Civil disturbance disrupts ordination plans

protests in Darjeeling
protests in Darjeeling

Many friends of the Jesuits in London will remember Alphonse Lepcha SJ who spent three years studying for his BD at Heythrop College while living in our Clapham community.  He was ordained deacon in February 2017 by Bishop Nicholas Hudson at St Ignatius Church Stamford Hill and then served as a deacon at Farm Street church.

Alphonse returned to his home province of Darjeeling to prepare for ordination which was due to take place last week at Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Jesuit novitiate is located.

Fr David Stewart SJ, who was Alphonse’s superior in Clapham, travelled to Darjeeling for the ordination.  However, local political protestors seeking a separate Gorkha state are promoting strikes and causing violent disruption which meant it was impossible for travellers to reach  Kalimpong, and the ordination had to be postponed.

Alphonse is himself of Gorkha Catholic heritage.  The activists are seeking to establish Ghorkaland - a new state within the Indian federation.  This cause was first proposed over a century ago.  Some concessions to administrative autonomy were made in 2011.  But protests were reignited in June 2017 after the West Bengal government announced that the Bengali language will be made mandatory in all schools. Local Ghorka people who are predominantly Nepali speaking, see this as an attempt to destroy their culture. The last 100 days have seen widespread violence to enforce a general strike.  Transport around the region is heavily disrupted and unsafe.  The government has shut down the internet and human rights abuses reports are widespread.  People in more remote locations are without food and other essential supplies.

Alphonse Lepcha with Bishop Hudson at his ordination to the diaconateThe Jesuit provincial Fr Kinley Tshering and the local bishop support the cause of an autonomous state because the West Bengal government marginalises those of Gorkha heritage, who suffer economic and cultural discrimination:  "Our people are suffering. We can't run away from our responsibilities. Our prayer and solidarity are with them." Fr Tshering told UCA news earlier this summer.  But at the same time he has called for the action to stop as people need peace.

Fr Stewart, just returned from the region, commented “I was sorry not to witness Alphonse’s ordination but his family and the provincial would not have been able to reach Kalimpong.  I did eventually get up there but only by travelling at night, and once there I had to stay overnight and leave before dawn.  The ordination has been rescheduled for a couple of weeks but there is some doubt that things will be sufficiently quiet even then.”