The recent agitations in Darjeeling were part of a decades-long Gorkhaland movement that has appeared in the northern part of West Bengal state many times. The agitation was said to have stemmed from an announcement by West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee that Bengali should be a compulsory subject from Class 1 to 10 in the state.
For more than a century, the hills of North Bengal, known as the District of Darjeeling, have been occupied by mostly Nepali-speaking peoples, who are of tribal Himalayan ethnicities with a different culture from the local Bengalis. These people have been demanding a separate state within India for the past 110 years. They have gained momentum with various rallies, strikes and other demonstrations of unrest.
The recent action attracted attention and support from several parts of the world, including Hong Kong and London.
These people now call themselves Indian Gorkhas and are demanding a integral state of their own – Gorkhaland. This is a departure from calling themselves “Indian Nepalis”, which they were known as from the late 19th century until the Gorkhaland Movement was launched in Darjeeling in 1988.
Looking back at the district’s history can help the outside world understand the current situation.
1907: The demand for a separate administrative unit in Darjeeling was raised for the first time. The Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum to the Minto-Morley Reforms Commission demanding a separate administrative setup.
The association was headed by the Reverend Ganga Prasad Pradhan, Paras Mani Pradhan and others, representing the Nepali, Bhutia and Lepcha (Nebula) nationalities of the Darjeeling Hills.
1917: The Hillmen’s Association submitted a memorandum to the Bengal government and the viceroy of British India seeking the creation of a separate administrative unit comprising Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts.
1929: The Hillmen’s Association again raised the demand before the Simon Commission.
1930: A joint petition was submitted by the Hillmen’s Association, the Gorkha Officers’ Association and the Kurseong Gorkha Library to the government of India demanding separation from the province of Bengal.
1941: The Hillmen’s Association, under its president Rup Narayan Sinha, a prominent lawyer and litterateur of Darjeeling, urged the government of India to exclude Darjeeling from Bengal and make it a Chief Commissioner’s Province.
1947: India gained its independence from Britain. The still-undivided Communist Party of India submitted a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly demanding the formation of Gorkhasthan comprising Darjeeling District and Sikkim.
1952: The president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, N B Gurung, met India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and demanded the separation of Darjeeling from Bengal.
1980: Pranta Parishad of Darjeeling president Indra Bahadur Rai, a prominent civic leader and literary figure, wrote to prime minister Indira Gandhi demanding the formation of a new state in Darjeeling. At the same time, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) was floated by Subash Ghisingh.
1986: The GNLF launched a violent agitation for Gorkhaland. The violence claimed 1,200 lives.
1988: The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Accord was signed by the GNLF, the Left Front government of West Bengal headed by chief minister Jyoti Basu, and the central Indian government under prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
1992: Nepali was included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution as one of the 18 or so national languages of India.
2005: A memorandum of understanding was signed by the central government in New Delhi, the Left Front government of West Bengal, and Subash Ghisingh for a special status for the Darjeeling Hills under Sixth Schedule status as per the national constitution.
2007: The political party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) was floated by Bimal Gurung.
2008: Subash Ghisingh was ousted from the Hills and started living in the town of Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.
2010: All India Gorkha League leader Madan Tamang was publicly murdered in Darjeeling. He had supported the creation of Gorkhaland but was opposed to Bimal Gurung as its new leader.
2011: Three GJM supporters were killed by police gunfire at Sipchu in the Dooars plains. Violent agitation started. The Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) was formed the same year.
2012: The first GTA elections took place, and the GJM swept the polls.
2015: Bimal Gurung, chief executive of the GTA, was charged with murder, conspiracy to murder, and rioting with deadly weapons in the Madan Tamang case.
2017: Fresh agitation started in the Hills during West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit. This time, the GJM strongly opposed the state government’s decision to make the study of Bengali mandatory in schools.
(Special thanks to Tanmay Chatterjee, who compiled the timeline, and Peter J Karthak, a veteran journalist, for helping in communications.)
Unity of Gorkhaland tribes
Despite its long struggle, not to mention all the sacrifices of blood and lives, the movement has still not been able to achieve its ultimate goal of statehood for Gorkhaland. It may be time to put all differences aside, come together and unite as one, including such marginalized societies as the ancient and indigenous Lepchas or Rongs, and go for the final goal.
Until that unity is achieved, the dark clouds of political uncertainties and social unrest will continue hovering over the hills of beautiful Darjeeling, and the aspiration for Gorkhaland as an Indian state will not be fulfilled any time soon.