. They were excited about their little excursion. Suddenly a vehicle with CRPF jawans screeched to a halt in front of them and all three were bundled in. An officer asked for information on local leaders active during the agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland that had erupted with Subhash Ghisingh in 1986. The jawans were cursing and hitting the boys.
One of the kids remembered advice he had been given by elders: if you are caught by CRPF, speak in English. “Sir,” he said in English, “I go to school and live in a hostel. My father is with the SBI. These are my friends and we don’t know the people you are talking about.” The beatings stopped and the officer asked if the statement could be verified. Then he said something that both terrified and relieved the boys. “Run home, don’t turn back. If you do, you will be shot.”
The boys ran and ran, like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. But unlike in the movie, the shackles never really came off. They don’t, if you belong to any of the communities on India’s margins. However hard one tries to integrate, osmosis remains difficult in a country that thwarts its own people.
It is that, apart from a sense of other injustices, which is fuelling the agitation for Gorkhaland this time in the hills of Darjeeling. If there is a difference in the nature of protests from those in the 1980s, it is that hundreds of thousands of young men and women have travelled out of the region in the past decades – some have returned, many have not – and all of them have grown up to ask one question: where do we belong? Where is home?
It is not the Darjeeling of Bengal, where they feel discriminated against, where at the best of times they are left to fend for themselves. The inquiry has become urgent – and articulate – with the new generation not content anymore just to join the army and unquestioningly serve a nation that doesn’t seem to care for or notice them.
The Gorkha, call him Nepalese if you will, has gone beyond the condescending stereotype that has forever defined him. He is a software engineer in Bangalore now, an actor in Mumbai, doctor in Delhi, fashion designer in New York and writer in London. And he’s had enough of it. Today he wants his space in the sun, he demands recognition.
There is another crucial change in the passionate voices coming from the hills. They no more belong to the leaders. The movement has passed into the hands of students, housewives, professionals, senior citizens.
In street meetings and town rallies, warnings openly go out from the public to local legislators and administrators. This time, you will not cheat us or mislead us, they say. You will not make contracts behind our back. In fact, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader Bimal Gurung, who snatched the baton from Ghisingh, has begun to look marginalised.
Though it was Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who lit the fire when she said Bengali would be compulsory even in the schools of Darjeeling where a majority speak Nepali – language, she should have known, is an intrinsic part of identity – and Gurung, battling shrinking political space and anti-incumbency, stoked it, the latest round of calls for a Gorkha homeland has taken a life of its own. It hasn’t mattered that BJP, which sent SS Ahluwalia to Parliament from Darjeeling with support from the Morcha, has turned its back on the people, looking as it does to make inroads into Bengal.
The party knows that its endorsement of Gorkhaland may backfire during the next elections, what with Mamata reiterating that she will not allow a division of her beloved state, however far the hills might be from Kolkata – ethnically, culturally, linguistically.
The indefinite bandh in Darjeeling is now its longest ever at 47 days and shows no sign of ending. Smartphone in hand and talking to a diaspora that has spread to every corner of India and the globe, never before has there been such communication of resolve, commitment to cause.
Solidarity videos are being streamed from Hong Kong and Manchester, marches are out in Assam, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and all the 15 million estimated Indian Gorkhas seem to be sharing a common anguish, a hope that the shackles may finally be coming loose, a conviction that Gorkhaland is an idea whose time has come.

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