Supporters of the Gorkha Peoples Liberation Front take part in a rally. Photo AFP
Supporters of the Gorkha Peoples Liberation Front take part in a rally. Photo AFP

A political storm is brewing in the tea-producing northern hill districts of India’s West Bengal state.

Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, who form the majority in Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and neighboring regions, have revived calls for a separate state called Gorkhaland.

The immediate cause of the stir, which began on Monday, was the state government’s decision to introduce the Bengali language in schools up to Class 10 for Gorkhas who remain ethnically and culturally different from local Bengalis. Hill schools currently teach Nepali, Hindi and English.

After beginning their agitations in peaceful fashion, protesters ransacked a public works department office in Darjeeling and tried to set an office block ablaze at Phul bazaar.

Events gathered steam  on Tuesday, with six hill parties – led by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) – joining forces to fight for Gorkhaland. This will be a setback for the state’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, and her Trinamool Congress party.

On Tuesday, police baton-charged about 1,500 GJM protesters at a rally in Darjeeling. GJM accuses Mamata of playing divisive politics and suppressing Gorkhaland for her own political interest.

As the language dispute hots up, GJM has appealed to authorities to put up sign boards in Nepali and English. GJM leader Bimal Gurung has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to consider the Gorkhas’ demands and hold talks. He wants Mamata to back off so that the federal government can resolve the issue amicably.

Mamata says Bengal cannot suffer the pain of yet another partition. It was partitioned during the British Raj, in 1905, and during the partition of India, in 1947. She has urged people to ignore Gorkha protests and attend work. Authorities registered “normal” attendance on Monday, after employees were warned absences would be treated as a break in service.

Debate over smaller states

The revival of Gorkha agitation reignites debate over the rationale behind calls for the creation of smaller Indian states along linguistic, administrative and economic lines.

After violent protests, Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh, in southern India, in 2013.

Earlier, similar demands in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh led to the creation of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand states respectively in 2000.

Bodo tribes in the north-eastern state of Assam are seeking a separate Bodoland. They defend their struggle by claiming the federal government previously promised them statehood.

Meanwhile, the backward Vidarbha region in eastern Maharashtra, which has faced perennial floods and droughts and has a high rate of suicide among farmers, is also seeking statehood.

The agitation for smaller states originates from the failures of successive governments at state and federal levels to bring development to backward regions in larger states. Neglected regions argue statehood would increase democratic representation and allow for better administration and development.

Historically, Gorkhas have some claim over the territories in question – they captured Sikkim and north-eastern regions, including Darjeeling, in 1780, before surrendering to the British in 1816.

Their calls for autonomy in West Bengal began in 1907 and turned into a struggle in the early 1980s under the leadership of Gorkha National Liberation Front leader Subhas Ghising. Over 1,000 people were killed in protests in the late 1980s.

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