At a time when education has become a ‘right under threat’ for the Darjeeling populace, people gathered in different parts to commemorate the birth anniversary of Bhanubhakta Acharya, the Nepali poet known for his contribution in translating the Ramayana.
This year, however, the celebrations were juxtaposed with the Gorkhaland protests. In Kurseong, people gathered for a rally at 10.30 am on Thursday at Tourist Lodge and walked till Bhanubhakta’s statue in PB Road, where a public meeting was held.
Apart from reciting lines from the Nepali Ramayana, and other well-known works of the poet, the 10,000-odd participants, including students, raised pro-Gorkhaland slogans. Kurseong MLA Rohit Sharma in his introductory speech also mentioned the statehood demand. Members from all political parties participated.
As the Hills were preparing for Bhanujayanti celebrations on Thursday, 18-year old Sabina Rai of Mirik reached Siliguri around 6.30 am with her friend to submit an online application form for a nursing course. “My friend’s father dropped us on his motorcycle. We started around 5.30 am because after that vehicles are not being permitted to ply.
The application process was online but because we do not have Internet in Mirik, I had to come all the way here and fill the form from an Internet cafe,” Sabina said. Like her, several other students are travelling during late night or early morning to seek admission in colleges.
“From around 35-40 per cent, this year saw hardly 15 per cent of Hill students applying for admission in our college,” Abhijit Mazumdar, secretary, CPI-(ML) (liberation), Darjeeling, and a professor at Siliguri College said.
Aparna Chatterjee, professor of Sociology and vice principal, Arts and Science, St Xavier’s College, Rajganj echoed Mazumdar’s words and said, “The present situation is creating a lot of difficulties for Hill students who are pursuing their studies here. About 30-40 per cent of students are from the Hills that is under turmoil for over eight weeks.”
The launch of the Gorkhaland agitation came at a time when colleges around the region were admitting students for graduate courses. Due to lack of colleges and with no university in the Hills, a large chunk of students from Darjeeling opt for further education at nearby Siliguri.
However, with Internet services banned, several students this year could not submit applications and a few who managed to do so had to overcome huge hurdles in travelling to the plains in either ambulances or with special permission from protesters or during the late night hours.
“Students from the Hills are requesting college authorities for more time to seek admission or join college as several of them missed classes due to the protests. We understand their plight, but we are not able to extend the deadline. Students tell me they had to travel in ambulances or take special permission to reach college,” Chatterjee said.
There are, on the other hand, a sizeable number of students who are willingly halting their career goals for what they believe is a greater cause. Pema Lama, a student from Darjeeling said this time the protest is seeing more student participation. Acknowledging that colleges and other educational institutes have been closed, Lama said the setbacks are only temporary and once the situation eases, the Hills will regain its status in the field of education.
The literacy rate of Darjeeling district is 79.56 per cent, a little higher than West Bengal’s 77.08 per cent. The Hills are also known for quality education imparted through several old convents, ranked among the best schools in the country. However, all of these schools have been shut following the protests.
“There are both secondary and higher secondary schools here. I feel the strike will affect secondary students, as parents and students are apprehensive about the situation,” said major (retd) N K Gurung, principal of Kurseong-based Reliance Public School. While acknowledging the fact that education has been hit hard by the ongoing protest, Gurung expressed hope that things will normalise in two weeks. “
We might curtail holidays for the Durga Puja and winter vacations to make up for the loss in classes during the strike. But once the situation eases, I think the schools won’t face any problems. Students will start combing back to study in the Hills. I feel the problem will be resolved in a fortnight,” Gurung said.
The reopening of schools and colleges, however, is still shrouded in uncertainty. The Hill political parties are expected to meet on July 16 to discuss further course of action and decide the fate of the ongoing strike.