Church leaders have expressed solidarity with ethnic Gorkha people who are on an indefinite strike protesting for a separate homeland in the Darjeeling area of eastern India.
Since 8 June, Darjeeling district in West Bengal state has witnessed violent clashes between local residents and police.
Street protests, stone throwing as well as violence from both sides has intensified since 12 June when the popular local organization Gorkha Janmukti Morcha called for an indefinite strike demanding the creation of a separate homeland - Gorkhaland - for ethnic Gorkha people. At least three people have been killed in the violence.
"The church is not directly involved in the protest. But the church is with the people," Bishop Stephen Lepcha of Darjeeling told ucanews.com. He explained that local people are demanding the right of self-governance because West Bengal state officials does not attend to their needs.
The Gorkhas live in the hill country of West Bengal and have a language and culture separate from the rest of the state.
"The problem arises here again because people do not see the government helping with any development in this hilly region. People suffer unemployment and poverty. The administration has failed miserably," said Bishop Lepcha, a native of Darjeeling.
The struggle for a separate state within the Indian federation began three decades ago. Armed classes claimed 1,200 lives from 1986 to1988. The confrontation then was resolved by the West Bengal government, which established the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill council, a semi-autonomous body administering Darjeeling.
"But in effect everything was controlled by the state government," the bishop said, adding that without freedom the council also "failed to work for the welfare of the people."
Bishop Lepcha said that the demand for Gorkhaland is "genuine as it will help Gorkha people safeguard their language and ethnic culture which they consider under threat." He would like the government and the Gorkha people "to have dialogue and solve the problem, or else the situation will be out of control."
Catholics are "very small in number" from among the local population but have a "good rapport" with other local people and the West Bengal state government, the bishop said. "We are in a process to find out some ways to help bring peace back to the region," he said.
Jesuit Father Kinley Tshering, the order's provincial superior in Darjeeling, told ucanews.com that he "is worried" that the strike, if it continues, may hit ordinary people hard because they may run out of food and other essential items. The strike has led to blocked roads, preventing trucks with food and other supplies from traveling to the region.
"This can fan further protests," he said. "Our people are suffering. We can't run away with our responsibilities. Our prayer and solidarity are with them."
The priest also said that the demand for a separate homeland is "right because the former council did very less in terms of development in the hilly region."
Tej Kumar Thapa, who works with Darjeeling Diocesan Social Service Society, said the demand for autonomy and the resulting violence was "waiting to happen because the government can't impose or restrict what language we learn and speak."
Thapa said the immediate spark for the strike was the state government's move to "compulsorily teach" the state's Bengali language in all schools across the state.
"It was not correct," he said, "because our language is already dying and then this comes."
PICTURE: Protesters supporting ethnic Gorkha people carry signs and shout slogans during a 22 June demonstration in Mumbai, India