Setting Sun

Bimal Gurung’s waning political popularity reflects the economic struggles of Gorkhas

People hold flags of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s Bimal Gurung faction during the rally attended by him, at Darjeeling’s Chowk Bazaar locality, on 14 April 2021. Gurung’s rally took place a day after a massive rally in the hill station by the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by several senior party leaders including the union home minister, Amit Shah. Gurung’s GJM would go on to lose all three seats they contested in the Gorkha majority region of West Bengal, highlighting his waning popularity.
Photographs and Text by Nishal Lama
19 May, 2021

On 14 April, after spending three years underground, Bimal Gurung addressed a mammoth gathering in Darjeeling. Gurung is one of the most recognisable faces of the Gorkhaland movement, which has long agitated for a separate state to represent the Nepali-speaking community along the northernmost reaches of West Bengal. He is the founder of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the primary political vehicle of the Gorkhaland movement, and was previously the chairperson of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, an autonomous administration representing Gorkha majority regions. In the recent West Bengal assembly elections—the fifth phase, which included all regions of the GTA, was held on 17 April—Gurung’s GJM suffered a serious loss, losing all three hill seats in the Gorkha majority region to a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party and a breakaway faction of his own party. In the two seats the BJP won, the two factions of the GJM polled higher if their votes were added, indicating that the election was more a loss for Gurung himself rather than the Gorkhaland movement.

In 2017, Gurung led a 104-day bandh calling for the territories of the GTA to be made into a full state. The protest started following the West Bengal government’s decision to make Bengali mandatory in schools across the state. Gurung’s face was omnipresent, urging the protest on through videos on WhatsApp and Facebook that every youth seemed to be watching on their phones. In comparison, his speech on 14 April was a far more toned-down affair. Instead of emotive calls for the creation of state of Gorkhaland, Gurung instead asked for the extension of the GTA to the lowland Terai and Dooars areas, and for the inclusion of 11 tribes under the Scheduled Tribes category.

Biplab Dewan, a former tea-estate worker, at Chowk Bazaar, on 14 April 2021. Dewan has been unemployed for months. He felt that the Gorkha movement needed some kind of permanent solution. Amongst other things, he wished for better roads and infrastructure in his village.

The agitation in 2017 marked the height of Gurung’s popularity in the region. Despite it being the zenith of a nearly-century-old struggle for statehood, even senior members of the GJM told me they were surprised by the crowds of passionate youth that thronged to join the strikes and protests. Acts of wanton violence by the West Bengal police and paramilitaries against protestors, which left 11 Gorkha youth dead, also added to public anger and support for the GJM in the hills.

Bimal Gurung attends a rally at Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling on 14 April 2021. Gurung had been at the forefront of a months-long struggle in 2017 to win statehood for Gorkhaland. He spent the next three years underground. By the time he resurfaced, people in the region had grown deeply disillusioned with the young leader. Gurung also displeased many by hurriedly joining a pre-poll alliance with the All India Trinamool Congress, who many Gorkhas see as responsible for violence against civilians in 2017.

In June 2017, I was in Bengaluru, and news began trickling in about police excesses from my home town, Siliguri. Several friends would call me each day and tell me about their shops being bound shut and long convoys of police and paramilitary vans heading deeper into the hills. Despite this, mainstream media barely covered either the protests or the state violence. Instead, TV screens spoke only of arson and extremist violence. The reports only spoke of vehicles set on fire, flames spreading to police posts and damages to a heritage railway station near Kurseong. Thousands started to hit the streets and yet their hopes, views and anger were barely explained. There also seemed to be radio silence in the national press about how locals were dealing with the lengthening lockdown and spiraling violence. It was to fill this lacuna in the Indian public’s understanding of the aspirations of everyday Gorkhas that I travelled to Darjeeling and Kalimpong.

Former tea-garden workers crush stone near Manebhanjang town, some thirty kilometres away from Darjeeling, on 21 April 2021. Many tea gardens in the region have shut down since 2017, and their workers now have to survive on poorly paid and strenuous jobs like stone crushing. They said that they still aspired for Gorkhaland to get statehood, but have to think about filling their stomachs first.

In Darjeeling town, the schools were closed, the internet shut. ATMs had run out of money, food supplies were dwindling, and there was still no clarity on when life in the hills would reach some semblance of normalcy. Come rain or sunshine, thousands thronged the streets in different parts of the Darjeeling hills. Common people from far-flung areas were spending their hard-earned wages to join these rallies. The chants for Gorkhaland seemed to be coming from every street. I spent close to a month in the hills documenting the movement and how it was affecting the lives of people. With no transport, local NGOs helped me in commuting to far flung villages whose livelihoods had come to a standstill. And yet, the GJM and their agitation seemed to enjoy widespread support.

At the same time, no leader of the GJM I spoke to seemed to have any concrete plan on how to resolve the crisis. A 31-year-old GJM member I spoke to later told me, “It really surprised many of us to see that the demands our leaders were making were quite vague on the inside.” He continued, “Without any proper plan in place the movement would eventually fade away. That’s exactly what happened.” I wondered where the movement was heading and how long the everyday economy of farmers, porters, shopkeepers and the tea garden workers could bear the violence. “The shut-down didn’t affect rich families,” the 31-year-old said. “It was the poor people who were without jobs or money.”

Protestors shouting pro-Gorkhaland slogans in front of policemen and paramilitary forces in Darjeeling, on 1 August 2017, during a lockdown. The widespread support for the 2017 agitation for Gorkhaland’s statehood surprised even the leaders of the GJM. Passionate youth from across the region thronged to join strikes and rallies despite a severe police crackdown.

After 104 days of lockdown, Gurung was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with a grenade attack at Kalimpong Police Station and an explosion in Darjeeling’s Chowk Bazaar, and went underground. Buoyed by its popularity, though, the GJM has thrice supported the BJP in sending representatives to parliament from Darjeeling. But the parachute journalism ended with the crisis. The news faded as the politicians did. Neither the press or leaders of the GJM seemed concerned that the lives of people in Darjeeling were irreparably changed. Over the past four years, I have attempted to document Darjeeling’s daily struggles and aspirations, so animated in 2017, which have now returned to quotidian labour and the economic reality of poverty and underdevelopment. These changes also parallel the dynamic political rise and the decline of Bimal Gurung.

Gurung’s toned-down rhetoric this year runs parallel to his weakening grip over the Gorkha public, following his three-year exile and a shuffling of political alliances in the region. Making his first appearance in October last year, Gurung broke all ties with National Democratic Alliance, saying that BJP-led central government had done little to address their issue and their promises had not been fulfilled. He extended his party’s support to the Trinamool Congress for this year’s assembly elections. While some voters I spoke to welcomed this decision, many felt betrayed, especially after all the human-rights violations that happened in the hills over the past decade, under TMC rule.

GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, on 29 July 2017, in Darjeeling’s Patlebas neighbourhood. Gurung’s meteoric rise from being the captain of a militant outfit to leading the region’s most powerful political party gained him widespread popularity in the Darjeeling hills. His face largely became synonymous with the aspiration of Gorkhaland’s statehood.

The GJM has also been riddled with splits and factionalism that seriously affected its electoral performance. In September 2017, Binay Tamang, then the assistant general secretary of GJM, broke away to create his own party. To complicate things, the Tamang faction chose to fight the assembly elections separately, winning the Kalimpong seat, but splitting votes in both Darjeeling and Kurseong, which led to BJP victories.

The frustration that led to the GJM’s factionalism was something that had pervaded even the most dedicated activists I had met in 2017. The 31-year-old activist told me he had been working with the GJM since his college days. He told me, “For me and most people my age, we always wanted a state to call our own.” He continued, “It had always meant a lot more than a mere administrative change. Gorkhaland meant better jobs, good infrastructure in my village. That is why it mattered to us so deeply.” His opinion of Gurung has since soured. “We were with him,” he said. “Instead, he chose to run away and hide for three years.” Sanjiv Lama, who had been with the GJM since its inception, told me he too was disappointed. “Many of the families of the party members have had harrowing experience because of this. We were on the run for many years after the 2017 movement, leaving our families behind,” Lama said. “There are still party members who are falsely chargesheeted by the police and nobody has come to save them.” He said he still hoped for full statehood, but had lost trust in the GJM. “I withdrew my support from the party last year and now support an independent candidate,” he told me. “The movement is for a bigger cause and one’s self-centric attitude can be very dangerous.”

Volunteers check the pulse of a protestor who had staged a fast-until-death protest in Kalimpong, on 8 August 2017. After 20 days of fasting, his health deteriorated seriously and health officials took him to a hospital.
Manika Thami at Pandam village in Darjeeling district, on 22 February 2019. Thami was arrested during the 2017 protest, and had to take her 2-year-old son with her to prison. She was released on bail after six months but the case against her has not yet been dismissed. She says she had nothing to do with political parties and never took part in any rallies.

During my reporting from Darjeeling this year, it was clear that the BJP had left no stone unturned in gaining ground. With major rallies in Kurseong, Kalimpong and Siliguri, and heavyweights like the home minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the voters, a political shift seemed imminent. However, even the senior leaders of the GJM that I spoke to were shocked at how poor their performance was, with the Bimal faction getting less than 25 percent of the vote-share in all three seats. The BJP’s campaign also squarely ignored any discussion of the demand for statehood for Gorkhaland, which could evidence a fundamental shift in the political aspirations of the people of the region.

Locals read regional newspapers in Kalimpong town, on 7 August 2017. Soon after the movement started to gain momentum in the Darjeeling hills, the West Bengal government shut down the internet, leaving local newspapers as the only source of information in the unfolding crisis. The lockdown during the 2017 agitation brought the entire region’s economy to a halt. Schools were closed, ATMs ran out of money and food supplies were dwindling. Many businesses in the region still have not recovered from the economic shock.
The father of a young Gorkha, photographed in 2017, who was jailed holds up the list of cases his son was charged in after the agitation. There have been many reports of human-rights violations by police and paramilitary forces in the Gorkha region over the years. Human-rights organisations have denounced police aggression and arbitrary arrests that followed the protests.

Amidst the campaigning was the story of thousands who had lost jobs or saw their profits shrink. Of more than 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling ten years ago, only 80 are operational now. Tea-garden workers, among the poorest in the region, have had their lives torn apart. Older workers shifted to work as daily-wage labourers in stone quarries, while much of the younger generation have migrated to work in cities across the country. Despite the tea gardens growing defunct, many still have standing tea plants, which in the right season are plucked by those who lost their jobs, and sold to other companies. Many told me they still yearned for Gorkhaland to get statehood, but had to feed their own families first. The bread winners of at least seven families are still in jail, in connection with cases that followed the 2017 agitation. They now live meal-to-meal, under the burden of a slowing economy and mounting legal fees. Most villages still lack running water, a daily reality that several people told me the BJP or the GJM barely bothered to address in their campaigns. In the past four years, I saw the same families grow sullen—their questions unaddressed, their political dreams overshadowed by economic strife. The hard work of rebuilding villages and feeding communities seemed to have replaced the anger and passion that lit faces in 2017.

“I still support the cause because I believe in it but I am not with any political party anymore,” the 31-year-old told me. “I am trying to spend most of my time with my family and doing working to fix problems in my village.”

Robin Pradhan and his wife, Pramila Pradhan, pose for a portrait on 27 February 2019. They were photographed during a conversation recalling how the local police jailed Robin for more than six months, following the 2017 agitation. The bread winners of at least families are still in jail, in connection with cases that followed the agitation. They now live meal-to-meal, under the burden of a slowing economy and mounting legal fees. Rajesh stopped attending court hearings from December 2020 when he joined Binay Tamang’s faction of the GJM.
Indra Gurung breaks down at her home in Reling village, on 23 February 2020, as she remembers the dreadful day her son, Mahesh Gurung, was shot during a protest rally at Ghoom in 2017. Two others were also killed in police firings at the rally, which had been organised after West Bengal Police raided the residence of Benoy Tamang, then the GJM’s assistant general secretary.
Posters of the protest posted on a shuttered bus booking counter in Darjeeling, on 8 August 2017. The relatively underdeveloped and culturally distinct region has seen a near-century-old struggle for statehood that reached its zenith in 2017.
Satyen Giri, the election coordinator of the GJM’s Bimal Gurung faction, in Darjeeling, on 13 April 2021. Giri was hopeful that his party would win the elections in Darjeeling and the Terai region in the plains. He has been with the party from its inception and has stayed with Gurung even following major factional break-ups in the party. Giri is a long-time member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Sita Gurung, a 61-year-old former tea-garden worker, at the Gauri Shankar tea estate in Kurseong, on 17 April 2021. She said that, similar to other tea-garden workers, her primary concerns in the election were issues of accessibility and water in her village. Both the BJP and GJM recognised this and avoided mentioning statehood in their campaigning.
A poster of the union home minister Amit Shah and Raju Bista, Darjeeling’s member of parliament, during a BJP rally at Lebong Ground in Darjeeling, on 13 April 2021. Even before the polls, it was clear that the BJP had left no stone unturned in gaining ground. With major rallies in Kurseong, Kalimpong and Siliguri, and heavyweights like the home minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the voters, a political shift seemed imminent. Many voters in Darjeeling told me they did not even know the name of the BJP candidate, saying instead that they were voting for Modi and Shah alone.