In August, the Gorkhaland protests in Darjeeling entered their third month. They had begun in mid June, after fears spread that the state government would make the study of Bengali compulsory for school students in West Bengal, including in the Nepali-speaking areas administered by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, or the GTA. After an initial protest directed specifically against the move, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, or GJM—the political party that controls the GTA—expanded the scope of the agitations by reviving a demand that has its roots in the twentieth century: that a slice of the northern part of West Bengal, including the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, be carved out into the separate state of Gorkhaland.
Over the following weeks, thousands of protestors took to the streets, disrupting normal life. Some attacked vehicles and property, and clashed with the police. The protests were led by the GJM’s controversial chief, Bimal Gurung, who, in media reports, was frequently described as the face of the separatist movement, and the region’s unchallenged mass leader. The protests themselves were described as an expression of popular sentiment.
To a large extent, this is true. The dream of Gorkhaland is shared by many Nepali-speakers in India, including many of Darjeeling’s local members of the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress, which officially opposes the demand. But a closer look at the history of the movement, and the parties that have led it, reveals a more nuanced picture.
Movements need to be organised, usually by groups that can coordinate between people, represent specific interests and negotiate with the state. This organisational groundwork ensures that movements’ visions remain intact. In the Gorkhaland agitation, this work has been done by regional political parties. And the course of the movement over the years suggests that though the parties do represent a popular sentiment, what serves the leaders is not the achievement of Gorkhaland itself, but rather keeping its demand alive.
The first party to lead the movement, in the 1980s, was Subhash Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front, or GNLF. The agitations soon took a violent turn, and the party’s supporters repeatedly clashed with the cadres of the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). Over the course of that decade, at least 1,200 people were killed in the violence, and nightmarish memories of raids, rapes and beheaded bodies still haunt many residents of Darjeeling.