A shattered peace: On Darjeeling hills unrest

Peace in West Bengal’s Darjeeling hills has been shattered again, with the key hill party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, renewing its demand for a separate Gorkhaland state. The protests started with the suspicion that Bengali would be made mandatory in the hills, but have spiralled into a broad-based ‘indefinite’ agitation with the GJM targeting symbols of the state and ordering closure of all government offices from June 12. In May, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced that all students would have to study Bengali from Class I, but later clarified that it would not be compulsory in the hill district of Darjeeling. The GJM, which had lost the Mirik municipal election to the Trinamool Congress in May, appeared to hear only one part of the language decree, and announced a host of marches and shutdowns. When Ms. Banerjee arrived in Darjeeling with her ministers for a meeting on ‘development’ last week, she was greeted with protests and stone-pelting of a kind not seen since 2013. The Army was called out, and Ms. Banerjee stayed put in Darjeeling till she thought a semblance of normality had returned. With May and June constituting the peak tourist season, the GJM has, for now, kept hotels, shops and transport facilities outside the purview of the shutdown. It is the peak season for the Darjeeling tea too, with the second flush harvesting on. This eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation spells fresh trouble for a region that depends on tourism and tea for its survival.

If the first day of the indefinite bandh was more or less peaceful, it was thanks to the heavy military presence and the stringent measures announced against those who supported it, including a possible break in service for employees missing work. For their part, GJM leaders Bimal Gurung and Roshan Giri want the Centre to intervene. When the TMC came to power in 2011 after 34 years of Left rule, the GJM had agreed to the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration after three years of violence in the hills. Mr. Gurung, who had set up the GJM in 2007 with the sole agenda of separation from West Bengal, became its chief executive, saying he would take the Gorkhaland demand to Delhi and refrain from shutdowns in the hills. But with the TMC making inroads in the hills, the GJM clearly feels its wings are being clipped, especially with the government setting up several development boards of ethnic communities and further weakening the hill party. Watching from the sidelines is the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is keen to expand its base in the State. GJM leaders are in touch with BJP president Amit Shah, but the Modi government has not yet spelt out its stand on Gorkhaland. While the State government must be firm and quick to quell cries for the formation of a separate state in the border region, the GJM should tread carefully as a spiral of violence hurts hill-dwellers the most.

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 11:26:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/a-shattered-peace/article19032971.ece

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