The ongoing agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state was fuelled by anxiety that the culture and traditions of the mainly Nepali-origin population around Darjeeling would not be safe were the area to remain part of West Bengal. After much tumult, an autonomous region was created in 1988 that went a considerable distance towards meeting the demands of the Nepali-speaking population. For this resolution, the individual responsible was Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who was among the tallest political leaders of the country for much of his life. In 2011, a fresh infusion of autonomy was given to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which was renamed the Gorkha Territorial Administration. Indeed, the people of the region have been demanding a state separated from Bengal since at least 1907. In 1941, the Gorkha community submitted a memorandum to the Viceroy of India asking for them to be administered separately from the rest of Bengal. Interestingly, the (undivided) Communist Party of India submitted a memorandum to the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, asking that a separate country, Gorkhastan, be created out of the Gorkha-majority regions of West Bengal and Sikkim. However, this entreaty was ignored by both Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan. Given the sensitivity of the Nepali-speaking population of the region, it was perhaps not the best decision for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to seek to make the teaching of Bengali compulsory even within the Gorkha Territorial Administration. This was contrary to the longstanding policy of the state government to make the study of Bengali an optional subject, and predictably caused a firestorm of protest that soon spiralled out of control, with violence flaring in different locations. Chief Minister Banerjee has thus far relied on the police and now the military to quell the agitation, but a much better path would be that of reversing completely—beyond offering mere lip service that the policy would be reversed—any efforts at imposition of a different language or culture from what belongs to them. The people of Bengal are known for their liberal values and their devotion to democracy, and such a step would be in keeping with the tolerant and syncretic traditions of the Bengali people.
The imposition of any language on others should be avoided in a diverse country such as India. It needs to be remembered that it was the fanatic zeal of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to impose Sinhala on the Tamil population, followed by reducing the intake of Tamil-speaking students significantly in colleges across Sri Lanka that ignited the Tamil separatist movement, that took several tens of thousands of lives and resulted in an unbearable cost to the economy, before it was snuffed out in 2009 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Within West Bengal, there should be adequate cultural and linguistic space for those in the population who speak Nepali, and there should not be any reduction of this space. Indeed, language fanatics across the country need to derive a lesson from the fire now burning in the Gorkha Territorial Administration and abstain from diluting the wise policy of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who refused to replace English with Hindi, despite being urged by linguistic zealots to do so. In that statesmanlike action of Shastri, the unity of the nation was protected, with even the separatist parties of Tamil Nadu joining the national mainstream and coming to power in 1967 in that pearl among states belonging to the Union of India. It is noteworthy that the MP representing Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha belongs to the BJP and is from Punjab. S.S. Ahluwalia may have been responsible for the Central government calling the agitation leaders and the West Bengal government for talks on 19 June. The Mamata Banerjee government would like the talks to be postponed, while the Nepali-speakimg agitators demand that the formation of a separate state be placed on the agenda of the talks. This may not be feasible, given the small size of the territory. However, its people have the right to expect that their culture and language will be protected, and hence it would be desirable for Chief Minister Banerjee to withdraw completely the proposal to make Bengali compulsory. Indeed, whether it be in Kerala, Karnataka or Maharashtra, efforts by language zealots to enable a particular language to have a monopoly within the educational machinery have been ongoing. Such zealotry will weaken rather than strengthen India. Every linguistic group is entitled to respect. The choice of language should be left to the individual parent and student rather than by the state, which should ever be the neutral party. Respecting India’s diversity is the best way of preventing flare-ups such as what is taking place at this moment in one of the most beautiful corners of India.