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Stirred up Darjeeling hills alive with the spirit of cooperation

Heights of protest: A gathering at Darjeeling's Ghum railway station, the highest altitude station in India.   | Photo Credit: Suvojit Bagchi

On a drizzly Monday morning, Dambar Prasad Shiwakoti, senior master of Darjeeling’s elite Turnbull High Secondary School, leaves his house at 5 a.m. for the nearby neighbourhood of Rose Bank, where he enters an unimpressive double-storey building. He cleans the blackboard in a large, rectangular hall with a duster and waits for students to arrive.

Everything but pharmacies in Darjeeling have been shut down since June 15, following a call by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) demanding a separate State for Gorkhas, but this makeshift school has been functioning for the last 51 days. “The Class X examination is approaching. Students of elite institutions are attending private classes in Siliguri. But what about those who are not from elite schools?” Mr. Shiwakoti asks. He often works late and wonders if he did this much “during usual times”. Classes begin at 7 a.m., followed by an afternoon session at 11 a.m. About 275 students of nearly a dozen schools attend. “In these times, we have to cooperate with each other,” says Urmila Pradhan, a Class X student from the St. Teresa's Girls School.

Mr. Shiwakoti approached Uday Sewa Sangh, a voluntary organisation, for permission to start the school in their premises, usually rented out for weddings. The club agreed.


The spirit of cooperation keeps Darjeeling going. There is no solution for the impasse in sight. The Chief Minister of West Bengal is silent, the GJM leadership appears confused, the Central Government seems reluctant to act, and the Internet is down. “During 1986 movement [for Gorkhaland], Rajiv Gandhi was far more proactive than today’s Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP],” claims a senior official of a tea planters’ association, who does not wish to be named.

Yet, Darjeeling’s residents are not deserting the movement. Every morning, they assemble in different parts of a town that is littered with burnt vehicles, shouting slogans for Gorkhaland. They keep their moral high by hugging each other, forming human chains, and even having toddlers hold ‘Jai Gorkhaland’ placards. Many bring vegetables or noodles. “We often carry some food to the rallies these days, to ensure that our neighbours have enough,” laughs Roshan Rai of the NGO DLR Prerna.

The city is usually deserted, but for a few hours in the afternoon when people throng its centre. Many of them participate in street corner meetings. In the absence of regular vegetable markets, vendors set up tiny, temporary shops in the by-lanes, which have managed to hold the prices. They disappear later in the day. “And if there are little or no garbage on the roads, it is because the municipality is overworking with skeletal staff,” said a senior government official.

The town falls silent by early evening and sinks into darkness. Paramilatary and police vehicles drive at a remarkable speed, flashing blue lights, often stopping lone walkers to check their identity. The agitation is “still absolutely unarmed”, protesters say.

For far-flung areas

“While we are doing our best, the key question is if we are reaching the forest villages and remotest tea gardens,” said Roshan Rai, convener of a meeting held at the Diosecan Pastoral Centre last Sunday to streamline equitable food distribution, “a challenging task”, the organisers said.

“We distribute five kilos of rice, edible oil, lentils and salt in the tea gardens as they are cut off,” said P.P. Sherpa of the Japan-funded Eurasia Reiyukai.

A former teacher Norreen Dunne believes “personal bonding has increased after the internet ban”.

The bonding was visible in a narrow bylane in Mahakal Market, where volunteers of the Mani Trust, a charitable organisation, were selling potato and squash momos to raise funds. Sashi Yanzon, a key organiser, said they were selling about 40 kilos of vegetable momos every day. “The money is used to buy fuel to take basic food stuff to villages in far-flung areas,” she said.

Sudha Rai, a school teacher and another volunteer, said they had reached about 2,000 families. The Mani Trust’s shop is among the hundreds of charitable institutions and individuals coordinating relief in the hills.

“But for how long?”

Such large-scale support in terms of food collection and distribution is keeping the GJM leadership on tenterhooks. “The meeting among NGOs was essential to ensure transparency. We would like to keep tabs on funding,” said a GJM official attending the Pastoral Centre meeting. “But we have no reason to stop it as long as it is for the people,” a senior government official said.

“The key question is for how long,” asked Denmark-based professor at Roskilde University, Prem Poddar. A native of Darjeeling, Poddar has written extensively on the region. He argues that the GJM leadership has “painted itself into the corner”.

“After the initial swell, the movement is losing steam,” he feels. “The other factor,” said the professor, is the strategy of theBharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee.

“Despite its earlier commitment [regarding Gorkhaland], the BJP is looking at it from the optics of elections, while for Ms.Banerjee, the approach is to let people suffer for few more months till they change their position,” Professor Poddarobserves. However, the party that is facing the heat on ground is the GJM and its chief Bimal Gurung.

“For Gurung, it is a question of managing the expectation that he has generated through his promises,” Professor Poddar said.

Senior officials of external intelligence in the country, however, anticipate a “larger Nepali homeland” movement, largely secessionist in nature, brewing behind Gorkhaland. “For us, with or without any politics, Gorkhaland is unacceptable. What could be Bengal's problem today would be India’s issue tomorrow,” said a senior intelligence official. 

Thus locked between the “expectation” of its supporters, the BJP’s prospects, Ms. Banerjee’s policies, and national security compulsions, a section of the GJM said that “a truce can be reached” in the form of a committee to examine their demand onGorkhaland with Constitutional experts, and representatives of the government and the GJM. “This may provide an exit route to the GJM,” said a sympathiser close to the party. But will it be acceptable to Umesh Tamang, a taxi driver, whose mother Dhanmaiya Tamang, 68, was arrested for backing the movement?

“No. We want Gorkhaland and would continue to fight for it. If Bimal Gurung backtracks, we will replace him,” he said.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 2:56:45 AM |

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