It is strange that despite past examples of the incendiary potential of linguistic chauvinism, politicians still pursue the same fateful path.
The latest instance of such short-sighted policies is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to make Bengali a compulsory subject from classes I to X in the state. The disastrous fallout of such myopia can be seen in Darjeeling where it has led to the renewal of the demand for a separate state, viz. Gorkhaland, by the Nepali-speaking population of the region.
Although after the agitation started the Chief Minister expressed her willingness not to make the subject compulsory, she did not want to give a written commitment. The result has been that the agitation has led to a virtual shutdown of Darjeeling and adjacent areas, including the tea gardens.
As a person known for her headstrong, compulsive ways rather than for sobriety and cool competence, Mamata Banerjee appears to have run out of ideas about controlling the situation, except for sending more police and paramilitary forces to the area and asking the army to carry out flag marches.
The best course for her would have been to assure the ethnic Nepalis that no language will be imposed on anyone just as Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri assured the Tamilians opposed to Hindi in the 1960s that English will continue as the link language as long as the non-Hindi-speaking people wanted it. But Mamata Banerjee probably feels that such a retreat will make her lose face.
In any event, her decision to play the Bengali card was based on the fear about the inroads which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is supposedly making in West Bengal because of the belief that she is far too indulgent towards the Muslims. Her show of parochialism was aimed, therefore, at retaining her middle class base. But she evidently did not factor in the impact on Darjeeling.
Yet, history tells us how the seeds of separation of the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan/East Bengal from West Pakistan were sown when Mohammed Ali Jinnah declared Urdu as the country’s national language; and how a civil war raged in Sri Lanka when the majority Sinhalese tried to impose their language on the minority Tamils.
It is obvious that the West Bengal government should have handled the language issue with greater care especially when the demand for a separate administrative unit in the Darjeeling area is an old one, going back to 1907 when a hillmen’s association wanted it as a part of the Morley-Minto reforms and raised it again with the Simon Commission in 1930. In 1947, the undivided Communist Party of India submitted a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly, pleading for the formation of a Gorkhasthan made up of Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal.
In more recent times, the issue came to the fore in the mid-1980s when the demand for a separate state was raised by Subhash Ghisingh, but the Chief Minister of the time, Jyoti Basu, managed to defuse the situation by forming an autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. However, after Ghisingh faded away from the scene, a new party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) under his former lieutenant, Bimal Gurung, gained prominence and is currently directing the agitation.
For Bengalis, a second partition of their state poses a veritable nightmare. Having lost two-thirds of undivided Bengal in 1947 to East Pakistan which is now Bangladesh, the loss of Darjeeling, a longstanding holiday destination and the home of prestigious schools, will be a crippling psychological blow. No government or party can accept it.
But statesmanship of high calibre is needed for a solution of a centuries-old demand, which has simmered in an area with Nepali populations constituting the majority in both the Darjeeling area and Sikkim. The Centre’s fear is that conceding Gorkhaland will have a ripple effect with similar other demands such as for Bodoland raising their heads. The case for smaller states may also be reiterated elsewhere in India.
To restore peace in Darjeeling, there is a need for close Centre-state collaboration, which calls for putting aside the present petty games of oneupmanship where the BJP will like to undermine Mamata Banerjee’s influence and the latter will like to keep the “communal” Hindi-speakers at arm’s length.
However, the agitators are not on as strong a wicket as they think. Although the GJM has joined hands with what remains of Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), no one in the hills is unaware of their bitter relations in the past. Only a few weeks ago, the GNLF was an ally of the Trinamool Congress and has now sided with the GJM so as not to let the latter run away with the Gorkhaland demand.
There is little doubt that the two will be at each other’s throats if the movement succeeds. However, the chances of that happening are remote for both the Centre and the state government have ruled out a bifurcation of the state.
The state government is apparently waiting for the agitation to fizzle out because continued disruption of normal life will hurt the region’s economy based on tea and tourism. Sikkim has already expressed its unhappiness over the adverse impact of the agitation on their landlocked state. In the meantime, an assurance on letting the schools in the region choose a language of their choice will help.