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Gorkhas Caught in the Cross-Fire Between the Politics of Hindutva and Bengali Nationalism

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By Sailendra Dewan,

Siliguri: In the 2016 West Bengal assembly election, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the party spearheading the Gorkhaland movement, won three crucial victories in Darjeeling, Kurseong and more importantly Kalimpong assembly seats.

While Mamata-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) swept the entire state of West Bengal, in the district of Darjeeling, no TMC candidate could win a single seat, with the Left Front winning the Siliguri assembly seat with the tacit support from GJM. That was a major point of worry for TMC in an otherwise easy sweep in the elections.

In the same election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to perform to its expectations and live up to the hype created before the elections. It came a disappointing fourth, behind the Congress and the Left, with a meagre three seats in the entire state, one of which was actually a GJM seat in the Dooars offered to the BJP.

This was 2016, just one year after the Bihar assembly election (2015), where the BJP was routed by a coalition called the Mahagatbandhan. With the BJP losing badly in the earlier Delhi assembly election of 2015 too, there was a widespread thinking after the West Bengal assembly election that the Modi wave of 2014 was gone. BJP had to act fast as it was seen sliding back into its old state of stupor.

Then came the defining Uttar Pradesh assembly election of 2017. With a strong no-holds-barred Hindutva platform, BJP swept the UP election with a brutal majority. BJP was back with a bang and so was Hindutva politics. It now knew that to win the rest of India, it cannot hide behind developmental politics.

It had to use Hindutva as its first issue. That policy was put into action in West Bengal where there is a sizeable Muslim population, many of whom have migrated from Bangladesh in recent years and decades. Within a few months, news of communal flare-ups started to trickle into the national media and soon it was a full-fledged conflict. Mamata was projected as a Muslim sympathizer and anti-Hindu. The state politics was rapidly shifting to a religious one.

Now, it was the turn of Mamata to panic. She is well aware that religious sentiments run deep in India, and West Bengal too. She knows that if she is drawn into a battle of communal politics, she will be the loser as she has Muslim supporters and her party has some top Muslim leaders.

She had to bring another sentimental issue to counter the BJP’s Hindutva in this fight and that she decided was to be Bengali nationalism, rooted in the expression of pride in the history and cultural, linguistic, intellectual and revolutionary heritage of Bengal.

That was her objective when her party announced that Bengali language would be made compulsory in all schools throughout the state, including Darjeeling hills and areas of North Bengal where the Gorkhas, who speak Nepali and who don’t study Bengali in schools, live.

Bengali is de facto a compulsory language in almost every part of West Bengal as a first or second language in schools, except the Darjeeling hills. If this law was brought into force, it would be specifically targetting the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, who had been supporting the BJP to achieve their state of Gorkhaland within India.

Mamata and her think-tank were very well aware that their announcement would cause massive unrest in the Darjeeling hills and the Gorkhas would launch another uprising against Bengal and possibly for Gorkhaland. And that happened as expected.

Now, the BJP is a caught in a bind. It has made promises to the Gorkhas who have elected its MPs to the Lok Sabha twice from Darjeeling constituency. The current MP from Darjeeling is a central minister. BJP has an “Ebar Bangla” (Next Bengal) mission to capture power in West Bengal.

It has devised a three-stage rise to power in West Bengal: (1) Quarterfinal – win maximum number of seats in the West Bengal Panchayat elections due in 2018; (2) Semifinal – win the maximum number of seats from West Bengal in the Lok Sabha elections due in 2019; and (3) Final – win the West Bengal assembly election in 2021. With the Gorkhaland movement gathering steam each passing day, not only in Darjeeling but all over India and the world where the Gorkhas live, Bengali nationalism, which doesn’t approve of Darjeeling hills separating from West Bengal, has again raised its voice and the support for Mamata is back in full force. She is seen as a Bengali nationalist and BJP is in danger of being seen as trying to divide West Bengal.

In this battle for power in West Bengal, the Gorkhas are the huge losers. Mamata will never consider the Gorkhas as her own and the BJP has started to distance itself from the Gorkhaland demand, fearing a Bengali backlash that could destroy its chances of gaining power in West Bengal. BJP’s Hindutva and TMC’s Bengali nationalism politics have caught the innocent Gorkhas in a terrible cross-fire. Only the coming days will tell how the Gorkhas, a hardy community, will come out of this battle.

Will the Gorkhas salvage something from this movement that both BJP and TMC are trying to subdue, something that they have craved for generations- a Gorkhaland state? Let us pray that the Gorkhas get what they have set out to achieve.

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