Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Separatist protests in Darjeeling drive tourists away from holiday hill town

Agitations began in Darjeeling and surrounding areas last month after the West Bengal state government made Bengali language courses mandatory in schools in May. The order revived the demand by the Nepali-speaking Gorkha community in and around Darjeeling for a separate state of Gorkhaland

Supporters of the Gorkhaland movement hold brooms and chant slogans during a protest at Sukna village in Darjeeling district of India's West Bengal state on July 14, 2017. Diptendu Dutta / AFP
Supporters of the Gorkhaland movement hold brooms and chant slogans during a protest at Sukna village in Darjeeling district of India's West Bengal state on July 14, 2017. Diptendu Dutta / AFP

The summer months are usually peak tourist season in Darjeeling, a charming Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas where people find relief from the heat of the plains. This year though, Darjeeling has been roiled by more than a month of separatist protests and violence that has left seven people dead, dozens injured, and caused millions of rupees' worth of destruction to public property.

Agitations began in Darjeeling and surrounding areas last month after the West Bengal state government made Bengali language courses mandatory in schools in May. The order revived the demand by the Nepali-speaking Gorkha community, who form the majority of the population in and around Darjeeling, for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

The century-old Gorkhaland movement has flared up sporadically ever since the Hillman’s Association, a Gorkha community organisation, called for a separate administrative unit for the region in 1907. But in all this time, only two periods of sustained protest have been longer than the current span: a 40-day strike in 1988 and a 44-day strike in 2013.

This summer, workers in the region's renowned tea plantations have downed tools and local businesses have shuttered in support of the cause. Every day, hundreds of people gather for rallies, marching through the town’s narrow streets, shouting slogans and holding placards. They have invariably clashed with local police and the 1,100 paramilitary troops who were rushed to Darjeeling by the national government in New Delhi to try to maintain order.

In some instances, the security forces have used live fire on protesters, killing seven and injuring dozens more. The demonstrators, meanwhile, have set government vehicles and offices on fire.

The state government has responded by cutting off internet services in Darjeeling and blocking local television channels, leaving only Bengali channels on the air.

Meanwhile, Darjeeling has emptied of tourists.

“In July, ordinarily, I’d be taking people on trips into the tea gardens around Darjeeling, making a little bit of money,” said Raj Tamang, who works as an independent tour guide in the summer months while taking on odd jobs throughout the year.

“Not this year, though. This year, I walk to a rally, and then I go back home. It’s unusually quiet, but it feels like Darjeeling is going through an important time.”

Bimal Gurung, the head of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), a political party that champions a Gorkhaland state, warned on Saturday last week that the protests will turn “terrible”.

“It will be a decisive battle for our independence,” Mr Gurung said. “If I need to shed my blood, I am ready to do that, but the fight will go on till Gorkhaland is achieved.”

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state, has expressed willingness to talk to the agitating parties but has not referred directly to the language issue that triggered this bout of protests. She has also hinted that she suspects neighbouring China of interfering in Darjeeling and stoking the agitations.

“Maoists from a neighbouring country have infiltrated into the area and are going to target government officials working in the hills,” Ms Banerjee’s government declared in an affidavit filed with the Calcutta High Court on Friday. The vandalism of the protesters has caused losses to state and private property of at least 3.5 billion rupees (Dh199.7 million), the affidavit added.

The protests look certain to continue indefinitely, driven in part by public outrage, but also in part by politics, said Arun Kanti Jana, a political scientist at the University of North Bengal in Darjeeling.

“The language issue has always been a part of the Gorkhaland agitation, but not in as major a way,” Dr Jana told The National. “Bengali has always been taught in the hills, but it has been optional. Nepali or English have been the medium of instruction.”

Another order issued in May by the West Bengal government, that the local administration in Darjeeling provide more exhaustive audits of its expenditure, is not an unreasonable one, Dr Jana added. “But the Gorkhaland parties have been hostile to that kind of internal auditing. They see it as a loss of autonomy.”

All this coincided with Mr Gurung’s GJM party, which has long spearheaded the Gorkhaland movement, suffering a minor electoral setback in mid-May. In local elections, the party dominated in three out of four municipalities — Darjeeling and three nearby towns — but it was forced into a minority in the fourth, Mirik. Ms Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party won six out of nine wards in that municipality.

Since then, the party has been apprehensive about a decline in its popularity, Dr Jana said.

“It looked like other parties were making inroads into this region, so the GJM was searching for an issue to solidify its support and to rally people behind it,” he added.

“It’s true that the chief minister made a great mistake with this imposition of Bengali. But it was ideal for the GJM, and it has been very successful in mobilising people against” the state government.