Darjeeling presents a picture of tranquility; there's no way one can make out that the long-suffering people of the picturesque hills are involved in a desperate but totally non-violent agitation for a separate state. There are many tourists--as is usual at this time of the year--who've escaped to this cool 'Queen of Hill Stations' from the searing heat in the plains and hotels, curio shops, taxi operators, restaurateurs and stalls selling woolen garments are doing brisk business. The inflow of money is spawning smiles, but one can't really miss the sadness in the eyes of the hills people. Sadness caused by years of neglect, discrimination and step-motherly treatment they've been subjected to by those who rule over them from Writers' Building in Kolkata.
This abject neglect of the Darjeeling hills is evident from the one moment one starts the climb up to the hills. The roads are a mess and it's evident they've seen no repair works for many years. People living in small hamlets by the roadside cook and wash with water flowing through small streams, many don't have electricity and the rate of unemployment is very high, much more than that of the rest of Bengal. But the smiles never leave the faces of the people; much like their small, neat cottages that present a happy picture with begonias and pansies in joyful blossom on the widow sills and balconies. Darjeeling town has been allowed to become a concrete jungle, with acute water shortage, unplanned constructions, potholed roads and a general air of official apathy that hangs heavy over the still-beautiful town, much like the mist and fog.
The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland (within the framework of the Indian Constitution, a point that's missed or conveniently ignored by many) is nothing new. It first began in the 1980s and was led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front with the quixotic, but popular, Subhas Ghising at its helm. The GNLF, after a few years of spirited and, at times, violent agitation--which, to its immense credit, was totally non-communal and did not result in plains people residing in the hills being targeted even covertly--settled for regional autonomy and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) was formed in 1988 with Ghising as its Chairman. Ghising (an impulsive, impractical and mercurial person with too many idiosyncrasies even at the best of times), lorded over the hills uninterruptedly for nearly two decades but failed his simple, down-to-earth and impressionable people.
The Marxist government of Bengal found in Ghising a convenient tool to rule the hills by proxy and continue with its official policy of gross neglect, lack of concern and discrimination against the hill people. The rulers in Kolkata winked at the massive corruption, nepotism, misgovernance and wastage of funds by the DGHC under Ghising. It seemed the CPI(M) was happy that Ghising was doing exactly as it had always wanted: to take the hill people for a ride. But unforeseen developments saw a disgraceful end to Ghising's rule. It was because of Kolkata's acquiescence to, or suspected complicity with, Ghising's misrule that the people of the hills are once again demanding a separate state. Had Kolkata cared for the people of the hills, it would have removed Ghising a long time ago and ensured that the DGHC functions properly to meet their aspirations.
A unique and glorious feature of the earlier Gorkhaland agitation, and of the current one as well, is that it was (and is) non-violent and non-sectarian. There were no attacks on people from the plains and, in fact, many became torch-bearers of the agitation. Like my friend Sandip Jain of Kalimpong, who headed the GNLF's youth wing in the turbulent 1980s and is now the Editor of Himalayan Times. Contrary to general belief in the plains, no non-Nepali was ever attacked or discriminated against in any manner during the earlier Gorkhaland agitation. Even now, when the agitation is again gaining momentum, visitors from the rest of Bengal and the world are perhaps safer in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong or any other corner of the hills than many other parts of the country, including Kolkata. Yes, during the earlier Gorkhaland agitation, many non-Nepali speaking people who had been residing in the hills for many decades sold their properties and shifted, but they did so not because they were driven out. They shifted because they could not put up with the climate of unrest and uncertainty that the agitation brought. Today, many of them (and I know quite a few) regret having left the hills. They still look at Darjeeling, or Ghoom, or Kurseong (or wherever) their hometown and return every year to reconnect with their roots.
In light of all this, the statement made by urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya (also the CPI-M strongman in North Bengal) asking tourists to keep away from the Darjeeling hills is reprehensible, to say the least. Bhattacharya said earlier this week it would not be safe for tourists to visit the Darjeeling Hills and suggested tourists from the plains could be targeted by the agitating masses in the hills. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Just two days before he made this mischievous and repulsive comment, I was in Darjeeling and found the people there to be their usual courteous, welcoming and helpful selves. If anything, they were more so and went out of their way to make me, and every other visitor there, feel at home. Not for a nanosecond did I feel unwelcome or unsafe.
Bhattacharya's statement must be condemned, and treated with the utter contempt that it deserves. People ought to continue going to the hills to enjoy not only the salubrious clime and the breathtaking scenery, but also the unparalleled hospitality of the people of the hills. Darjeeling hills are, and I'm sure will continue to be, a treat for our eyes and also our souls. Bimal Gurung, the leader of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha that is spearheading the current agitation, has rightly countered Bhattacharya's statement by assuring that the Morcha will ensure the safety of each and every visitor to the hills. The
minister, by making that vile statement, was only trying to cripple the tourist-dependant economy of the hills and turn the people of the hills against the GJM--if tourists stop going to the hills because of the agitation, Bhattacharya must have inferred, the people of the hills would turn against the Morcha. This alone shows the disconnect between the rulers in Kolkata and their subjects in the
hills--the people of the hills would rather bear the temporary inconveniences of an agitation for a separate state that'll yield a lot of benefits to them than suffer any more neglect, apathy and discrimination.
Apart from the step-motherly treatment that the hills have been subjected to all these decades, there is little that the people of the hills have in common with the rest of Bengal. Their language, culture, social norms, religious practices, ethos and temperament is totally different from the Bengali who rules over them. Bengal earns huge sums of money from the Darjeeling hills by way of tourism and tea. Very little of that is ploughed back to the hills for the benefit of its people. A separate Gorkhaland state would be much more viable, financially, than even Bengal.
Seminal studies have been conducted, including a brilliant one by Dr Mahendra P.Lama, the Vice-Chancellor of the new Sikkim University, which prove beyond doubt that a state of Gorkhaland within the Indian Union would be a viable and revenue-surplus state. For decades, tea companies headquartered in Kolkata have been siphoning off their profits from the gardens and it is high time the tea companies ploughed back their profits into the economy of the hills. This can only happen when Gorkhaland is formed. Many hotels in Darjeeling are run by people in Kolkata and this yields little benefit to the people of the hills. Rulers and bureaucrats in Kolkata can never understand and appreciate the disposition of the hills people and dynamics of that region. Darjeeling hills cannot be governed in the same manner as, say, Dinajpur.
The CPI(M) has launched a scurrilous and vile disinformation campaign against the GJM and the ongoing Gorkhaland agitation. I got a taste of it while on my way back from Darjeeling the other day. I happened to have a chat with a resident of Siliguri (Asok Bhattacharya's fief) at that town's Bagdogra airport. He painted a dark picture of the Gorkhaland agitation and the agitators--they had migrated from Nepal, he said, over the past 150 years or so and will kill and maim to achieve a separate state that they'll ultimately merge with Nepal! Bristling with anger, I asked the man when had he migrated to Siliguri from Bangladesh and if the Koch-Rajbongshis (who've also been agitating for a separate Kamtapur state) weren't the original inhabitants of the whole of North Bengal till hordes of people from Bangladesh--almost all illegal migrants--reduced them to a minority in their own land? He was taken aback and meekly mumbled later on that he had crossed over into India and settled down in Siliguri less than three decades ago.
These illegal migrants from Bangladesh, settled comfortably in North Bengal (all over Bengal, in fact) under the patronage of the CPI(M), now pose as patriots and defenders of India's territorial integrity. Such people would do well to remind themselves that Gorkhas (or Nepali-speaking people) have shed far more blood for India than most other communities, including Bengalis. The state
police--the CPI(M)'s foot-soldiers, no more--should also remember this before brutally assaulting Nepali ex-servicemen, as they shamelessly did a few weeks back at Siliguri. Those ex-servicemen had done far more for India than the Bengal police can ever hope or aspire to do.
Unfortunately, very few people in the plains, including Kolkata, display the courage to defend the democratic rights of the people of the hills. For weeks now, the state administration has been denying permission to the GJM to hold rallies in Siliguri. Overt and covert attempts are being made to crush their agitation. On Friday, GJM activists were beaten up mercilessly by DYFI and CPI(M) goons at Siliguri, perhaps also to provoke a backlash from the GJM that can lead to a divide between Gorkhas and non-Gorkhas.
A couple of hours after this planned attack on GJM activists at Siliguri, I happened to be attending a press meet organized by human rights activists, intellectuals and artistes at the Kolkata Press Club and requested a prominent painter and a celebrated theatre personality who were on the dais to also condemn the state's attempts to deny the GJM its democratic right to protest by staging hunger-strikes, demonstrations and rallies peacefully. To my utter dismay, they declined to say anything on this and made an officious statement that my request would be "looked into". And these are the very people who so vociferously protest the CPI(M)-led government's throttling of voices of the people. Such double standards expose the vacuous character of these so-called intellectuals. The only silver lining on Friday was a rally taken out by the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) in Siliguri condemning the attack on GJM cadres and supporting their right to stage peaceful protests.
It is imperative for the GJM and its leaders to garner support from not just the hills, but civil society in Kolkata and Delhi, for their agitation. Thanks to the CPI(M)'s disinformation campaign, many view the Gorkhaland agitation with suspicion and see it as a separatist movement. The GJM leaders and prominent individuals from the hills ought to hold seminars and press conferences in Kolkata and allay apprehensions and fears and set the record straight--that carving out a separate state of Gorkhaland would be to everyone's (except the parochial Bengali's) benefit.