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The Gorkhaland Movement and Indian Politics

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The Darjeeling Hills featured prominently in headlines around India this week, as the Gorkhaland statehood movement reached new levels of intensity. An explosion in Chowkbazaar in Darjeeling, followed by a grenade attack on a police station in the nearby town of Kalimpong, suggested the situation was spiralling out of control. But an aspect of the story that is less commonly discussed in the media, is an emerging division within the movement between the predominantly rural supporters of the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and a newer cadre of urban middle class activists who oppose the GJM’s leadership. This division highlights some of the major tensions in Indian regional politics today.

The struggle for a separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ in the Darjeeling hills is several decades old. The region currently sits in the state of West Bengal, but its local population is predominantly Nepali and do not speak Bengali. The demand for a separate state for Indian Nepalis relates to a range of economic and cultural grievances. Perceived neglect of the region by the West Bengal government, local resentment of being forced to be fluent in Bengali to be eligible for government jobs in the plains of West Bengal as well as a need to preserve the region’s unique Nepali cultural identity are major drivers of the movement.

There have been several waves in the Gorkhaland movement – most notably, in the late 1980s, when the entire Darjeeling Hills were thrown into violence as the movement became militant. More recently, large scale agitations have occurred in 2007 and again in 2013.

In June 2017, however, the movement reached a level of intensity not seen since the 1980s. Prompted by the West Bengal government’s attempts to introduce Bengali into Darjeeling’s schools, large sections of the population took to the streets to demand, once again, that the Central Government approve the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland immediately. Further fuel was added to the fire by the fatal shooting of three young men who were involved in initial protests, allegedly by West Bengal police. Since then, a further five protestors have been killed during clashes with police. Furthermore, the government has enforced a ban on mobile internet services since June 20 in an effort to stifle the movement.

One interesting but rarely discussed feature of the current wave of the Gorkhaland movement is its class composition – particularly the participation of Darjeeling’s urban middle classes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Gorkhaland movement was led by the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) of Subhash Ghisingh, but was later supplanted by the Gorkhaland Janamukti Morcha (GJM) of Bimal Gurung. For both of these political outfits – but especially the GJM – much of the leadership of the movement came from people with rural backgrounds in the villages and tea gardens that surround Darjeeling.

In the current wave of protests, support has been far more broad-based, with urban middle class youth passionately promoting their case for Gorkhaland using social media and other methods. At least in the early stages, there were promising expressions of unity between the rural base of the movement and the movement’s new urban middle-class supporters.  It didn’t take long however for these expressions of unity to break down. Within a few days of the high mark of the movement, the GJM’s leader Bimal Gurung announced that the GJM would be taking the demands for Gorkhaland forward alone – not in conjunction with other groups. Some sources suggest this was due to rumours that other factions of the Gorkhaland movement were attempting to usurp the leadership role of the GJM within the movement. Then, when the GJM’s spokesperson Roshan Giri appeared on national television to defend the Gorkhaland cause, he was met with severe derision – predominantly from the movement’s urban middle class supporters, who were critical of Giri’s highly inarticulate interview performance. Several prominent Darjeeling-based Facebook pages made it clear that they felt the Gorkhaland movement needed more intelligent and educated leadership than the GJM was able to provide.

The urban middle class of Darjeeling has continued to be highly critical of the GJM on social media throughout the course of the movement, highlighting the destructive social and economic impacts of ongoing strikes, the crass comments of GJM leadership and their apparent failure to achieve their goal of a separate state. (1)

For me, the breakdown of unity within the movement has not been surprising. It is a sign of the deep political, ethnic and class antagonisms that mark the region.

Between 2013 and 2014, I spent four months in Darjeeling, as a research associate on an ARC Discovery project led by Tim Scrase, Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase and Mario Rutten. Amongst other things, the project explored attitudes of the urban middle classes to changes occurring in the town. We found widespread resentment among many of our urban middle class informants to the rural leadership of the GJM. People complained about their violent, authoritarian and nepotistic tendencies.

Repeated strikes, which had become a core strategy of the GNLF and GJM, were also taking a toll on the economy.

There was a strong sense that the movement for Gorkhaland, for which there was general support, had been taken over by rural ‘goons’. Many of their charges were accurate: Darjeeling has been marked by violence and instability for several decades as a result of the GJM and GNLF’s activities and the GJM’s leader, Bimal Gurung, lacks basic education. Yet, the GJM (as the GNLF before it) had also done much work to improve the quality of life of people living in the rural parts of Darjeeling – particularly through the construction of roads and providing rural job opportunities. The middle class resentment of the GJM partly reflects a deeper social antagonism: a fear of the upward economic mobility and political privileges that an increasingly assertive rural underclass were gaining (see Brown, Ganguly-Scrase & Scrase, 2016).

In many ways, these somewhat paradoxical sentiments reflect broader tendencies in Indian politics today. In recent decades, historically underprivileged communities have gained increased electoral representation. Particularly at the local and state levels of government, the poor have consolidated their voting power and have much greater influence. Yet, there is also a backlash to this from the urban middle class. They express feelings of being fed up with uneducated political leaders with rustic backgrounds, mired in identity politics, corruption, patronage and violence – all quite legitimate concerns. Yet, underlying these concerns is also a deep-seated fear of the erosion of the historical privileges of the middle class and the upward mobility of the ‘other’.

The demands of India’s urban middle classes for more responsible, transparent, impartial and non-violent politics are of course legitimate and should be encouraged. Yet, if they are unable to recognise and incorporate the equally legitimate demands of the urban and rural poor for political representation and upward social mobility, then they are unlikely to make much headway.