A recent government decision in India highlighted the differing ways of handling conflict by people raised in a peaceful tradition, such as the Lepchas, versus those steeped in militarism and violence, such as the Gorkhas. Both societies were deeply affected by an announcement from the West Bengal state government two weeks ago.
The current round of troubles began when the Chief Minister of the state, Mamata Banerjee, met with members of the Lepcha community in Kalimpong. This prompted Bimal Gurung, the leader of the major Gorkha organization, called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), to declare that the Chief Minister had a divide and rule policy. The Gorkhas maintain a long-standing demand for a separate Gorkhaland state, and they resent any implication that the Lepchas might have their own needs.
Mr. Gurung was not in the least subtle in his response to the meeting held by the Chief Minister with the Lepchas in late January. “You must be ready for the next phase of the agitation. Bullets will fly. We are ready to face police bullets as this is what they will do. She will send in the police force and their bullets, she will reopen old cases (against the agitators), we know all about it and we are ready to take bullets to achieve statehood,” he declared.
In response, Ms. Banerjee announced at a news conference on January 31 her decision to honor a request from the Lepcha people to form a Lepcha Development Board, which will work for the development of the Lepchas living in the hills of West Bengal. Details about the board will be announced later, but the chair and vice chair will be appointed from within the Lepcha community. The Chief Minister’s proposal was approved by the state cabinet on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
The proposed board will seek to improve Lepcha education, preserve their culture and language, and support their cottage industries, agriculture, tourism, and horticulture. The board will also attempt to promote better health among the Lepchas by creating rural and mobile medical facilities. The board will be named the Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board. Mayel Lyang, a Lepcha term, means “land of the Lepchas.”
A senior official in the government, doubtless realizing the political repercussions of the decision, emphasized that the board, to be based in Kalimpong, would not have any political powers. The leaders of GJM reacted immediately. One of them said the decision was arbitrary “and an encroachment on the powers and functioning of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) Sabha.”
The GTA, formed in 2011 as a semi-autonomous body in the northern hills of the state, was conceived as way of bringing peace to the region by partially satisfying demands for independent statehood by the Gorkha people. The GTA agreement, however, did not provide for carving a separate state out of West Bengal. The memorandum of agreement signed by the Gorkhas and the state government did provide for including minorities, such as the Lepchas, in the new GTA, but up to now the organization does not include any Lepcha members. To date, the GJM refuses to recognize the needs of the Lepchas.
Anticipating Gorkha reactions to the government decision early last week, Lepcha leaders in the state kept a low profile. The president of the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association and the coordinator of the Lepcha Rights Movement both refused to take calls. Doriji Lepcha, president of the Lepcha Youth Association, indicated he had heard the news, but, he said, “I am not the right person to comment on the development.”
Tensions continued to rise last week, however, due to the standoff between the state government and the Gorkhas. Mr. Gurung, who also was the chief executive of the GTA, announced that he would step down. It was his way of threatening new rounds of agitation in the West Bengal hills.
He also suggested that the agitation that was developing in Darjeeling, the major city in the district, might not remain peaceful, and that the members of his organization might be preparing to take up arms. The Gorkhas—also spelled Gurkhas—are Nepali/Gorkhali speaking citizens of both India and Nepal who have a long tradition of fighting. They first demonstrated their fierce fighting ability against the British Raj in Nepal in the early 19th century. The English, realizing their fighting ability, enlisted them into army units beginning nearly 200 years ago. Today, the Gorkhas in India number about 10,000,000 people and live in a number of North Indian states.
Mr. Gurung continued to make threatening speeches as the week went on. Referring to numerous earlier periods of agitation for a separate state, he said that the current opposition to the government’s latest proposal would be their “final movement.” “It is my promise to you that this is the third and final agitation towards creation of Gorkhaland,” he told a meeting of GJM workers.
On Wednesday, the GJM announced a 12 hour, dawn to dusk, general strike in Darjeeling and adjoining regions for Saturday, Feb. 9. Mr. Gurung sought to lay the blame for any violence that might develop from the shutdown on the government. He said, “our agitation will be peaceful but the government will try and make it violent.” He blamed the Chief Minister of the state. “It looks like Mamata Banerjee is inviting us to start an intensified Gorkhaland agitation….It seems she has no intention of normalizing the situation and is hell bent on disturbing the harmony.”
As strains deteriorated on Thursday, GJM activists prevented the principal secretary of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, Saumitra Mohan, from entering his office in Darjeeling. A spokesman for the GJM accused him of not conceding to their demands.
On Friday, news sources in India indicated that Lepcha activists had decided to launch an action of their own. The Lepcha Rights Movement began an indefinite hunger strike in the town of Kalimpong to show support for the government’s decision to form the Lepcha Development Board.
Bhupinder Lepcha, a leader of the Lepcha Rights Movement, in announcing the hunger strike, said that the Lepcha Development Board was being politicized by the Gorkhas, and it would not harm anyone. It would improve the education of the Lepcha people, including instruction in their own Lepcha language.
Mr. Lepcha added that the Lepchas had never demanded a distinct territory, and all they wanted were some rights. “We are innocent people and we are not into politics. We only wanted [the] right to education, employment guarantees, and preservation of our culture.”
News stories on Saturday reported that the 12 hour strike by the Gorkhas had so far gone peacefully, as had the hunger strike by the Lepchas. The city of Darjeeling that day was virtually empty of vehicles and people.