In George Orwell classic ‘1984’ as Winston is tortured in Room 101, strapped to a chair he is asked “How does a man assert his power over the other, Winston? To which Winston answers “by making him suffer”. This chilling scene painted the picture of a dystopian state where the ideas and actions that differed from one preached by the state were brutally suppressed. It is no secret that much similar outcomes can be achieved in a free and democratic state- one that claims to provide space to dissent. In fact, if misguided, democracy can be equally bad, if not worse. A startling example of this can be seen in West Bengal, where the people in the hill districts of Darjeeling are demanding the separate state of Gorkhaland- under the Article 3 of the Indian Constitution. The Bengal’s government response to the statehood agitation is beyond all proportions. Right from excessive use of police and army, intimidating locals with the threat of legal actions, sustained propaganda campaigns, planting false stories through Bengali media, imposing an internet ban, and crack down on the local media outfits state government has done everything that possibly can be done to suffocate the agitation. It is crucial to understand that these actions are not random acts but are part of ‘state sponsored suppression’ to ensure that there is no organized resistance against the state government.
The current crisis in the hills was created by the state government, first with an unnecessary decision to impose Bengali language and then a coercive response towards some routine protest. On May 15, the West Bengal government passed an order, making the Bengali language mandatory in the schools across the state from class I to X. For almost two weeks protest was registered in Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts (where Nepali is the native language) after which the state government took a quick U turn and claimed that the Bengali language will remain optional in the hill districts of Darjeeling. However by the time announcement came out the damage was already done and what started as a moderate protest against the ‘cultural imperialism’ gradually developed into an agitation for the separate state, Gorkhaland.
It is important to remind that behind the current voices of Gorkhaland there are memories of hurt and injustice, kept alive through years of bitterness and grief. There is a history of anger over economic inequality, local resources diverted and utilized for the development of other regions, racism, discrimination in public employment and educational institution, lack of health services, and the continuous cultural marginalization of Nepali speaking population in Bengal. Therefore every time the state government of West Bengal state acts as a bully it gives people in the hills more reason to seek a separation from Bengal.
Crackdown on Protest
On June 8 as Mamta Banerjee arrived in Darjeeling things were already tense. Banerjee was there to chair a cabinet meeting at Raj Bhawan for the first time in over 40 years. However, not a single Gorkha leader was invited to the meeting, deliberately circumventing the autonomy of GTA (Gorkhaland Territorial Administration) a semi- autonomous administrative body for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills. Led by the local leadership of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) people gathered to show their anger against the presence of the Bengal CM on the soil of Gorkhaland. As the protesters moved closer to the premises police resorted to lathi charge, tear gas shells were fired; these were the first sign of suppression as Mamta made it clear that any voice against her will be stumped down in a repressive manner. Since then on three different occasions, June 17, July 8 and July 18 both police and CRFP have opened fire on the statehood protesters in which at least 8 people have lost their lives and hundreds have been injured. There have been reports that the police have targeted even those who were not involved in the demonstrations. In one such incident, 29- year- old Tashi Bhutia was shot dead on July 8 while he was out to buy medicine for his ailing brother. In most of these cases state government has initially denied any police firing, then rejected the authenticity of evidence provided by the locals and finally laid the blame on the local party for provoking the protesters. While it is true that to certain extent GJM is guilty of letting the protesters run wild but there can be no justification for using bullets to maintain social order.
After failing to curb and contain the statehood agitation through violence and intimidation the Bengal government has strategically attempted to malign the movement by making unsubstantiated allegations that there is a foreign hand in the present unrest in Darjeeling, it is backed by terrorist organizations working in north-east region, and lastly accusing the local leadership of plotting an underground arm movement with the help of Maoist. These ugly attempts to delegitimize the protest have been ably helped by the Bengali news channels those have kept on peddling news as lies. Such conflating of statehood agitation with terrorism or Maoism serves two important purposes for the state government:
a) Provides a perfect excuse to investigate and raid the house of local leaders and the people involved in the movement.
b) It grants an ideal opportunity to reframe the discourse in a manner where the government is no longer an oppressor and neither is the people protesting oppressed.
In the changed meanings, the state represents itself as a victim of violence, trying to contain the aggressor (statehood agitators). But to prove so you need evidence and if there is no evidence then you construct one, which is exactly what Bengal government has done in this case. For instance, on June 15 Bengal police raided Bimal Gurung, the chief of GJM for alleged possession of arms and ammunition all they found was some agricultural equipment, bow and arrow- items mainly used for sporting activities, which by no means can be considered as lethal weapons that can be used for an alleged war against the mighty state of Bengal. However, the whole episode was portrayed in an entirely different manner and a false story was planted in the media, reporting that huge cache of arms and ammunition have been seized during the raids. Similarly, on July 18 West Bengal CID seized bank accounts of top leaders accusing them of using these accounts to purchase arms and weapons. Needless to say, there was no evidence that might prove that the accounts were used to buy any kind of weapons.
In yet another attempt to crucify the statehood movement and prevent agitators’ perspective from reaching a wider audience the state government snapped the mobile internet (2G, 3G, and 4G) on June 18. Two days later broadband was also shutdown and now there are reports of interference with the private mobile network. According to the state government, the internet was snapped to stop posting of “provocative message”, which means the ban was precautionary in nature. Now, someone who has followed Gorkhaland agitation knows that the demand for the separate state always had repercussion in the plain areas with Bengali speaking population, particularly Siliguri. In that case, internet should have been censored in Siliguri also. Imposing ban only in the hills is born out of racist presumption that those residing in the hills are going to post “provocative message”, while the others in Bengal will remain sensibly silent over the issue of Gorkhaland. It is quite clear that the government of Bengal is using the internet ban to punish and discipline those who seek separation of Darjeeling from Bengal. It is just yet another way of exacting “collective punishment” to the community.
Local Media Gagged
On June 20 the government officials made calls to the editors and proprietors of local channels asking them to restrain from broadcasting anything related to the agitation. The local newspapers Darjeeling Times (e-paper) and Hamro Prajashakti that were reporting over the issue of Gorkhaland are now accused of inciting violence and sued for the same by the West Bengal government. In fact, last checked the website of Darjeeling Times was blocked. Also, on July 23, Bengal police raided the office of Siliguri- based Nepali language channel ABN News network and sealed the office. Police alleged that Nepali TV channel was promoting enmity between two groups. This ruthless assault on the freedom of the press is done to shield the state government from scrutiny that it has been receiving from the local media. Further, with internet and mobile network already snapped, the clampdown on local media prevents the recording of continued and targeted suppression of the protest in the hills.
On the other hand, the widespread censorship only shows the frustration and the failure of the state government to reinstate peace in the hills. Besides, censorship in such form constitutes the gross violation of freedom of speech and free expression. In fact in a resolution passed by United Nation, the international body has condemned the blocking of the internet by the governments as an act of human right violation. But clearly who cares for human right or as a matter of fact for any right. All that the Bengal government cares about is the land, just like British did before them. The state government has no interest in engaging with the people who have been living there for centuries.
Looking to the Future
The last two months in the hills foretells a story of how there is an increasing tendency among the elected governments to take undemocratic means to suppress any form of protest and then use deception to further justify their actions. Moreover, it is a painful reminder of how little progress has been made since the 1980s when more than 1200 people were killed in the hills. And as the voices from Darjeeling are stuck between suppressive Bengal government and the suspiciously silent center, there is a looming risk that the people in the hills just might be running out of democratic options.