Violent turn

Print edition : August 04, 2017
Four more die in police firing in Darjeeling as the agitation for Gorkhaland intensifies.

THE situation in the strife-torn Darjeeling hills further deteriorated when four more protesters were killed, taking the death toll to seven in the past one month. Since June 8, the region has been on the boil, with the renewal of the violent agitation for a separate State of Gorkhaland. On the night of July 7, three weeks after the declaration of an indefinite shutdown in the hills, Tashi Bhutia, a resident of Sonada and a member of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), was shot dead, allegedly by security forces, when he ventured out to buy medicines for his brother. The incident triggered a violent reaction, further intensifying the protest movement.

On July 8, angry mobs went on the rampage, torching public property, including the toy train station at Sonada and a local police station, and attacking the offices of the ruling Trinamool Congress, the office of the superintendent of police, and the building that housed the Department of Food and Civil Supplies.

This was one of the most violent outbursts since a total bandh was declared in the Darjeeling hills on June 15 by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the single most powerful political force in the hills. Two more protesters, Suraj Bhushal and Samir Gurung, were killed allegedly in police firing, in separate incidents. Ashok Tamang, who was seriously wounded in the police firing on that day, succumbed to his injuries on July 11. Three weeks earlier, on June 17, three protesters were killed when the police allegedly opened fire. That incident propelled the Gorkhaland movement to a point of no return and the hills descended into political chaos.

This is the first time since the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988 during the tenure of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government that the Gorkhaland agitation has taken such a bloody turn. Before the setting up of the DGHC, between the years 1986 and 1988, more than 1,000 people were killed in the struggle for separate Statehood, spearheaded at that time by the GNLF led by Subash Ghising. Subsequently, the GJM ousted the GNLF to take control of the hills.

“The situation now is very volatile here. Anything can happen any time. There have been seven deaths so far. It was a clear case of police brutality in which innocent, unarmed Indian citizens who were Gorkhaland supporters were murdered in unprovoked incidents of shooting,” Niraj Zimba, a GNLF leader, told Frontline.

After the DGHC was replaced by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) in 2011, a fragile peace prevailed in the hills. That came to an end in June this year with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to make Bengali a compulsory language of study in all the schools in the State. The GJM’s protest meetings against the move snowballed into a violent movement, with a renewed call for separate Statehood after the police raided the house-cum-party office of GJM chief Bimal Gurung on June 15. The Gorkhaland movement under the GJM today has the support of all the major hill parties. On June 29, a 30-member Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee (GMCC) was set up with representation from all the hill parties.

However, after nearly a month of continuous bandh and constant clashes between the police and the protesters, both the State government and the GJM need a way out of the impasse. According to informed sources, the GJM leadership is fast running out of ideas to take the agitation forward, particularly since both the Trinamool Congress in the State and the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre have made it categorically clear that they are opposed to the idea of the formation of a separate State of Gorkhaland. At the same time, the passions of the masses have been roused to such an extent that any compromise on the issue of Gorkhaland will be rejected outright.

“The situation is such that we can do without food and basic amenities, but we will not accept anything less than Gorkhaland. [The ongoing] strike is not an issue here. People here are immune to bandhs. We had 40 days and 40 nights of complete shutdown in 1986 during the agitation for Gorkhaland. For us, Gorkhaland is more important than our hunger and our difficulties,” said Zimba.

In what is being interpreted in political circles as an act of desperation, the GJM brought the GMCC meeting forward to July 11 from the scheduled date of July 18 to decide a course of action. “There has been a growing feeling among the people that the movement lacks a sense of direction and that the leadership is clueless about how to take it forward,” said a political source in Darjeeling. At the July 11 meeting, the parties decided on a “fast unto death” agitation. “From July 15 onwards, one leader of each political party will go on a fast unto death. The indefinite bandh in the hills will also continue,” said Roshan Giri, general secretary of the GJM.

Mamata Banerjee said on July 8 that she was agreeable to talks with the leaders of the hill parties once order was restored in the region. However, the leaders of the movement have no intention of talking to the State government. “We heard that the Chief Minister was ready to hold talks if peace and normality returned to the hills, but I believe none of the political parties want to talk to the State government. Since Independence we have been talking to the State governments but nothing has come of these talks. Now talks will be held only with the Centre, provided the Centre holds the talks on the single-point agenda of Gorkhaland,” said Zimba.