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K2: Agitated about Darjeeling education

Political unrest in the hills worries Bhutanese parents

16 March, 2010 – At the start of the 2010 academic session, a few Bhutanese parents decided to withdraw their children from schools in the neighbouring Indian hills of Darjeeling, fearing the charged political climate of the hills, exacerbated by reports of Bhutanese college students temporarily being forced to wear the national dress.With no reliable sources of information on the real situation in the hills other than some limited coverage by the local and foreign press, Bhutanese parents, with children studying in the hills or planning to send them there, are not quite sure what to do.

Father Kinley, the principal of St Josephs school, North Point, from where five Bhutanese students were withdrawn this year, said that it was more of a panic reaction and that students really would not be in any danger. He said the many applicants lined up for admissions had jumped at the five vacant Bhutanese seats.

However, relatives of these children said they would rather see their children studying in schools in Thimphu than in some far away place with uncertain political safety.

Bhutanese parents are thus torn between a sense of the need for security and a long term need to provide a good education for their children.

For Bhutan, the nearby schools of the Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong hills like North Point, Saint Pauls, Mount Hermon, SAS, Dr Grahams Homes, Goethals, Loreto Convent, Saint Helens are still a destination for turning boys into men and girls into ladies.

These schools have for many decades provided all round quality education and exposure of a level that is not available in Bhutan.

There is the option of the Woodstock and international type of schools but these are beyond reach of most middle and even upper middle class Bhutanese.

But, as father Kinley said, there is no real safety issue for Bhutanese students for now. This is because the movement in the hills is a political one for a separate state of Gorkhaland within the Indian union and not an ethnic or communal conflict between sections of Darjeelings multicultural society.

Darjeeling has a largely liberal society with a large majority of Indian Nepalis. Then there is also large minority Buddhist component of Tamangs, Bhutias, Sherpas, Tibetans and also some descendants of Drukpas from Bhutan. There are also Marwaris and Biharis, mainly in the trading sector.

So, all the rhetoric and speeches by the largely Gorkha run Gorkha Jana Mukti have been directed at the West Bengal state government rather than within. There are whispers of maybe one or two leaders from the higher Nepali castes having anti-minority tendencies, but that has not come out in the open yet, and will probably not, since it will be political suicide in a fragmented demography.

The political leaders of Darjeeling have so far been making the right noises, calling their movement for Gorkhaland a peaceful one, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. This is in sharp contract to the agitation of 1983-84, when a 40-day strike crippled life and led to intra party violence between GNLF and CPM.

The people of Darjeeling, a large portion of whom are working as civil servants, businessmen, in the tourism sector and also in the tea gardens, and in the villages, do not want to see a return to the old days of violence.

In the early days, when GJM was just starting its demand for another state, there was an unprecedented and mass peace walk organised by the civic society of Darjeeling calling for a peaceful movement.

All the major schools and educational institutes also called a joint meeting, headed mainly by father Kinley, where a joint petition was made to GJM to allow schools to remain unaffected by strikes.

Though the schools mentioned are not affected, there is a process of politicisation and radicalisation taking place in the local village schools. Students from these schools, usually local Nepalis, have been taking part in hunger strikes and also been forced by unwilling teachers to take out protest movements by GJM.

The GJM party has also come out with a 10,000 or so strong force of youth, who are paid a stipend between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a month and are called the Gorkhaland police.

The GJM also has a students wing, headed mainly by youth from colleges, but these are not allowed in institutes like St Josephs and Loreto.

However, even in Indian cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai, college politics is a way of life, with electoral violence sometimes even in good colleges. In many cases, these are considered as starting points for budding politicians.

Though students in Darjeeling have an added advantage of more exposure, compared to Sherubtse isolated in the forests of Trashigang, a much better alternative would be to spend the same money and time in better colleges in the bigger cities of India.

College education is not simply books but a larger life experience and exposure that can best be had in the bigger cities.

Bhutanese parents should not panic and go by hearsay but take time to do their own homework and research before taking any decisions that would affect the educational future of their children.

By Tenzing Lamsang

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