Burning hills

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

An office of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in flames after a violent clash between Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supporters and the police in Siliguri on February 8. - PTI

An office of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in flames after a violent clash between Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supporters and the police in Siliguri on February 8. - PTI

Chaos grips the Darjeeling hills following the death of two Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supporters in police firing.

FEAR and uncertainty have once again gripped the Darjeeling hills in West Bengal. The region erupted in violence following the death of two Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) activists in police firing at Sipchu in the Dooars on February 8. The firing took place when around 3,000 GJM supporters, assembled in violation of prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, turned violent. After a lathi-charge and the use of tear gas reportedly failed to disperse the mob, and a woman constable, Karuna Tigga, was viciously hit in the head by an agitator wielding a khukri (traditional dagger), the police opened fire. The two GJM activists who died on the spot were 16-year-old Vicky Lama and 24-year-old Bimala Rai.

A third victim of the firing, 23-year-old Nita Khawas, died four days later. More than 20 State police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel, alongside dozens of agitators, were injured in the clash. Wilson Champamari, the GJM-backed independent Member of the Legislative Assembly from Kalchini in Jalpaiguri, was arrested in connection with the violence.

The GJM called an indefinite bandh in the hills and demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), claiming that the firing was unprovoked. State Urban Development Minister Asok Bhattacharya, who represents Siliguri constituency in Darjeeling district in the Assembly, maintained that the GJM provoked the firing. This was clearly a pre-planned effort. They are losing their hold on the politics of the region and so they wanted to create a situation like this and cause ethnic unrest and chaos, which they hope will give them the opportunity to regroup, he told Frontline.

Violent reaction

The Sipchu firing triggered a violent reaction in the hills as angry mobs took to the streets, setting fire to government bungalows, offices, police outposts and Forest Department properties. Government cars, including those of the District Magistrate and the District Judge, and police vans were destroyed and a fire service station was set ablaze. The mayhem continued late into the night. There were also sporadic incidents of violence on the first couple of days of the shutdown. The State Forest Department alone is reported to have suffered a loss of over Rs.4.3 crore. As of February 17, five companies of the CRPF and one company of the Border Security Force (BSF) were deployed to maintain peace in the three hill subdivisions.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee appealed for peace and said that the State government was ready for talks. The solution to this issue can only be a political one, evolved through dialogue and discussion. We are ready to sit down for talks, but it cannot take place in an atmosphere of violence, he said on February 12.

The government also sought the Army's intervention, but the latter was reluctant to move in. An Army source told Frontline: We did not feel the situation warranted deployment of the Army. It was not a case of armed insurgency in the region. The paramilitary forces are more than capable of handling the problem. The Army should be called in as a last resort. Besides, in a sensitive border area like Darjeeling, the Army cannot afford to be unpopular among the masses.

There had been simmering tension in the region since January 19, when the GJM leadership announced a March for Gorkhaland, which would delineate the areas to be included in the proposed Gorkhaland state. Just three days earlier, there were clashes between Gorkhaland supporters and those opposed to it at Jaigaon in the Dooars. The Morcha's proposed march was designed to cover parts of the Terai and the Dooars in the North Bengal plains. GJM supporters had been setting up camps in the forest areas in and around Sipchu, waiting for a green signal from their leaders. To pre-empt further clashes in an already volatile atmosphere, the regional authorities imposed prohibitory orders in parts of the Dooars and dismantled a GJM camp.

As of February 16, the ninth day of the indefinite bandh in the hills, the situation remained tense though no incidents of violence were reported in the last few days. There is total shutdown in the hills, and people are in the streets demanding Gorkhaland and protesting against the inhuman killing in Sipchu. The GJM is committed to keeping its movement for Gorkhaland a peaceful one, GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told Frontline. The party supremo, Bimal Gurung, who has remained stationed at a camp in Kumani since the last week of January, decided not to take his padayatra (march) to the Dooars as planned earlier as long as his supporters in the Dooars were allowed to march to his camp on February 17.

Why now?

The GJM's intensification of its agitation programme at a time when it appeared that a solution could emerge through discussions on the issue of an interim administration as proposed by it is significant. Some political observers believe that it might be because of a perceived weakening of its support base.

Bimal Gurung's sway in the hills has remained practically unchallenged ever since Gorkha National Liberation Front supremo Subash Ghising's 22-year-rule ended in 2008. For some time now, however, resentment has been building up against the GJM leadership. There has been criticism of the alleged intolerance of other political forces and annoyance with the repeated bandhs and shutdowns.

The assassination of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League chief Madan Tamang by a GJM supporter in broad daylight in May 2010 met with strong disapproval by the people. A political observer in the Darjeeling hills told Frontline that the assassination alienated a lot of people who were already fed up with the politics of bandh and intimidation.

Tamang, one of the respected voices in the hills opposed to the GJM, was known to be strongly against the GJM's proposal for an interim regional set-up known as the Gorkha Regional Authority for the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Kurseong and the Gorkha-dominated areas in the Terai and the Dooars. It was sought to be free from West Bengal's laws and with full executive powers on the maintenance of law and order and in fiscal administration, with financial assistance coming directly from the Centre. The GJM leadership maintained that this would be a temporary arrangement before the final goal of Gorkhaland was achieved. However, there were doubts among a section of GJM supporters who felt that this would be yet another deviation from the ultimate goal of Gorkhaland.

It is a tested political ploy to gain popular support in the hills by being more vocal than one's rivals in demanding a separate Gorkhaland State. Bimal Gurung rejected Ghising's proposal for inclusion of the hill region in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution as an intermediate step and gave a fresh call for Gorkhaland. When Gurung suggested the establishment of an interim authority, other parties like the ABGL, who for long had remained subdued by the overwhelming strength of the GJM, hardened their stance on Gorkhaland. In December last year, sensing a crack in the GJM support base, the GNLF tried to resurface in the political mainstream after two years of hibernation, but it was beaten back.

Political sources say that the GJM probably realised that it could not afford to appear to be compromising in any way on its promise of delivering Gorkhaland. So, even as talks were on with the Centre on the issue of the interim set-up, on January 11, the party leadership called sporadic bandhs, culminating in a hunger strike, ostensibly in protest against the Centre's failure to clarify its stand on the demand for a separate State.

However, before the erosion of the GJM's popularity could become significant, the shooting incident at Sipchu united all the dissenting groups in the clamour for a separate Gorkhaland State. Even a month ago, a large section of the people had groaned at the prospect of yet another series of bandhs, but the indefinite shutdown called by the GJM got widespread support. If the bandh has to continue, then let it continue, said Praful Rao, a retired Air Force officer residing in Kalimpong. An elderly lady who lost her husband in the GNLF movement in the late 1980s, said: Earlier I would get annoyed with the bandhs, but this time, I think it is really necessary.

Soon after the firing at Sipchu, the GJM leadership abandoned the interim arrangement, calling it a closed chapter, and decided to intensify its agitation for statehood. However, on February 14, Bimal Gurung was non-committal on the question of talks with the Centre and the State government on setting up the interim authority. I have neither said no, nor have I said yes, he said.

Yet, on January 25, after a meeting with Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the GJM leadership expressed satisfaction with its outcome, raising hopes of a speedy resolution of the deadlock.

However, the following day, it was rejected, apparently because of the Centre's plan to draw up the proposal afresh. The State government, on the other hand, dug in its heels on the issue of whether the members of the proposed authority would be nominated, as the Morcha wanted, or elected, as it desired. Vacillation on the issue by the GJM once again betrays a feeling of discomfort in the present situation. With the expectations raised among the people on the one hand, and the indefinite strike on the other, the GJM leadership is now caught on the horns of a dilemma. It is looking for an escape route, said an informed source in the hills.

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