Mahesh Gurung was shot on his forehead. He died instantly leaving behind his ageing parents, his wife and an infant son. He was 26 years old. A catapult and 2 rotis were found in his knapsack. He was a Gorkha; not a terrorist; fighting for Gorkhaland; with a catapult against bullets. Six bullet holes in the pillar where he had taken position (with a catapult) proves that the CRPF men were a lousy shot but had fired with the intent to kill. Two more were killed on that fateful day. One had his intestines gutted out while the other lay bleeding beside a water tank.
This happened in Darjeeling, on 17th June 2017. A ‘Dandi March’ had been called by the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM) in protest against the raid and vandalism by the police and CRPF at GJMM’s chief Bimal Gurungs’ house. Some agricultural equipment, cash and a fancy cross bow were seized from his residence. The administration was quick to label them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and the GJMM as a terrorist outfit in cahoots with underground militant groups of the Northeast. It was supposed to be a peaceful protest march, a ‘Dandi March’ till Patlaybas- Bimal Gurung’s fortress. Had the police not intervened and allowed the procession to move on, things might have turned out differently. Instead, the police first lathi-charged the procession, consisting mostly of women, then tear gassed them and opened lethal fire.
The state administration has incredulously denied opening fire by their men in uniform which was being telecast live by several news channels. The Chief Minister, instead of condoning the killings and offering condolence, came up with a hackneyed plot – GJMM men shooting each other in order to malign the West Bengal government. Post firing, the CRPF men went on a rampage, entering and vandalizing the houses of the locals and making sure that the cars parked on the streets were ‘allowed to breathe’ by shattering their windshields.
The unanticipated deaths and grievous injury suffered by the protestors (and the police) naturally provided more fodder to the movement for Gorkhaland. The indefinite strike, which had already been announced the previous day, had now become indefinitely indefinite. The Army was deployed. The very next day, hundreds and thousands poured in on the streets throughout the hills. There was palpable grief and simmering anger at the funeral processions of those killed in the police firings. Thankfully, the administration had learnt its lesson. The gigantic mass of the funeral procession was allowed to go through and since then no incident of violence has taken place.
Rallies demanding the formation of Gorkhaland are being taken out every day in the hills. Leaders, barring a few, are conspicuously absent. The contiguous areas of the Dooars have also joined the bandwagon. A total shutdown is being observed in the hills since the 17th. Kids with no schools to go to, play the whole day on the streets and parents multitask between attending rallies and scouring for food and essential items. The total shutdown called by the GJMM was appended by the state government by suspending all internet and data services indefinitely. The Chief Minister’s rhetoric of development and peace for the hills seems to have taken a beating while the GJMM is poised for yet another phase in the movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland.
Amidst all these, what are the experiences that can be discerned? Firstly, the idea of Gorkhaland that hinges upon the concept of identity is still very much strong. Secondly, the forceful imposition of the Bengali language upon the Nepali speaking population of the hills has once again stoked the fire of a separate state. Thirdly, developmental largesse takes a back seat vis-a-vis the identity crisis being perceived by the Gorkha population. Fourthly, simple folks, armed with just a catapult (and 2 rotis) are willing to take on the might of the state reminiscent of a David versus Goliath duel.
And what are the lessons for the Chief Minister here? She should not ride roughshod over the sentiments of the hill population. Bengal’s hegemony is already well entrenched in the hills but there are still small spaces of ‘life chances’ in quotidian lives of the hill people. These ‘life chances’ should not be usurped. Having said that, she certainly need not fret much and should continue to entertain us with her style of politics due to two basic reasons; Firstly, the present turmoil in the hills is not immune to the sociological logic of protest movements. Public attention over an issue does not remain focused over a long period of time and she should probably wait till the Presidential elections are over. Secondly, history is proof that Gorkha leaders are extremely malleable and very responsive to fine tuning. Hence, given a little bit of persuasion and coercion, the hills will “smile again” for Mamata Didi.
But for those who challenged bullets with a catapult, we “salute you”! Hope your souls have found “Gorkhaland” in Heaven.
Bacca S. is a Ph.D research Scholar at Sikkim University hailing from Darjeeling. Have indulged in a bit of human rights activism in New Delhi before joining academics