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Lessons from Darjeeling

By P. Kharel
pkharel1Ten political parties in the Darjeeling region of India’s West Bengal state last month joined hands to set forth their common agenda: Darjeeling first and foremost. Protests erupted in the wake of the Banerjee state government that decreed that Bengali language be made compulsory at schools. At least six have been killed by the repressive regime, with which even the union government headed by Narendra Modi seems unhappy.
There are some fifth columnists who try comparing the issues raised by the Madhesh parties in Nepal with the language issue in Darjeeling, which is dominated by Nepali-speaking population. Some Madhesh leaders, whose existing popular standing is dismal, want Hindi to be imposed as the national language, though it is not the mother tongue of any community. The move is a blatant bid to do India’s bidding.
JUST DEMAND: In Darjeeling, the Nepali community is only asking for not imposing Bengali as a compulsory subject at educational institutions by the maverick and increasingly sectarian chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The Nepali-speaking people do not demand their mother tongue to be imposed on all Bengalis nor do they oppose Hindi and English being prioritised as national language across the country.
Peaceful protests and Darjeeling closure marked the people’s mood while the state government used repressive measures to quell the rallyists. The Indian press has shown little sympathy for the genuine demands originating in Darjeeling, which is not surprising, given its history of toeing the lines set by the government on such issues.
Any Indian ambassador in Kathmandu is assured of the easiest of access to the prime minister for any and every reason. To expect reciprocity on this is removing oneself from the harsh reality created by ignorance and weak-kneed stance by the Nepali side down the years. But there is a limit to everything.
The disturbances in Darjeeling should have drawn the attention and concern of the Nepal government. Instead, the government demonstrated a helpless, shameless attitude. The Foreign Ministry did not show its existence. Krishna Bahadur Mahara, with the foreign ministry portfolio, took his own time to fly to Delhi in connection with the inevitably next visit to the Indian capital by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Meanwhile, what was Dip Kumar Upadhyay doing in New Delhi in his second innings and the so-called elevation as ambassador equivalent to the rank of a full minister? (By the way, such elevation does not in any way make any difference in the actual status as far as the country he is accredited to.)
We are not aware of anything of import being raised by Upadhyay with the Indian government. Or are we to believe he has gone for the lame explanation of “quiet diplomacy”? Not that he believed in such exercise in the past, given his penchant for publicity. He gave interviews, over the telephone and face to face, in the past. Unable to reconcile to being recalled for working against the government of K.P. Oli, Upadhyay fumed and fretted until his own party joined the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led government and insisted on being reappointed to our embassy at Barahkhamba Road in New Delhi.
The issues New Delhi and closest friends in Nepal characterise as the chief features of Nepal-India ties are most consistently and pervasively present in Darjeeling than anywhere else. Yet the West Banerjee state government went on the rampage to suppress the genuine demands in Darjeeling.
SHAMELESS SILENCE: Shocking was also the silence, both in India and in Nepal, of political parties and the so-called civil society leaders over the development in Darjeeling. The Indian media, as has always been their wont, gave scanty coverage but without comprehensive interviews with the leaders of the Darjeeling movement.
In Nepal, news and comments were carried in a sizeable section of the news media. But talk shows were conspicuous by their spiking of the Darjeeling issue. Dabur and other merchandise advertising order and munificence hopefuls shied away from discussing the issue. University professors and “foreign policy experts” seemed to have gone on a long holiday or gone underground. At least their voice went lost.
In most cases, “scholars”, affiliated to one political party or the other, do not dare to break the silence maintained by their political patrons. And this is nothing new. Such groups and individuals spoke nothing during the various economic blockades in the past five decades, unless they were in power. Their mouthpieces also did not raise the issue in its various dimensions.
As for the Indian media, they just pretend as if nothing is happening or offer the government’s version of a development of the Darjeeling type. This was the case in past, it is the same today and it is almost a certainty that will remain so for at least a foreseeable future. The global TV channel Al Jazeera, although funded by the less than full-fledged democratic government of Qatar and does not cover criticism of the Qatari government or its vital interests, stands out as qualitatively a far more professionally independent news media.

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