By Vipin Pubby
Back in the 1980s, when electronic media was still in its infancy, page one of newspapers inevitably carried daily death toll from each of the trouble-torn regions – Punjab, Gorkhaland agitation in northern parts of West Bengal, Bodo agitation in Assam and the Naxalite violence mainly in south-western states.
While the news of human toll from all the affected areas was depressing, the open pitched battles between the security forces and local people in Darjeeling and its adjoining areas, stood out. The popular, though violent, movement under the leadership of Subash Ghising led Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) engulfed the hill areas and led to much arson and damage to public property besides over 1200 deaths.
Ghising, who died recently after protracted illness, finally called off the Gorkhaland agitation following talks with the Centre and the then Left Front West Bengal government. The agreement led to a comprise formula of creation of the autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. However, not all were happy with the arrangement, and there was palpable simmering resentment which briefly revived the agitation in 2007. Grant of more powers and formation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) helped contain the agitation but it led to the emergence of a leader, Bimal Gurung, who had so far remained in the shadows of Ghising.
Gurung was perhaps waiting for a spark to take advantage of the sentiments brewing against perceived attempts by Bengalis to dominate the hill areas. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had been making frequent visits to the area and her party, Trinamool Congress, recently succeeded in winning its first seat in local municipal elections from Mirik.
The victory against Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) may have added to the growing resentment against alleged attempts to extend influence in the hill areas which have a dominant population of Gorkhas. But the spark which has lit the current spell of agitation is the mindless proposal of imposition of Bengali language from Class 1 in the schools in the Nepali-speaking Gorkha hill region. This was perhaps the last straw.
West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee made an announcement that Bangla would be made mandatory from Class 1 sparked off angry protests. The chief minister later sought to clarify that study of Bengali was not compulsory but the agitation is fast getting out of government’s control with reportedly four deaths in police firing – even as the state government is denying that the victims fell to Police bullets.
Mamata Banerjee, a veteran of many such battles headed by her, should have known better. Imposition of culture, including language, on any minority is bound to have an adverse impact. She has now taken the plea that the agitation was being ‘fuelled’ by external forces and has claimed that Gurung has support from insurgent groups in the north east as well. Calling agitators as ‘goons’ she has declared that she would not allow any “division of Bengal”. The hardening of stand from both the sides could be muscle flexing but given the volatile history of the region, it is not the last we are hearing from that area.
For Mamata, it is a lesson that imposition of culture or language is not the best way to expand her area of influence. It is also a lesson to the Bharatiya Janata Party which is also treading a similar dangerous path in other areas. Besides seeking to force Hindutva down the throats of citizens by making protection of cow as its main agenda, the ruling coalition at the Centre is ignoring the rainbow of diversity in the country. Though Mamata’s TMC and the BJP are at the two ends of political fulcrum, the lessons to be learnt by both are the same.