(This piece was first published on 19 June 2021 and has been updated based on recent political developments in the West Bengal BJP with regard to statehood demands by their leaders for the state's North Bengal and Junglemahal regions.)
At first glance, Riya Tamang looks like any other teenage girl. She is dressed in a simple jeans and tee, but manages to make it look like high-fashion. When this reporter met her, at a Maggi and chai shop next to a rock-climbing spot in Darjeeling, Riya was sitting at the cash counter, carefully straightening her hair, ensuring that her green and purple highlights gain the prominence they deserve.
Nineteen-year-old Riya lost her father, a municipal official, in 2017 when massive violence broke out in the Darjeeling hills, resurfacing an almost century-long demand of the Gorkha people in the region – that of a separate Gorkha state – Gorkhaland. Since then, Riya, whose parents had separated earlier, became the sole breadwinner of her family, consisting of her 15-year-old brother and 82-year-old grandmother. The need for money made her drop out of school and move to Mumbai where she now works at a salon. Riya admits that she doesn't understand politics at all. What she does understand, however, is that the only place she feels safe is in the hills, with "her people", who don't call her "Manipuri" or "chinky" or "momo" like the ones in Mumbai. Or even Kolkata.
Riya Tamang's is one of the many families in the hills that have lost either a loved one, or their livelihood, or both in the struggle for Gorkhaland.
This is probably why, as many criticised Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP John Barla for raising the issue of North Bengal as an union territory, those in the hills, which voted overwhelmingly for the saffron party, welcomed it.
BJP's Demand for North Bengal & TMC's Response
In June, Barla, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from North Bengal's Alipurduar, spoke about the need for North Bengal to become a separate union territory, suggesting that the area be carved out of the existing state of West Bengal.
Barla is one of the four MPs from North Bengal, and was thereafter made Minister of State (MoS) in the Narendra Modi cabinet.
"I made the demand as there have been movements here for a separate Kamtapur, a greater Cooch Behar and for Gorkhaland. My belief is that North Bengal should be detached and made into a separate union territory", Barla had then said to news agency PTI.
His demand has been backed by the BJP MP from Jalpaiguri, Jayanta Roy.
At the time Barla made the statement, however, both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which runs the Bengal government, had slammed the idea.
Thereafter, BJP leaders from Bengal's Jungelamhal, a tribal, Adivasi-dominated area, have demanded a separate state for that region as well.
Bengal BJP President Dilip Ghosh had said that Barla's position was not the party's "official" position.
"I want to make it clear that the BJP has no such agenda to divide Bengal or create a different state," he had said to reporters around that time, as many on social media criticised his party for trying the break up the state.
Three months later, however, Ghosh seems to have changed his mind. He now says that it was the TMC's "misrule" that led to these statehood demands.
“Today, if people in Junglemahal and north Bengal want separate states then Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will have to take responsibility… The situation is the same in Junglemahal. Why do women there have to sell sal leaves for two square meals a day? Why do people from there go to Jharkhand, Odisha, and Gujarat for work? Now if people have made such demands [for separate states] then it is not unjust," Ghosh said on Sunday, 22 August, according to a report by The Indian Express.
His statement was, however, contested by senior Bengal BJP leader Rahul Sinha, who said that such "conspiracies" should "not be entertained".
"Rabindranath Tagore had started Raksha Bandhan to protest against the partition of Bengal. Since then, the occasion has had historical and cultural values. It has political and geographical significance as the occasion was celebrated to keep people and the province united. A conspiracy to divide Bengal must not be entertained. There is no question of dividing the state as there is no such issue. There is also no national or state-level policy to divide the state. Our party too has no stand to divide the state. Bengal will remain as it is today," said Sinha reacting to Ghosh's statement, reported The Indian Express.
The TMC, on the other hand, contested the idea on the lines that a union territory has "lesser power and privileges" than a state.
"They should be ashamed after their humiliating loss in the elections but, instead, they are trying to divide Bengal. In whose interest are they trying to split Bengal?" TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had said in June.
"I will not allow anyone to divide Bengal. UT means being at the mercy of New Delhi and losing all freedom. But I will not allow North Bengal or any other part of Bengal to lose its freedom and become dependent on New Delhi," she had further added.
However, in the Darjeeling hills, which has rejected the TMC time and again, the people feel that autonomy or being governed by the Union is a far better alternative than being ruled by the state of Bengal – a state which they say has consistently “othered” them.
Gorkhaland, North Bengal & Regional Autonomy
While many in Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal prefer to think of North Bengal as one homogeneous group, the region has various different linguistic, cultural and social groups that have demanded an autonomous state for themselves over the years.
While the Gorkhas in Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars have demanded a separate Gorkhaland, others like the Koch-Rajbongshis in Cooch Behar and Alipurduar have demanded for a separate state of Kamtapur. Other groups have earlier demanded for a separate Cooch Behar state.
However, apart from the Gorkhaland movement, the other demands for autonomous states have largely petered out.
Gorkhaland, on the other hand, remains as emotive an issue as ever.
"People make the mistake of saying that Gorkhaland is an issue that started after 1947. The Gorkhas have been living here for years before that. After Independence, political boundaries were drawn on our land and we were alienated from the politics", says Ashish Bhandari, a professor in Darjeeling.
"Even today, people will call us and our language "Nepali". When you can understand the difference between East and West Bengal, Punjab in India and Punjab in Pakistan, why is it so difficult to understand this?" he adds.
Political analysts in the hills feel that no matter what, the politics in the area can never be dissociated from the demand for Gorkhaland.
The results of the recently concluded West Bengal elections attest to that. While the TMC came back to power with an overwhelming majority, North Bengal and the hills did not help in the mandate. And while many have spoken about what went right for the TMC, there is not been much conversation about what was probably its biggest flop – the induction of Bimal Gurung.
Gurung, a leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and a long-time proponent of Gorkhaland, had been underground since the 2017 violence and consequent 104-day strike in the Darjeeling hills. Since then the GJM has split into two – one faction led by Gurung and the other by GJM leader Binay Tamang. While Tamang aligned with the TMC soon after the strike ended, Gurung, wanted by the TMC government, extended his support to the BJP.
Until November 2020, that is, when he suddenly surfaced in Kolkata and pledged his support to Mamata Banerjee and the TMC.
Gurung's Betrayal & Scars of 2017
With Gurung's support, the BJP managed to win in the hills in the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and other smaller elections. Between Gurung and Tamang, it was clear that the former had exponentially more mass appeal because he was seen as the last of their leader fighting tooth and nail for Gorkhaland.
His sudden U-turn and alliance with the TMC, of which he was once the biggest critic, therefore left the people of the hills disappointed and feeling betrayed.
As many said that the TMC's 'coup' would help them make gains in the hills, those in the hills thought differently.
In a way, many in Darjeeling told The Quint, Gurung's support meant that the bloody 104 days in 2017, a product of Gurung's mass mobilisation, has come to mean nothing. Something that did not work well for the TMC given that memories of 2017, when the West Bengal government (run by the party) came down heavily on the people of the hills, are still fresh in everyone's minds.
"In 2017, we had a very confusing diktat from the Bengal government asserting that Bengali would have to be taught in every school. Language is a part of our identity and a very emotive issue. People saw the undermining of their language as undermining their identity itself. But when the protests started, the government said that it was not "official", recalls Bhandari.
He further recalls that on the day the protests turned violent in the hills, the Bengal cabinet met at the governor's house in Darjeeling and held a discussion for all of 15 minutes.
"The people were angry. What kind of policy stalemate can be fixed in 15 minutes? A lot of people had gathered and the police soon started a baton charge," says Bhandari.
"This baton charge led to more skirmishes in different places and police soon opened fire."
During the long strike that followed, internet and all forms of communication were cut off in the hills.
“It was like war time,” says Bhandari. “We had no way to know what was being said and no way to tell the world what we wanted to say. It was like a pressure cooker whose vent had been shut. The pressure grew and grew and soon spilt over.”
The strike was called off after the TMC government negotiated with the Tamang faction, but while people welcomed the normalcy, they were largely not in agreement with the movement and blood loss amounting to nothing.
At the time Gurung had said that he will "fight unto death" for a separate Gorkha state, as several Gorkha intellectuals, singers, filmmakers, and poets registered their protest by returning awards received from the state government.
At least five people were reported dead in the violence and several were injured, some of them suffering permanent damage to their bodies.
A Lifetime of Neglect & Persecution
Evenings in Darjeeling is when the famous Mall Road is teeming with young residents sitting around in groups, some jamming on their guitars and others busting some mean hip-hop moves.
When asked about the politics in the region, most of these young people said that they didn't understand much. However, all of them were acutely aware of their identities as Gorkhas. An awareness that has formed from their lived experiences and that of their ancestors.
On one corner of the Mall Road, a group of young boys stood around chatting. None of them wanted to be named but all of them shared tales of racism and neglect which they said makes them long for some respect, if nothing else.
"Why do people like you guys call us Nepali?" said one of the boys.
"My mother had COVID and I took her down to Siliguri for treatment. As I tried to find a mode of transport there, a bunch of boys pointed at us and said, "Look look, chinky". This, when they could see my mother in a stretcher. Is this the first time they've seen someone like me?" asked another.
Another boy in the group, more philosophical than the rest, said that the "struggles" of the youth of Darjeeling are different.
"We are not rich. There's barely any means to make money here. My father has always had to work outside. The solitary life pushed him to alcoholism. When he came back, he continued and my mother separated from him. I haven't spoken to him in years. My education is sponsored by my grandmother's pension," he said.
"I know you'll judge if you see someone doing drugs here. We do this because there's no other way to live life here," he added.
At the end of the conversation, the boys revealed that they were all between 21 and 23 years old. All of them were still studying in the 10th grade.
The educated, more aware youngsters, however, believe that its time they take the development of their home into their own hands. One such youth organisation is Mukh Bandh, Kaam Shuru (MBKS) that aims to be a platform for the unheard youngsters to express themselves. These youngsters too recognise that lack of opportunities in the hills have led many disadvantaged youngsters to waste their lives on drugs and other forms of substance abuse.
"Everything is an issue in Darjeeling. Health, education, infrastructure, waste management. Everything needs work," says Suprabhat Sewa, a youngster in the city.
"People have also been psychologically damaged. I have personally seen the 2014 and 2017 Gorkhaland agitations. Politicians have always seen this struggle as a means to an end. But for us it's a mass struggle. It dates back to before independence," he adds.
He further states that he doesn't think that a separate state will quell racism against his people.
“They will call us chowmein even if we get Gorkhaland. But the least the government can do is respect our language and our culture. At least that way we’ll know that administratively we are given acceptance if not socially.”
"We don't have a good college here even though we have so many elite boarding schools. Since independence, the people here have felt that we haven't got independence. Our people feel that the reigns have just been transferred from the British to the Indian government. We can't write in our language, learn in our language. There's a feeling of alienation from the state government itself. The Bengal government has always been a second mother to us," says Rahul Pradhan, another youngster at MBKS.
For others like Upendra M Pradhan, the struggle for Gorkhaland has meant a life wherein he can't speak or live with his family. Upendra, a journalist, runs a news portal called Darjeeling Chronicles and has been underground since 2017.
Both Darjeeling Chronicles and Upendra himself have multiple First Information Reports (FIRs) filed against them for their coverage of the Gorkhaland movement.
"People like us in Darjeeling are used to midnight knocks by the Bengal police and other authorities. When the FIR was filed against me, my parents were very worried. I was also worried that they'd be targetted because of me. It is then that I decided to leave home and go underground," says Upendra.
"There was a death in my family. Before the dead body could reach home, the police reached there with a summon for me. My family asked me to not attend the last rites. They were worried about what will happen to me in the police custody. This is like living in Russia or Nazi Germany. And over what? A few social media posts?" he adds.
Upendra's cousin, Ashish M Pradhan, says that he too was threatened and persecuted in a bid to get to him. As a professor, he also talks about students who were implicated in false cases during the 2017 agitation.
"The demand for statehood is also a demand for control over our resources. We have not received our due share of development, whereas we contribute massively to the state exchequer. For 70 years, we don't have an educational infrastructure or healthcare infrastructure. There's literally one big government hospital in Siliguri and that caters to six districts of North Bengal, and Sikkim as well", says Pradhan.
The lack of medical infrastructure is something personal to Riya Tamang who had to make her way to one hospital after another with her father's bullet-ridden body.
"I don't know politics, but I wish there was something for me to do here. If my father were alive, I'd have studied further and become an airhostess. Now I don't care what I do, but I don't want to go back to Mumbai," she says.
"Wahaan sab bohot gandi nazar se mujhe dekhtein hain."
The jury is out on whether Barla's demand is a way to quell the criticism that the BJP has been receiving from the people in North Bengal for not standing up for them after the TMC's win. But that may also open the BJP to attacks from TMC that the party is trying to divide Bengal and make it go through another "partition," which is an emotive issue for most Bengalis.
But in North Bengal, though, there is one sentiment only – they are sick of being played around with for political gains.