Darjeeling, March 8 (IANS) The violent agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland in north Bengal has taken its toll on the internationally famed boarding schools of Darjeeling, with some considering shifting to safer areas or closing down altogether.
The 50-odd major boarding schools in the three hill subdivisions of northern West Bengal’s Darjeeling district draw around 15,000 students mostly from well-to-do families in various parts of India and even foreign countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand and South Korea.
These schools are worried about the recent spurt in violence, including the death of three supporters of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which is spearheading the stir, in police firing in the Shipchu area of Jalpaiguri district early February.
Enraged GJM activists torched tourist lodges, forest bungalows, fire service stations, a checkpost, two police outposts and other government offices. The supporters allegedly also looted rifles and ammunition in the hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.
“The recent uproar has created a fear psychosis among guardians. They are reluctant to send their wards to school. As a result, the attendance of students in schools, mainly in Kalimpong, has come down drastically. We are finding it difficult to run the school,” said Rabondra Subba, director of the Himali Boarding School in Kurseong.
He said most of his school’s students come from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries like Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, apart from India’s northeastern states.
“The guardians are scared because of the ongoing agitation by GJM and they are pulling out their wards from the schools. A large number of withdrawals has been reported in several schools this year,” he said.
Like Subba, the principals of other schools also admitted that guardians were withdrawing students, but blamed the media for creating a hype.
“Most media outlets came out with the story that the firing occurred in Darjeeling and GJM supporters have torched government properties and vehicles, though it occurred near the Bhutan border. They also published that there was no rule of law in the hills. That’s why parents from outside Darjeeling are scared of sending their wards here,” said Chetan Tiwari, principal of St. Anthony’s School.
“With the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, the salaries of teachers have increased; so have the establishment costs; and if the student strength goes down day by day, we have to close down our school,” said Tiwari.
“Either we have to sell out our school here and move to the plains or shift to another business,” he said.
However, students in Class 10 and at the plus two level have started coming back.
“Our school opened a week ago; students have started coming. Five to six students have taken transfer, but others are yet to come,” said Subba.
The principal of a reputed boarding school in Kalimpong said: “The schools in Kalimpong are badly affected. Because of close proximity, students from Sikkim and Bhutan crowd these schools, but most of them are not attending classes due to the agitation. The student strength in reputed institutions like Rockvale Academy has come down by 60 percent.”
The Sacred Heart school has opened its branch in the plains of Siliguri in Darjeeling. And they are toying with the idea of shifting the entire school to Siliguri, said the principal.
He, however, hoped: “Things will change and we will get back to our full strength in the near future.”
Interestingly, the principals said GJM’s leaders are going out of their way to help them in running the schools.
“During indefinite shutdown calls, they allowed us to import food, medicines and other essential goods for the boarders in our schools. Not a single student was harassed or suffered from hunger during the indefinite shutdown period,” said Subba.
GJM spokesperson Harka Bahadur Chetri said: “We are well aware of the situation. It’s an economic blockade conspired by opposition political parties and the ruling Marxist government against the Morcha to tarnish our image. We have nothing to do with it. If the schools close down, we will do something else to boost the economy.”
He urged guardians to come and visit the hills and talk to school principals to understand the situation better, rather than take a decision based on media reports.
Since the late 1980s, voices in Darjeeling demanding a separate Gorkhaland state to be carved out of the district and parts of neighbouring Jalpaiguri have grown louder. For the last three years, GJM has been spearheading the movement and called several indefinite shutdowns which have brought life to a standstill in the hills.