Walkover in the hills

Published : Aug 10, 2012 00:00 IST

Bimal Gurung, leader of the Gorkha People's Liberation Front.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Bimal Gurung, leader of the Gorkha People's Liberation Front.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

The GTA elections hold the promise of peace and development in the strife-torn Darjeeling hills.

The Gorkha Janamukti Morchas (GJM) decision to participate in the elections to the newly formed Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) may be the first step towards a long-term solution to the unrest in the Darjeeling hills over the demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland. However, the circumstances under which the elections are being held have raised questions on the issue of real democracy in the region.

Well ahead of the elections, scheduled for July 29, the GJM virtually secured a majority, with rival parties bowing out of the contest, accusing it of pressuring their candidates to withdraw or citing ideological reasons for non-participation. As of July 15, the GJM was unopposed in 28 out of the total 45 seats. Among the important winners by default are GJM supremo Bimal Gurung; his wife, Asha Gurung; and party general secretary Roshan Giri. For the remaining 17 seats, the GJM will take on the Trinamool Congress, which is weak in the region.

Unfortunately, we were forced to withdraw from the elections. Our candidates were being constantly threatened by the GJM. They were not even allowed to submit their nominations, and our request for security fell on deaf ears, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and acting secretary of the party in Darjeeling Jibesh Sarkar told Frontline. While the CPI(M) was practically bullied out of the elections, the stronger parties from the hills, namely the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), cited ideological reasons for their abstention.

The GJMs attitude towards its opponents has once again betrayed its authoritarian nature and rendered the elections, as Sarkar put it, a farce. Denying the use of terror tactics against CPI(M) candidates, Bimal Gurung said that the CPI(M) backed out owing to the lack of support in the hills. The CPI(M), however, never had any illusions about its political strength in the hills. It welcomed the elections, and its participation was more of a gesture to uphold democracy.

Bimal Gurungs claim that his party will win all 45 seats is not being dismissed as an idle boast. The election results are a forgone conclusion, as the GJMs supremacy in the hills remains unchallenged. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the party won all three hill constituencies of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, polling around 90 per cent of the votes.

This time too the GJM will sweep the elections. There are few seats in which it faces any threat. Even if the percentage of votes it wins goes down owing to the localised nature of this election, it is not likely to go below 80 per cent, Sandip C. Jain, editor of Himalayan Times, told Frontline.

Return to peace

Except for a few local parties, the GTA elections have been welcomed by all. Apart from a respite from the violence and agitations that have practically ruined the economy of the region, the elections have brought with them the promise of development and progress, especially through the revival of tourism, its main industry. The political uncertainty that had gripped the hills for the past four years, from the time the GJM ousted the GNLF from its position of supremacy in the region and gave a fresh call for Gorkhaland, finally seemed to have ended last year with the signing of the GTA agreement to set up a new statutory autonomous body to replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which was established in 1988.

The GJM was for long non-committal on elections and at times even threatened to burn copies of the GTA agreement if some of its demands pertaining to the New Body, particularly the inclusion of 396 mouzas (revenue villages) from the Terai and the Dooars in the foothills, were not accepted. What has surprised many is the fact that the GJMs decision to contest the elections came in the wake of the report of a high-powered committee that looked into the demand for additional areas, which recommended that only five mouzas be included in the GTA.

This report, by the 10-member committee headed by Justice Shyamal Sen, a retired Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, was a major political blow to the GJM. The committee was set up according to the provisions of the memorandum of agreement of the GTA to look into the question of identification of additional areas in Siliguri Terai and the Dooars. The committee included four representatives of the GJM.

Even though the GJM called the report an insult to the Gorkha sentiment, it seemed placated by the State governments decision to set up another three-member verification committee to look into the findings of the Shyamal Sen Committee. The opposition, led by the CPI(M), has found this objectionable. How can another committee be formed for a committee that is recognised by an Act? It is clear that the State government is trying to buy peace at any cost, Leader of the Opposition and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Surya Kanta Mishra told Frontline. But overall, the party has welcomed the elections.

According to political sources, the GJM very well knew that its demand for 396 mouzas was not practical, but it did not expect that it would get only five. Realistically, we would have been satisfied with around 120. But we were taken aback by the recommendation of just five, a senior GJM leader told Frontline. However, going by the partys fiery reputation, its reaction, according to some political observers, has been demure to say the least. To many, its threat to contemplate a staggered agitation seemed lame. More importantly, the GJMs decision to take part in the GTA elections was a major comedown for a party whose writ is considered the law in the hills. GJM general secretary Giri had said, We decided to contest the elections for the sake of infrastructure development and the overall development of the hills. Our leaders from the Terai and the Dooars also fervently requested us to participate.

But not everybody in the hills was convinced by this. There are those who feel that the GJMs decision to contest the elections without first settling the issue of additional mouzas betrayed a weakness that was not exhibited before.

This is certainly not a comedown. It is mentioned in the GTA agreement that the work of the high-power committee will run parallel to the electoral process, which will be based on the existing area of delimitation. The two will have no bearing on each other. We are in no mood to create instability, senior GJM leader and legislator from Kalimpong Harka Bahadur Chhetri told Frontline.

Yet, an observation Chhetri made soon after the GTA deal was signed on July 18, 2011, indicated a completely different attitude. This is very crucial to our movement, the whole thrust of which has been on territory. If the specified parts of the Terai and the Dooars are not included under the GTA, then there is a possibility of the whole agreement falling flat, he told Frontline at that time.

However, the GJM leadership has been careful in keeping an exit route open. We are hopeful that the verification committee will do justice to our demand; otherwise, our members from the GTA may very well resign and we may once again resume our agitation for Gorkhaland, senior GJM leader R.B. Bhujal told Frontline.

While some political observers feel the GJMs decision to contest the elections was merely in deference to popular sentiment in the hills favouring an end to the political uncertainty, there are those who believe that the softening of the partys stand may have something to do with the case of ABGL leader Madan Tamangs murder by suspected GJM activists. On May 21, 2010, Tamang, one of the most respected leaders of the hills, was stabbed to death in broad daylight.

Tamang not only was a staunch opponent of Bimal Gurungs politics but was also critical of the interim administration that was proposed by the GJM at that time. The Madan Tamang murder is a sore spot for the GJM. With investigations under way, it is possible that the party leadership is a little wary of pushing the State government too hard, said a political source in the hills. However, that has not prevented the party from fielding one of the prime accused as a candidate in the elections.

Detractors of the GJM see the establishment of the GTA as a compromise on the Gorkhaland issue. This is just a painkiller, it is not the cure, Dawa Pakhrin, leader of the Gorkha Nirman Morcha, told Frontline. In the same vein, CPRM leader J.B. Rai called the GTA a mere development agency that did little to address the question of the Gorkha identity. ABGL leader Pratap Khati said that it was just another form of the DGHC.

The GJM, however, continues to maintain that it has not deviated from its goal. Our demand for Gorkhaland is mentioned even in the GTA agreement. This is just an arrangement we have accepted: first, to facilitate the development process and, second, to prepare ourselves for self-governance when Gorkhaland is achieved, said Bhujal.

In the meanwhile, the Calcutta High Court admitted a petition moved by GNLF chief Subash Ghising challenging the legality of the GTA Act, the elections and the setting up of the new body. Even if that does not affect the electoral process immediately, the final verdict may complicate matters.

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