Changing contours of the Darjeeling agitation

It is important to recognise how the current stir has a dynamic different from those of the past

July 17, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 06:12 pm IST

The changing contours of the stir for a separate Gorkhaland state that has gripped the hills of Darjeeling, and what is now the fledgling district of Kalimpong, is in striking contrast to previous agitations in the region. This has impacted the very dynamics of popular support for the agitation, the strike now having entered its fifth week. So far the stir has claimed at least seven lives. Having renewed the statehood call, it is now the leadership of a political conglomerate, comprising disparate groups, spearheading the agitation which appears to be under pressure from their foot soldiers to come clean with an action plan without compromising the Gorkhaland demand.

Issue of credibility

Fresh in public memory is how many leaders have played the Gorkhaland card for self-aggrandisement. And as if to allay any misgivings over their intent, a “fast-unto-death” programme has been announced by senior leaders, giving a new twist to the turn of events.

At stake is their credibility even as the common refrain of the rank and file is that they should not settle for autonomous bodies as was the case in the past. The protracted agitations of 1986-88 had culminated in the setting up of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) only to be subsequently wound up and lead to the establishment, in 2012, of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). The GTA, which has survived agitations since its inception, is now tottering. The argument bandied about among the movement’s supporters is that neither lived up to expectations raised in the course of the respective campaigns. Though the sponsors of the agitation publicly vow that there will be no climbdown, the question is whether this is a bargaining counter.


It has also been decided that the agitation will continue indefinitely. But what has added to collective anxiety is the ban on Internet services. This move by the authorities, initiated shortly after the strike in mid-June, is purportedly designed to pre-empt those spearheading the agitation from canvassing for public support. This has led to widespread resentment, which is being tapped into by the movement.

In the face of such odds, what is discernible is a sense of growing exasperation among the people with the powers that be on outstanding political issues. There are distinct signs of a growing restiveness that find expression whenever processions in support of the Gorkhaland demand have been brought out, with those from surrounding “kamans” and “bastis” (villages) joining ranks with the townspeople. On at least two occasions, children too have been drawn in, and the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights has taken up issue. As in past agitations, the call for a “boycott” of those declining to participate or supporting the cause looms large.

At the political level, there are the fractious relations between the major players: the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and its allies sponsoring the movement, the West Bengal government and the Centre. Whether the GJM will be able to carry forward the ongoing agitation without its momentum waning, as happened in the past, only time will tell. But jettisoning the statehood demand could cost it its support base. As for the State government, a division of West Bengal is not an option as things stand, whoever may be in power. Such are the apparent irreconcilables in a region where the statehood issue seems set, at least for some time to come, to continue being the principal axis around which hill politics revolves.

Sikkim’s stand

Sikkim also appears to have positioned itself in the emerging political configuration. Though it has long been clear where the sympathies of Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling lie in the scheme of things, his open support to the Gorkhaland cause by making public a letter dated June 20 to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has created ripples, and come as a shot in the arm for the GJM and its partners. Not only has West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress expressed suspicions about the hand of the Bharatiya Janata Party, an electoral ally of the GJM, in the goings-on but it has also alleged that the agitation is being backed by insurgent groups as well as some foreign influences.


What makes Mr. Chamling’s announcement intriguing is its timing. His landlocked State’s lifeline to the rest of the country passes through the hills. And like the Darjeeling hills, Sikkim too has begun suffering the fallout, beginning with disruptions in essential supplies.

There is also little doubting that the statehood movement enjoys considerable support among the people in Sikkim, particularly the Nepali community. This has prompted political observers to wonder whether the developments are a manifestation of a larger pan-Nepali phenomenon with its own set of dynamics in a geopolitically sensitive region. The hills of north Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal share common borders; the last two share borders with China.

Amid the growing unrest and political turmoil, what is clear is that gone are the times of grandstanding by the principal players. Viewing the situation through the wrong end of the telescope, wherever they may be positioned, cannot facilitate any solution to the crisis. The need for a fresh interrogation of the unfolding reality cannot be more urgent.

Marcus Dam is a Kolkata-based journalist. E-mail:

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