Preliminary showdown in darjeeling

Preliminary showdown in Darjeeling

The bazaar of Darjeeling remained busy. Photo: Gilbert Kolonko

In Darjeeling, India, it is becoming clear that even stubborn supporters of independence can understand that dialogue is the better way forward

The Chowrastar Square in Darjeeling is still dormant. As if the residents could not really believe that the 104-day strike has already ended 14 days ago. Even the tourists have not noticed yet. What no one on the square suspects: At the same time, 1700 meters below, a police unit of the West Bengal Police is coming through the forest around the village of Longkkashor Busty on the Chhota Rangit River – the hiding place of Morcha leader Bimal Gurung.

It was he who had called the local population to strike 118 days ago. His followers, who are known to be violent, made sure that the people obeyed the call. Now, too, on the banks of the Chhota Rangit, it is Gurung’s followers who are said to have immediately fought back: one policeman is shot dead, four others are seriously injured. There is a wide variety of information about Gurung’s dead followers. Then a retired government official at the Chowrasta comes up to me and clenches his fist: "Today they will get him, then we can live again without fear."

News of the fighting spreads quickly. Occasional residents hurry across the square with full shopping bags. The first stores close. But then the unexpected happens. The stores open again – more and more people walk around with a noticeable smile on their faces. The word gets around that the majority of the Morcha movement will not support Gurung and his hit squads. Also 150 meters below at the bus station and at the bazaar there is still a lot of activity. More and more small groups are formed, whose members talk animatedly and remarkably cheerfully, but still look around uncertainly from time to time to make sure that no one is eavesdropping on them.

Five days ago, when I arrived, the mood was different: "I despair of my fellow human beings", said the retired government employee to me, and added: "Our tea industry is down. Tourism as well. The ordinary workers have not only been without income for more than 3 months, but have had to pay double to triple the amount for food during this time. Bimal Gurung and his supporters even earned money from this, because they were the ones who initially determined who could deliver goods during the strike and who could not. Trotzdem reden immer noch einige in Darjeeling von einem Kampf fur einen eigenen Gorkhastaat."

At the Darjeeling train station, too, no one followed the new strike calls. Foto: Gilbert Kolonko

Der Konflikt begann in den 80er Jahren, als die ethnischen Gruppen der Nepalis/Gorkhas einen eigenen Bundesstaat forderten, weil sie sich von den Bengalen wie Menschen zweiter Klasse behandelt fuhlten. Sie sammelten sich unter der Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) und boten der indischen Regierung die Stirn. Only 8 years and 1200 dead (government figures) later both sides came to their senses and agreed in a treaty on a certain partial independence for the inhabitants of Darjeeling and the Dooars (the surrounding valleys).

Ausloser: Sprachenstreit an Schulen

"Drei Monate kein Einkommen. Aber die Ladenmiete durften wir bezahlen", schimpfte vor 4 Tagen die Restaurantbesitzerin Sonam zu mir. During the strike, she and her husband had joined forces with other business owners, collected money, used it to buy food and distributed it to the city’s poor. "Wir hatten Jahre gebraucht, um uns von den schweren Streiks 2013 zu erholen. This year there was finally a very good spring and summer season, then this crazy gurung starts to tinder again. Nevertheless, there are still residents here who do not understand anything", sighed Sonam.

This summer, the Bengali government had arranged for Bengali to be taught in schools in Nepali-speaking Darjeeling. Bimal Gurung took advantage of this to make up for lost ground and called a strike. Although Mamata Banerjee withdrew the order, Gurung continued the strike.

Gurung told his followers that it would take a gorkhaland for the money to come directly from Delhi to Darjeeling – and that meant everyone here would get rich. But he as well as other Morcha leaders conceal that besides the money from the federal government, quite a few special payments from the central government have already flowed from Delhi to Darjeeling.

The fact that the mountain region has not developed in almost 15 years is mainly due to its local leaders. A huge opera house, where bodybuilding shows and similar events take place, is all that the various Morcha leaders in Darjeeling have created for the inhabitants. And even at that, they miscalculated: Anyone taller than 1.30 meters bumps his head on the top floor of the opera house.

Doch immer mehr Mitglieder der Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), die 2007 von Bimal Gurung gegrundet wurde, haben verstanden, dass ihr derzeitiger Weg nicht weiter fuhrt. Wahrend Gurung tatenlos in seinem Versteck zusehen musste, traf sich sein Parteikollege Binay Tamang mit Mamata Banerjee – so wurde der Streik am 28. September beendet. Already several times Mamata had pushed back the influence of Bimal Gurung with a mixture of harshness and accommodation. It did so before the 2014 general elections, when the GJM’s late prime minister Modi promised it Gorkhaland if it supported his candidate.

An opera house and much suffering is all the Morcha leaders had to give the people of Darjeeling in 15 years. Foto: Gilbert Kolonko

A few days ago, the new GJM leader Binay Tamang even accepted police protection from the Bengali government – Bimal Gurung is said to have put a bounty on his head. In 2010, another of Gurung’s competitors had to learn that such accusations are not made up out of thin air: Near Chowrasta, Madan Tamang was hacked to death by Gurung’s followers.

Bimal Gurung escaped

One day after yesterday’s fighting in and around Longkkashor Busty it is only clear that Bimal Gurung escaped. But the West Bengal police have sent more forces to the Chhota Rangit for his capture. In addition, the fact that the majority of the morcha movement has turned away from him. The Bengali government is silent about the number of his followers who have been killed – unofficially, there are said to be at least five.

The fact that the government has again identified links between Gurung and Maoist groups is also anything but trustworthy: Since the Morcha movement is based on regional patriotism and populism, it seems unlikely that it would cooperate with Maoist rebel groups, which are more difficult for India’s government to deal with than, for example, Islamist groups. The fresh accusations by Indian intelligence services that China is behind the uprising are also part of the usual propaganda of these services.

Even though Mamata has regained control of the situation, she should not be too sure and continue to accommodate the people here: A fully autonomous Hill Council would be the very least. On 16. October, the central government in Delhi summoned the Morcha leaders. But even they should have understood by now that strikes against the will of the majority of the people, for whose good they supposedly demand a separate state called Gorkhaland, are counterproductive.

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