Darjeeling has been brought to a standstill with violence and protest taking over normal life. This has led to an area known for its pleasant weather, tea, and tourism, witnessing scenes of police action, closed markets, stranded tourists, the death of protesters etc.
Though tensions between the people of the area and the Union and West Bengal state government are nothing new, the latest round of agitations began as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee decided to impose the compulsory learning of Bengali in schools across the state.
This has reignited the demand for separate statehood, of the hilly areas comprising of Darjeeling district and Kalimpong hills in the state, by the Nepali-speaking Gorkha ethnic group's led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which is governing the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration.
And has again brought the focus on the issue of language playing a part in demands for a new state in the country. To the outside world, it might seem like a minor cause for a major step of like a division of a state, the history of India shows that it has to be treated with the seriousness especially given the principles of state reorganisation in the country so far.
Language, around the globe, is considered a barrier or tool when it comes to communication and also an important part of identity which makes a people who they are. In India, in addition to these, it is also the basis on which borders have been, and are, drawn between the states of India.
Divisions and formations of states based on language
Though just one country, the nature of it in terms of size and diversity that it contains, not only in physical feature and terrain but also culture and religions, give it a unique stature in the world. With such uniqueness also come the problem associated with it.
Now home to nearly 1.3 billion people, India currently has 29 states and seven Union Territories. Even if for many it may seem like this has always been the case, with only a state carved out of an old one from time to time being the norm, it is not.
A look into the young history of the country shows that it has not always been the case, and the current demand of the people of Darjeeling is not out of place. When the country gained independence in 1947, it was divided among areas governed directly by the British, and those by elected Indian representatives along with hundreds of Princely States.
The new country organised them initially into a total of 27 states based on the historical and political consideration rather than that of religion and culture. It was to be a temporary arrangement which was to be re-visited with the passing of time and the settling of the turbulent conditions prevalent during and soon after independence.
This was done so by appointment of committees soon after but the process was thrown into turmoil following the death of Potti Sreeramulu, whose death following a 56 day hunger strike for the demand of a new state for the Telegu speaking people, led to the formation of Andra state on October 1, 1953, which was carved out of the state of Madras. And similar agitations were soon seen around the country for states, based on linguistic basis.
And following the formation of other committees and deliberations, the process of reorganisation of states based on such a criteria was kick started. These led to more states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat being formed out of the Bombay province. Similar divisions of old states and formations of new that followed have finally led to the current combination of states and union territories.
While language might be considered an emotional issue for the basis of such divisions and formations, in a country with 22 scheduled languages recognised in the constitution, with over a hundred spoken by a sizeable population, and more than a thousand in different areas, it is clearly more than just a topic of emotion.
The choice made by the British to not only use English as the official language but also to push it as part of education created a feeling, justifiably so, among the local population of being ignored. And this was one of the reasons why when the policy of state formations on linguistic basis was adopted it gained support from major part of the country.
Along with these other reasons for such a policy were also considered beneficial. These included the larger participation of local population as they would be able to communicate better with a common language, ease in governance, and the development of vernacular languages.
This is not to say that language has been the only reason for state formation. In addition to it, cultural affiliations and economic development, have also been deemed as necessary causes.
As can be seen in the case of Nagaland in the North-East where tribal affiliations were taken into account, while for the formation of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand it was felt that larger states such as Madhya Pradesh and Bihar that they were respectively carved out of, could not ensure their development as the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities would not be available to them.
The politics of language
For all the other reasons behind the use of language as criteria, the importance of it in the terms of identity it has for people, cannot and should not, ever be underestimated.
And it is one of the reasons why it continues to be seen as a major source of mobilisation by political parties around the country. As is witnessed in the case of the instant uproar that even a mention of a proposed attempt to impose Hindi in a capacity more than it currently is as an official language, or its imposition in education as a medium, are followed by protests around the country especially in the southern states.
Even if it may be seen as a genuine concern for the people of these states, and rightly so, the use of the issue by political parties can never be played down.
The fact is that it has also been used by regional parties to not only solidify their standing as upholders of the cause of the local population, as a tool of politics, and to hold national parties to account, cannot be missed.
While such protests of regional parties are usually peaceful in nature, similar actions in a state by a grouping against the state government can be the cause of major unrest along with violence.
This is exactly what has happened in the case of the latest protests in Darjeeling. Where a group is fighting against what they feel is an unjust imposition of a language on a group of people who do not consider it their own.
Though it may be a genuine grievance of the people of the area, that it may be used to serve other political purposes cannot be summarily dismissed. As reports of other reasons behind the GJM's latest protest along with the fact that the group is in a tie-up with the BJP, which is an opponent of Chief Minister Banerjee's Trinamool Congress party, point to.
And this is why language will, even though it continues to be seen as an issue of identity, can and will, also be used as a mask to serve other interests by groups such as political parties.