Kalimpong, a hill station in West Bengal, known for its beautiful nature, climate and flowers. British bungalows that dot the hills offer a majestic view of the Mount Kangchenjunga. After seeing months of unrest during protests by Gorkhas demanding a separate state in early 2017, the small town is once again simmering with anger over the reported presence of Rohingyas. There has been an increase in cases of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar – who are staying in camps in Bangladesh – illegally crossing over into India through the North East.
On April 27, 2018, absconding Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supremo Bimal Gurung wrote a letter to the Prime Minister alleging that suspected Rohingya refugees had settled in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal. BJP MP from Darjeeling S. S. Ahluwalia also wrote a letter to the Prime Minister on May 3, 2018, claiming that “more than 320 families have been settled in places such as Deolo, Lava forest, Melli and Rangpo.” Ahluwalia also mentioned, “Darjeeling, Kalimpong and the Dooars region (Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar district) share international borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, all of which are porous and settlement of Rohingyas in the sensitive region can pose a serious national security threat.”
Incidentally, six suspected Rohingya were arrested on July 12 by the police from a bus stand in the Habra area of North 24 Parganas district adjacent to the Bangladesh border. Rohingya refugees are already said to be living in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal since March this year.
A leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, who does not wish to be named, thinks that certain political parties are pushing Rohingya to settle in hills for vote bank politics without thinking of national interest. Binoy Tamang, currently chairman of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) which is backed by the state government, has denied the claims made by Ahluwalia and Gurung.
The reported entry of Rohingya into the hills became an issue when a video clip of Muslim men alighting from a bus in Kalimpong went viral on WhatsApp in April this year. Though the local administration and Muslim community leaders in Kalimpong immediately clarified that the young men were not Rohingya, the issue refused to die down. The people in Kalimpong still believe Rohingya are present in the hills.
Melli is a small village situated around 20km from Kalimpong at the banks of river Teesta near the West Bengal-Sikkim border. Actually, Melli village is divided between the two states, both of which are connected by a bridge. On the Sikkim side, there is a police check post where people have to register vehicle details while entering Sikkim. In West Bengal, you can see a group of people, around 40-50 families, living under the bridge in small tin-shaded houses beside the fast-flowing Teesta. It is populated by mostly new settlers – masons, construction labourer, carpenters, car mechanics, rag-pickers. All the men wear lungis or short pyjamas, long kurtas, skull caps and have long beards.
Most converse in a particular dialect of Bengali, while some also speak Nepali. A small tea stall owner at Melli said, “It started very slowly around three years ago but has picked up pace over the past six months and they learn the Nepali language within 45-60 days.” Recently, more families have come to live here claiming that those already settled here are their relatives. The newcomers are now living roughly one kilometre from the bridge and refer to the place as “Chota Pakistan”. Even locals used this term repeatedly while I was searching for the settlement.
The Muslim influx to the hills, especially in the Kalimpong district, has been happening slowly but steadily over the past few months according to local villagers in the Bhalukhop panchayat. Kalimpong has some very old Muslim residents, mostly concentrated in the Thakurbari area but Muslim populations are growing remarkably on Melli Road.
“You cannot distinguish indigenous Muslim families from us. They speak in Nepali, follow our lifestyle even participate in our religious events. But the new settlers stand out with their clothes and habits,” says Umesh Ghising from Kalimpong market.
Many locals claim that the newcomers are conservative and have been urging the old Muslim families to also become conservative. “A pork shop on Melli Road has been closed because they complained to the authorities. This shop was here for the last 20 years,” said another shop owner near Kalimpong clock tower.
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders allege that this gradual increase of Muslim populations in the Gorkha-dominated Darjeeling and Kalimpong is part of a sinister plan hatched by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in the state. These new Muslim settlers will form a solid support base for TMC and a precious vote bank for Mamata Banerjee.
People are saying that Rohingya are also living in Deolo and Graham’s Home in Kalimpong. A government employee of the forest department also confirmed their presence and the establishment of a new settlement near Graham’s home.
The indigenous Gorkha community is feeling insecure about the rising population of Muslims in the hills. The government of India has taken a clear stand against Rohingya refugees and their entry into Indian territory is strictly forbidden. Gorkhas believe that the state government’s motive is to create a cultural imbalance in the hills and weaken the Gorkhaland movement.
Some also believe that this poses a security concern at the border. The Rohingya have been declared a national security threat by the central government in an affidavit before the Supreme Court last year. Kalimpong is the headquarters of an army division that is deployed along the strategic border with Tibet. It is also the gateway to the Jelep-la pass that leads to Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, an important Chinese military base.
According to some reports, a huge number of Rohingya have been entering Bengal illegally by breaching the fences along the Indo-Bangla border. “The Bengal government is providing protection to these illegal migrants and providing them citizenship for its petty political gains. The presence of Rohingya in Bengal will become a huge national security problem soon,” said state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh.
Gorkhas and other indigenous communities of the hills are not welcoming of these Muslim people. People in the hills suspect that both Mamata Banerjee and the Centre are trying to marginalise them and make them a minority on their own land.
None of the new settlers at Melli identified themselves as Rohingya when asked. Most people claim they were born and brought up in West Bengal and moved here 10-15 years ago for employment opportunities. A few people said that they are Nepali Muslims. But their language, attire is much different from Muslims traditionally living in Kalimpong.
According to media reports citing government data, the number of Rohingya refugees in India was 10,500 in 2015 and increased to 40,000 in the next two years. The West Bengal government adopted a contrary position to the Centre’s declaration by supporting Rohingya refugees. This decision is being questioned by many. The state shares a porous border with Bangladesh and for decades, Bangladeshi citizens have illegally migrated to the country. It is high time that government agencies identify the refugees and put them on record instead of making them a vote bank.