A well-known holiday spot, Darjeeling is today in the throes of unrest with the struggle for Gorkhaland growing in the face of Bengal’s new proposal to make Bengali compulsory for all. Now, all forms of communication, including the Internet, have been cut off in the hill station. People who hail from the area and work in Bengaluru are a worried lot as they try to reach their friends and relatives back home, especially as stories abound of security forces grabbing young men for interrogation. Priyam Chhetri and Aksheev Thakur report.
It may be the go to place for honeymooners and holidaymakers, but the beautiful hill station of Darjeeling, nestling in the Lesser Himalayas in West Bengal, is today echoing with the demand for Gorkhaland. While it's not new, the demand has been renewed with some vigour of late, cutting off all communication between the hills with the rest of India for almost a week now, and sending relatives and friends in Bengaluru of those in the thick of the unrest into a frenzy of worry.
With the government clamping down on local new channels and other forms of communication, many had used the Internet to reach their loved ones. But now this connection too has been severed, leaving several young people in the city nervous about their parents and siblings back home, particularly as stories of security forces grabbing young men are making their way down from the hills.
“It was the only way that our people were reaching out to the rest of the country and telling their side of the story. But now every form of communication has been cut off in Darjeeling. It is like an Emergency,” deplores Mr Siddharth Bhitrikoty from Darjeeling, who works with HSBC in the city.
“We are not being allowed to share our stories,” protests Mr Rahul Pradhan, a techie in the city, who hails from Siliguri. “It is clear that the government doesn’t want the truth to come out. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is trying to contain the situation by forcefully cutting off communication with the outside world and trying to make the issue look smaller than it really is. She may be trying to keep her party’s hold over Darjeeling, but it could boomerang on her,” he warns
Those hailing from the picturesque hill station in Bengaluru, claim there is chaos in the town as young boys are being taken away from their homes and beaten on the streets and people are threatened by goons door to door. “They come to each door at night to look for men in our households and take them and beat them in the name of inspection and questioning. We have no weapons, so what are they looking for? They threaten our families, leaving us no choice but to hide,” says Mr Pranay Kharga, who works in a restaurant in Koramangala. He reveals that people from the town have begun spending their nights in the forests nearby to avoid such “inspection.” “After an early dinner, they lock up their houses and take shelter in the forests,” he says.
Maintaining that some of the weapons found in the home of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha chief, Bimal Gurung residence were not only old, but also traditionally used in festivals and tribal dance forms, Ms Nikita, who works in a beauty salon in Indiranagar says, “They are bows and arrows. Who fights guns with those? The weapons found were old and rusted as the pictures clearly show. They are a part of our culture and tradition and CM Banerjee doesn’t know the difference!”
Referring to reports that unarmed Gorkha protestors, who were only using stones to defend themselves, were shot point blank by the CRPF, Colonel PC Dhanraj, who served in the Indian Army for 10 years, leading counter insurgencies in Manipur, says usually shots are fired in the air to create an effect and not to kill. “If this is true, then it should be strongly condemned! The Gorkha community’s contribution to the Indian Army, to the independence of the country and even to the British Army is indisputable,” he notes.
Meanwhile, an order issued by Mr Many Kumar, Additional Chief Secretary, Home and Hill Affairs Department, West Bengal, says the Internet connection will be restored on Tuesday and explains that it was was removed temporarily in the interest of “public safety.”
Minority communities defend gorkha cause
Bengaluru's Gorkha community is planning three protests in the city shortly in support of Gorkhaland even as Darjeeling and its surroundings remain on the boil, with schools, colleges and markets declared closed indefinitely and the hill station's famous toy train, a Unesco World Heritage site, deserted. People are refusing to open shop even when threatened, says Mr Dipendra Mukhia from the town.
“This isn’t a political party protest. Even when threatened and beaten, people are refusing to give in. Why would they put their lives on the line if they didn’t believe in this? It is a people’s movement,” he maintains, claiming there is anger and resentment over Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee's proposed introduction of Bengali as a compulsory language as the community fears it could be the first towards erasing their identity.
Muslims, Adivasis, Marwaris, Rajbangshis and Biharis, who have lived in the hills for generations, are strongly identifying with the Gorkhas and have joined the protests, according to Mr Sailendra Dewan, who works with an e-commerce firm in the city.
“Their support has been crucial for the longest period of time and they have been with the cause just as much as we have. In fact, there are GJM heads from these communities in various parts of Darjeeling, Mirik, Kalimpong and Kurseong. I hail from Mirik and our head there is a Marwari who sees himself as a Gorkha. Generations of their families have grown up with us and lived in our culture. They have been our brothers in arms. Imposition of Bengali is something they too are against,” he says. Meanwhile, visitors from Karnataka to the hills are having a hard time returning. Take Bengalurean, Sumit Sreenath, whose family is stranded in Jaigon, Dooars because of the unrest. “They went on a business trip to the hills as my dad works in the hardware trade. They are safe, but are not able to return home to Bengaluru. The protests are just starting in Dooars and it is only a matter of time before it envelops Salbari, Salugara, Siliguri and the surrounding areas of Darjeeling,” Mr Sreenath notes worriedly.
Their support has been crucial for the longest period of time and they have been with the cause just as much as we have. In fact, there are GJM heads from these communities in various parts of Darjeeling, Mirik, Kalimpong and Kurseong
—Sailendra Dewan e-commerce employee
They come door- to -door at night to look for men and take them and beat them in the name of inspection and questioning. We have no weapons, so what are they looking for? They threaten our families and so we have no choice but to hide.
–Pranay Kharga,Restaurant employee in Bengaluru
It was the only way that our people had of reaching out to the rest of the country and telling their side of the story. But now all forms of communication have been cut off in Darjeeling. It is like an Emergency.
–Siddharth Bhitrikoty, Hails from Darjeeling, works at HSBC, Bengaluru
Timeline of events
‘GJM-BJP alliance cause for hope’
Q&A Rahul Chamling president, NEP Foundation
In the 1980s nearly 1,500 people died in the struggle for Gorkhaland. What is the situation now?
The struggle did not begin in the early 80s. The issue is 110-years-old. We are fighting for our identity and in order to achieve this the Gurkhas are ready to give up their lives. The issue has intensified after the Bengal government decided to impose Bengali on us. We have a different culture and different language and we want to retain both.
Is the GJM just trying to draw political mileage from this struggle?
It is every individual’s responsibility to fight for this cause. There is nothing political about it. However, many political parties are coming onboard to support us. Mr Bimal Gurung is capable of leading the struggle and we have no doubt about it.
Despite being a bonafide Indian citizen, people call you ‘Nepali’. Does it bother you?
Yes, it does. We have taken part in making India and our community has contributed to the Indian armed forces. It is really sad that we are forced to come out on the streets to demand our rights. We are just saying that our identity needs to be protected. Imposition of anything not related to our culture is unacceptable.
The then Union Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh in 2014 said that the BJP is not serious about Gorkhaland. Has the changed now?
Mr Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister has said, “The problem of Gorkhas is our problem.” So we are expecting the central government to intervene. The issue is old and should be resolved now. Gorkha Janmukti Morcha being in alliance with the BJP makes us hopeful.