Reprieve in the hills?

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Roshan Giri, general secretary of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, at Writers Buildings in Kolkata on June 7 after an "official-level agreement" was reached between the State government and the GJM. -

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Roshan Giri, general secretary of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, at Writers Buildings in Kolkata on June 7 after an "official-level agreement" was reached between the State government and the GJM. -

The State government concludes an official-level agreement" with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

A TEMPORARY solution to the political impasse in the Darjeeling hills of North Bengal seems to be in sight, with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) signing an official-level agreement with the State government. In meetings held on June 6 and 7, it was decided that an elected body with greater administrative, executive and financial powers and more autonomy would be constituted to replace the practically defunct Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which was set up in 1988. The geographical area over which the new body will have jurisdiction will be determined by a nine-member committee that will be set up to delineate the preponderantly Gorkha regions in the Terai and the Doars in the foothills. The committee, comprising representatives from the Centre, the State and the GJM, is expected to submit its report within six months.

The official-level agreement will be formalised in a tripartite meeting that is expected to be held soon in Darjeeling. Thereafter, a Bill will be introduced in the Assembly to hold elections to the new body. Until the new body is established, a five-member committee will ensure that the development process in the region does not suffer.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called the occasion historic and announced at a press conference at the end of the meeting that the Darjeeling matter has been settled. However, the minutes of the meeting clearly state that the establishment of the new body will not in any way dilute the main agenda of the Gorkhaland movement for a separate State. Moreover, the GJM leadership has also been careful in not calling the signed document an agreement. They insisted on referring to it as the minutes of the meeting.

Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a senior leader of the GJM Central Committee, told Frontline: Though it is a resolution for the time being, it is clearly a step forward. To put it symbolically, we had tea when the DGHC was formed under Left Front rule; now Mamata Banerjee has given us breakfast. But that does not mean we stop here and remain hungry for the rest of our lives. Our ultimate objective is Gorkhaland, and unless that is obtained, our movement will continue in some form or another.

However, one important fallout of the new development is that the people in the hills and the rest of the State can, at least for the time being, look forward to a period of peace and development. The Darjeeling hills have been on the boil since October 2007 when the GJM, under the leadership of Bimal Gurung, evicted Subhash Ghising and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) he led from power and established its political supremacy in the hills with a fresh call for Gorkhaland. The subsequent three and a half years saw incessant strikes and violent agitations, which at times took on an ethnic colour as it spread even to the foothills.

The GJM leadership has said that this form of agitation will not be pursued following the recent agreement. Our priority now will be the implementation of all that has been decided in the meeting. We will rise to the challenge and show everyone that we are capable and that the faith the people have placed in us is justified, Chhetri told Frontline.

The meeting was led by Chief Secretary Samar Ghosh from the State government's side and party general secretary Roshan Giri from the GJM side. It was decided that a committee would be formed to look into the GJM's demand for the transfer of the Tauzi department which deals with tea-garden land to the proposed new body. The State government also agreed to approach the Centre over the GJM's proposal that the new body have control of the forested areas, including the reserve forests, in the region. The GJM has been demanding the regularisation of casual workers of the DGHC. It was decided in the meeting that workers who had completed 10 years of service would be made permanent with immediate effect, while the others would be made so after they completed 10 years. In the meanwhile, casual workers can look forward to an enhanced pay packet.

According to political observers in the hills, the GJM's decision to keep its demand for Gorkhaland in abeyance for a while is not surprising. It was clear that they would not press too much for statehood after the new government came. Locally, too, they were preparing the ground for this new strategy by telling the people that while the achievement of Gorkhaland would remain the ultimate objective, it would be prudent in the meanwhile to get whatever we can for the development of the region, a political observer in the hills told Frontline.

The recent Assembly elections showed that the GJM had not lost its supremacy in the hills. In the three hill constituencies of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, GJM candidates scored thumping victories, winning around 90 per cent of the total votes polled. The party was thought to be losing its support base, particularly after the assassination of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) chief Madan Tamang in May 2010, allegedly by GJM activists. It is true it was perceived that the common people were getting tired of the party's agitational programme and the bandhs, but our participation in the Assembly elections proved that we are as strong as ever, a senior GJM activist told Frontline.

Earlier, the GJM had insisted that the Gorkha Regional Authority, the interim regional set-up proposed then, be a nominated one. But now, its confidence boosted by the results of the Assembly elections, it has agreed that the new body should be an elected one.

However, the latest development may not go down well with everyone in the Darjeeling hills. Some sections, including Tamang, the assassinated chief of the ABGL, were opposed to the GJM's proposal for an interim set-up. This time too, the ABGL has been quick to cry foul, saying that the statehood demand has been compromised. This is a great betrayal of the people. The GJM, which had gone to the polls with Gorkhaland as its main issue, has betrayed the people who voted for it. We are against any arrangement within the State of West Bengal. This is no different from the DGHC, ABGL leader Pratap Khati told Frontline.

According to Khati, the GJM is desperate to reach an agreement with the State government, particularly because the Central Bureau of Investigation hearing in the Madan Tamang murder case is coming up before the Calcutta High Court on June 23. The issue of Gorkhaland has aroused emotions in the hills. However, over the years a kind of cynicism has crept in. There is a saying here that Gorkhaland is khane bharo (utensil in which cooked food is kept). Everybody's political career is made of it, but apart from that, nothing else happens, a resident of the hills told Frontline.

Has Mamata Banerjee indeed set the ball rolling to ultimately resolve the hill crisis? Or has she merely bought time? Only time will tell. Still, peace seems to have been restored in the hills for a while.

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