It has been a fortnight since the indefinite strike was called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Darjeeling hills. When the strike began, the only national daily (if one can call The Telegraph, Siliguri edition, a national daily), one subscribes to, carried a number of stories on the difficult choice of boarding schools in the hill sub divisions of West Bengal. The schools are part of the Darjeeling brand, the first t of the three t’s, with tea and tourism that is the bed rock of the charm of the Bengal hills and its tradition. Some of the schools are more than a century old and attracts students from different parts of India and once again from abroad. The timing of the strike was unfortunate as most of the schools had recently re-opened after their summer break. It is a difficult choice in the best of circumstances but when a deadline is staring you in the face, it is an impossible logistical task to send the boarders home, in a matter of days, never mind, the rush that overwhelms the Indian Railways summer.
The events transported me, almost a quarter of a century back, to my own days in a boarding school in Darjeeling. My first years in Darjeeling coincided with the, peaking of the Gorkha National Liberation Front’s (GNLF) push for statehood in the years 1986-1988.
In the current round of the agitation for Gorkhaland and being located in Sikkim, I have perhaps been only marginally affected by the bandh. But I had an eerie feeling of having gone through it before, a ‘been there and done that’ feeling, what in French is termed déjà vu. The dictionary describes déjà vu, as an experience (real or imagined) of feeling sure that one has witnessed or experienced a new situation previously.
In the year 1986, not taking into consideration the flash strikes, we had two major strikes, for six days and thirteen days, respectively. These two bandhs occurred in June and September if memory serves me accurately. In 1987, the major strike was a closure of the hills for thirteen days around June or July. The litany of strikes were to continue, a regular feature of life, but in that period, the biggest, the mother of all strikes, was the fourty day strike in March, 1988 which was the beginning of the end of the movement with the establishment of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).
After school, I came back to the region only twice in the next 15 years and both times, one had to re-work thought out schedules to escape the noose of the bandh. The first was in August 2003, when a bandh in Siliguri, intervened leading to a change in our plans. In April 2008, I was in Darjeeling and yet again, due to a bandh in Siliguri, we had to hasten our departure to get to Bagdogra before Mamta didi’s goons’ took over the highway, narrowly making it to the airport on a thela.
It is a documented fact that the state of West Bengal experiences the maximum number of shut downs (average of 40-50 per year!), Assam is another state which has a high incidence of bandhs. In an almost cultural manner, uniform across the length and breadth of this vast and diverse country, political, social or religious organizations, call a strike. It is also accepted by all and sundry that bandhs are enforced with the threat of violence by party cadres, causing hardship, suffering and disrupting normal life and throwing normal life out of gear.
The bandh can be a relief to some, as it liberates them from their dull, dreary jobs and children from school. For the others who have travel plans, or an examination, an assignment to complete, it is a spanner in the works. However, when bandhs become regular, as it is in this ‘strategically’ important region of India, it becomes a nuisance, it restricts economic development, it discourages investors, it keeps away visitors and it gradually leads to a cutting off, of economic ties and integration to the national economy, pushing the region into a ‘periphery’.
This leads us to the question of the methods of protest. How should one protest? And what methods will generate the expectant, public and official, response to bring about the change in policy? We also have to consider, the question of violence and its efficacy in bringing about desired change. As, The New York Times correspondent for South Asia, wrote in an aptly titled dispatch, “Want to be heard in India? You'd better form a militia”, suggesting that, “[violence has]…started to replace hunger strikes, sit-ins and marches as the basic tools of Indian political life: guiltlessly deployed, fatally effective. Forget what you've heard about Gandhi and nonviolence in India. This is a nation of militias now.”
Ominous in any circumstances, the struggle for self determination and identity, the lack of development or the inequality of it, has generated remarkable discontent across the nation. The Kashmir, Assam, Manipur and Maoists issues have been endemic for a few decades and are noticed by the powers, only when the violence crosses a threshold level. In these circumstances, how is to one go about evaluating the bane of strikes? Are we to be gratified at the lack of violence?
Bandh's were declared illegal by a Supreme Court Judgement in November, 1997. However, it remains a common and an effective means of expression for the aggrieved and their right to the freedom of expression, the right to organise and protest. On the other side and to paraphrase the words of the then Chief Justice of India, Bandhs put others to inconvenience, depriving them of the freedom of movement, expression and go against the very right to life, denying people access to health care and hospitals. Political bandhs are expected to paralyze the life of the people and that is un-constitutional.
Should a bandh be illegal only if there is an act of violence and the life of the common people are affected? What are our choices? Are legal and constitutional methods of protests like peaceful processions, Public Interest Litigation, mass media campaign, fasting and political platforms like the Legislative assembly and Parliament not enough to be heard in India?
The piece was published on 28th July in Sikkim NOW, a daily published from Gangtok.