Darjeeling has been in turmoil now for almost a fortnight. Since June 8, the tourist town in the hills of West Bengal has seen pitched battles between protestors and security forces, as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the region’s largest Gorkha party, has revived its demand for a separate Nepali-speaking state. The region – dependent on tourism – has seen visitors flee and a near-total shutdown.

With North Bengal’s economy hurt and the law and order situation in a shambles, the Indian Army had to be called in to help the state police. Conventionally, one might think this conflagration might end up harming the Trinamool Congress, which is in power in the state. Yet, ethnic politics in North Bengal is not that simple. In spite of the violence, the Gorkhaland agitation could, in fact, end up helping the Trinamool Congress politically, helping it to push its Bengali identity agenda further.


Bengali identity

Mamata Banerjee has, of late, used Bengali identity in order to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s deployment of Hindu nationalism as it makes inroads into West Bengal. The Trinamool has designed a state emblem and is composing a state song, apparently to assert Bengali culture and mark out the state as distinct from North India, according to a report in the Indian Express.

The chief minister has attacked the BJP for trying to “import an alien culture” into West Bengal. “People here have been worshipping Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga and Kali and others for ages. Here is a party that wants us to worship a particular God,” she said, referring to the BJP’s efforts to organise massive Ram Navami marches. While the BJP has used the symbol of Ram effectively in North India, he is a little-worshipped god among Hindu Bengalis – a point that Banerjee was trying use to her advantage in stirring the pot of Bengali identity.

Her most far reaching move, though, was making the study of Bengali compulsory in the state, mimicking the language nationalism of South India, where such laws have already been passed. It is this move that angered the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the state’s hill areas, leading to violent protests as Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet met in Darjeeling on June 8 (even though, by that time, Banerjee had announced that the Bengali rule would not apply to the hills). The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha complained that the state’s Nepali-speaking hill people were being swamped by Bengali politicians – the party even complained that Banerjee was celebrating Subhash Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary in Darjeeling.


Gorkha-Bengali tensions

This is not the first time Gorkha-Bengali ethnic tensions have acted as a catalyst for Gorkhaland. While the hills are dominated by Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, as the Himalayas give away to Dooars plains, the population fragments ethnically with large numbers of Bengalis and adivasis adding to the mix. In 2007, for example, Siliguri town, situated in the Dooars, saw Gorkha-Bengali riots. Most versions of a future Gorkhaland state, though, include this region, even though Gorkhas are a minority here.

The Gorkha Jamukti Morcha's vision of Gorkhaland includes a great many districts in the Dooars and Terai where Gorkhas are a minority | Credit: Wiki Commons

To add to that, across the state, the idea of dividing West Bengal is a politically charged idea that engenders much emotion. Since 1986 – when the first Gorkhaland movement broke out – the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) made sure to project themselves as the protector of West Bengal’s territorial integrity. In Siliguri, there were reports that the Communists was even sponsoring Bengali ethnic organisations such as Jana Chetana, in order to count the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha on the ground.

Although the Communist Party of India (Marxist) lost power to the Trinamool in 2011, not much changed in the way Kolkata handled the Gorkhas. The Trinamool simply adopted most of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s positions on Gorkhaland, vowing to never let West Bengal be divided. In an overwhelmingly ethnically Bengali state, the demographic appeal of this stand is so great, that any party wishing to be a major electoral player in West Bengal will adopt it by default.


Anti-partition sentiment

This Bengali majoritarian sentiment also means that while the national media has been rather critical of Mamata Banerjee and her handling of the Gorkhaland issue, the press in Bengal, on the other hand, has lined up behind her. On Monday for example, the Bengali-language newspaper Aaj Kal started its report with this damning line: “The dance of death of Bimal Gurung’s forces has resulted in rivers of blood in Darjeeling. In the Uttar Banga Sambad, the Morcha was blamed for attempting to burn a car driver alive.

Similarly, the state’s largest news channel, ABP Ananda, took the line that the Gorkha party was squarely to blame for violence, not bothering to spend too much time critiquing the government’s actions. The channel’s sister publication, the English-language Telegraph instead took the Union government to task. “The Centre’s contrasting responses to the unrests in Kashmir and Darjeeling had come under scrutiny with some security veterans spotting a double standard,” the Telegraph said. “The Centre had pledged to tackle the Kashmir stone-throwers with an iron hand but maintained silence on Darjeeling.”

BJP in a bind

If the Gorkhaland stir will help Banerjee shore up her position on Bengali identity, the BJP’s discomfiture is an added bonus. The BJP has long supported the creation of Gorkhaland – in 2009 senior party leader Sushma Swaraj spoke in the Lok Sabha in favour of carving out a Nepali-speaking state from West Bengal, loftily calling it “an idea whose time has come”. In its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP said it would “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas” if it came to power. This support for Gorkhaland helped the BJP, with Darjeeling electing a BJP Lok Sabha MP since 2009 – a result made possible due to an alliance with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.


Yet, the BJP’s stand has come back to bite it in 2017. In Darjeeling, its district unit has supported the demand for Gorkhaland even as the West Bengal unit has said that its alliance with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha was purely electoral and that they do not endorse the demand for Gorkha statehood. With the BJP making a committed bid to become the main opposition in West Bengal, any pro-Gorkhaland stance could harm its electoral chances significantly. As a result, the BJP has fallen behind the Trinamool in rejecting Gorkhaland, with the Modi government repeatedly honouring her requests for Army and paramilitary forces to quell the protests. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has even gently chided the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha for the violence, suggesting that it enter into talks instead. The BJP’s stand has angered the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, who now accuse the Union government of treating it like “pawns”.

Bengal’s Kashmir

On Monday, West Bengal BJP chief accused the Trinamool of playing ethnic politics. “In the hills, a Nepali-Bengali fight will strengthen the Trinamool in north Bengal, is what Mamata Banerjee thinks,” said Ghosh. “The Trinamool is trying to bring Bengali voters of all parties under its flag. This is why Darjeeling is burning”.

Ghosh is mostly correct here. In effect, Gorkhaland is to Chief Minister Banerjee what Kashmir is to Prime Minister Modi: an issue of great emotional sentiment for a majority of the electorate that provides a fertile ground for the politics of identity. While Modi uses Kashmir to consolidate a Hindu nationalist identity, Banerjee’s stand against Gorkhaland will help her consolidate her Bengali nationalism pitch – which in turn will help her fight the BJP’s progress into Bengal using Hindutva.