Friday, February 11, 2011

INDIA - When is a Tea Party Not a Tea Party?

WHEN I reported last month on the “stir” in the north-Indian hill town of Darjeeling and surrounding areas, it was a relatively orderly, good-humoured affair. No longer.

The death on February 8th of two members of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) at the hands of the state police has sharply heightened tensions. The GJM has been leading a largely peaceful campaign for a separate Indian state of Gorkhaland in the area, which is dominated by Nepali-speakers, and is at present part of the state of West Bengal.

The police were criticised for opening fire on an apparently unarmed crowd in the town of Sibchu. The police were reportedly not deployed in sufficient numbers and not equipped with rubber bullets. The Telegraph newspaper, based in Kolkata, West Bengal’s capital, quoted an unnamed police officer who accused the force of being ill-prepared because its members were used to being “idle spectators” who let GJM protesters do whatever they wanted. The police instead they acted in self-defence, and had tried lathis (bamboo staves) and tear gas before resorting to live fire.

In response to the deaths, the GJM has called a total “bandh”—a self-imposed curfew—and there have been reports of isolated violent incidents, including the torching of a police outpost. Even West Bengal’s tourism minister has advised visitors to stay away from the area. The other economic mainstay of the region—tea cultivation—has also been hit.

The state government has asked for the army’s assistance. The army, reluctant to be deployed in yet another internal political conflict, has demurred. It may also be deterred by the large numbers of soldiers who come from the area. According to another article in the Telegraph, nearly every family in the Darjeeling hills has a member who has served in the armed forces.

The campaign for statehood is a long-running one. Two factors have raised tensions since I wrote last. The first is the failure of the GJM’s campaign to make headway, which is leading to frustration both among activists and citizens fed up with the constant disruption of protest marches and bandhs.

The second is the impending West Bengal state election, due in the first half of this year. For the first time since 1977, there is a real chance that the “left” government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, might fall. The leader of the opposition in the state legislature has accused the CPM of unleashing a “reign of terror” in a bid to have the poll postponed.

For its part, the CPM has accused the GJM of “trying to fan ethnic violence” and has tried to tar its main electoral opponent, the Trinamool Congress, with the same brush, for “maintaining political links” with the GJM. Darjeeling’s member of the national parliament, Jaswant Singh, a leading light of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, has called for an investigation into police “atrocities”.

This unhelpful trading of accusations by state-and national-level politicians is not conducive to cooling tempers. This is worrying. In the 1980s, a violent campaign for statehood for Gorkhaland claimed more than 1,000 lives. Banyan; The Economist

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