Over the last week, violence has broken out in the town of Darjeeling and the surrounding Kalimpong Hills. The municipality lies within the Indian state of West Bengal, where India Gorkhas have long proposed a separate state of Gorkhaland, citing their linguistic and cultural differences with Bengali culture. A mass movement for the state took place with the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in the 1980s and has been revived by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which broke away from the GNLF. Then in 2011, a tripartite agreement was reached between the Centre, the state, and the separatists to try and reduce tensions, and they settled for an autonomous administrative council, the GTA (Gorkhaland Territorial Administration), instead of full statehood. However, the conflict has flared up again following the introduction of the Bengali language into schools, while Nepali is the official language of the area.
The agitation began on June 8 and then increased on June 12 when a sponsored GJM shutdown of government offices began, while 10 activists were detained for taking part in arson. But separatist anger overflowed on June 2017, when police raided the homes and offices of the GJM, apparently killing three members (although this has been denied by the police). The violence escalated on June 17 into large scale rioting and arson attacks, where almost 50 people (mostly police) were injured and another man was killed. The GJM party carried the bodies of their killed supporters and threw petrol bombs, stones, and bottles at the security forces, who retaliated with teargas and batons. Troops were later sent in to restore order, both in Darjeeling and surrounding hills, in significant numbers. Meanwhile, internet services in the area were shut down to prevent GJM activists from using social media to spread messages.
Hundreds then took to the street on June 18 to protest ‘police atrocities.’ Bimal Gurung, the leader of the GJM, said that the struggle would continue and there would be trouble if the police continued to intervene. With that said, the risk of further violence is likely. For example, the GJM leadership is planning to revive the Gorkhaland Personnel (GLP), its ‘peace-keeping’ wing with a force 8,000 strong. Initially set up in 2009 with nearly 3,000 youths, the GLP enforced a series of bandhs and enforced traditional Nephali culture. It was intended that they would become a police force after the creation of Gorkhaland, but they took a backseat when the GJM formed the GTA instead.
The violence is a significant blow to the crucial tourism industry within the region as thousands have been asked to leave Darjeeling, with police and troops escorting them to safer zones. The West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, condemned the conflict and said there was a ‘deep-rooted conspiracy’ taking place with links to terrorism or foreign intervention. She added that the violence was taking place as the GJM’s time in the GTA was coming to an end. However, Gurung has said that “the state government fooled us through the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). We have had enough.”
Rajnath Singh, India’s Minister of Home Affairs, has called for peace, saying “in a democracy like India, resorting to violence would never help in finding a solution…every issue can be resolved through mutual dialogue.” Nonetheless, the GRM, who are insisting that security forces be withdrawn, are calling on the Centre to issue talks and have said that, because of its manifesto, it expects the ruling, Bharatiya Janata Party, to be sympathetic to the idea of a Gorkhaland state. Meanwhile, Mamata had offered to hold a dialogue if the GJM cancels the shutdown, which has impacted the tourist industry. It seems the potential for conflict negotiation is possible, providing that the Centre is willing to intervene as an honest broker. In determining a new solution, the failures of the GTA to keep peace must be investigated.