A deal in Darjeeling

Print edition : August 12, 2011

Gorkha Janamukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the ceremony marking the signing of the tripartite agreement at Pintail village in Darjeeling on July 18. - ASHOK BHAUMIK /PTI

A tripartite agreement paves the way for establishing the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration and restoring stability in the region.

THE signing of a tripartite agreement on July 18 by the West Bengal government, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) and the Central government, which will pave the way for the establishment of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), marks the beginning of a fresh chapter in the history of the Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal. Both the Centre and the State government hope that with the setting up of the GTA the Darjeeling hills will now move into a period of peace and development. Violence and uncertainty had gripped the region since early 2008 when the GJM wrested political control of the hills from Subash Ghisingh's Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and renewed the call for a separate State of Gorkhaland.

The GTA will be a statutory autonomous body. It will replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which was established in 1988 through an Act, following an agreement between the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and Subash Ghisingh. The new body will comprise 50 members, of whom 45 will be elected directly and five will be nominated by the State government to represent the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, women and minority communities. The GTA will have 59 departments under it, including education, agriculture, cottage and small scale industries, rural development and Tauzi (which deals with land records of the tea gardens) as well as control of all unreserved forests in the region. The new body will have the power to create government jobs in the B, C and D categories. It is common knowledge that the Gorkhaland Personnel a vigilante group established by the GJM without the State government's approval has a significant number of cadre. Now there are job opportunities for them. The State government, as a sop to the GJM, has agreed to consider the recruitment of GTA youth in the police, army and paramilitary forces subject to their suitability for such appointment.

While the GTA has not been given any legislative power, the agreement clearly states that the powers to frame rules/regulations, under the State Acts to control, regulate and administer the departments/offices and subjects transferred to the new body will be conferred upon the new body.

The area that will fall under the jurisdiction of the GTA, for the time being, will be the same as that under the DGHC, that is, the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, and 13 mouzas (technical term for a village in the revenue administration) in the Siliguri subdivision. The GJM's demand to include the predominantly Gorkha regions of the Terai and the Doars in the GTA is being looked into by a nine-member committee comprising representatives of the Centre, the State government and the GJM. The committee is expected to submit its report in the next few months.

Financial assistance

The Centre and the State government have assured all possible assistance to the GTA for the overall development of the region. The Centre will provide an annual assistance of Rs.200 crore for three years to develop socio-economic infrastructure in the GTA, over and above the normal Plan assistance allocated to the State of West Bengal. The Centre and the State government will provide one-time financial assistance for the development of administrative infrastructure, such as the GTA Bidhan Sabha house, a secretariat complex and residential quarters. The agreement also states, The allocations sanctioned in the budget of the GTA and all funds sanctioned by the State or the Union government which remain unspent at the close of the financial year shall be taken into account for the purpose of providing additional resources in the Budget of the following year and the fund requirement will be met on a yearly basis.

At first glance, the proposed GTA appears to be more or less identical to the DGHC. Both were created out of a situation of chaos with the purpose of bringing about peace and stability, albeit temporarily. The two bodies have no legislative powers although they have been recognised as autonomous entities, and both represent a compromise of sorts by the Gorkha leadership of its claimed goal of a separate Gorkhaland State.

The difference between the two is that the GTA is more powerful and broad-based than the DGHC. It has 50 members, of whom only five are nominated, whereas the DGHC had only 42 members, with 14 of them nominated by the State government. The GTA will have 59 departments under it, while the DGHC had only 19. The GTA will have the power to create government jobs, which the DGHC lacked. Although unlike the DGHC the GTA does not have any legislative powers, it has been empowered to make statutory rules in respect of various laws under the State. Also, the panchayati raj under the GTA will be a three-tier one, whereas under the DGHC it was a two-tier system.

No division

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee allayed fears that the creation of a new body with even greater powers than the DGHC would facilitate the creation of a separate State of Gorkhaland. Addressing a meeting at Pintail village in Siliguri, the venue of the signing of the agreement, she said: There will be no division of Bengal. Darjeeling is not outside West Bengal but is the heart of West Bengal.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi and several Trinamool Congress and GJM leaders shared the dais with her.

However, the opposition, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), feels that the agreement will give an impetus to divisive sentiments. The CPI(M)'s Surya Kanta Mishra, who is the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, told Frontline: When the CPI(M)-led Left Front was in power, we refused to discuss their demand for the inclusion of the Terai and the Doars under their jurisdiction. But the present government, by agreeing to allow a high-powered committee to look into the matter, has essentially opened a Pandora's box. This will further create a wedge between the people of the hills and the plains. Even as the agreement was being signed, a bandh was called in Siliguri town by a few splinter groups and organisations such as the parochial Bangla O Bangla Bhasha Bachao Committee.

Much will depend on the nine-member committee's findings as to whether the Gorkha-dominated regions of the Terai and the Doars should be brought under the jurisdiction of the GTA. Senior GJM leader Harka Bahadur Chhetri told Frontline: 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 Doars are not included under the GTA, then there is a possibility of the whole agreement falling flat.

Although Mamata Banerjee asserted that Bengal would not be divided, the issue of Gorkhaland has not been dropped altogether. It is stated in the agreement: the GJM, while not dropping their demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland, has agreed to the setting up of an autonomous body. In fact, the day after the agreement was signed, Bimal Gurung, in order to counter Mamata's statement, assured his supporters that the movement for Gorkhaland would continue. However, according to political observers in the hills, it is most likely that for the time being it will take a back seat. If whatever is stated in the agreement is implemented, then a large part of the aspiration of our people will be fulfilled. If not, it will be viewed by the people as a compromise', as the DGHC was, and they will once again take to the streets, Chhetri said.

Those opposed to the GJM, however, feel that the Gorkhaland movement has indeed been compromised by the agreement. Pratap Khati, leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), called it a black day for the people of the hills. We strongly condemn this accord. In no way will this fulfil the aspirations of the people of Darjeeling. It is a day of betrayal, he said. The ABGL feels that the GTA is nothing but old wine in a new bottle, meant to create an illusion of autonomy. Besides, it also feels, like the CPI(M), that the entire process followed by the State government was undemocratic. Mamata Banerjee should have taken the opinion of other political parties too instead of taking such a unilateral decision and practically handing over power only to the GJM, Khati said.

For the people of the hills, however, it is a welcome return to normalcy after nearly three years of continuous bandhs and violent agitations. The people feel that a separate State is ideal, but if this cannot be had right now, then the present set-up is the best possible and most rational alternative, Sandip C. Jain, the editor of a local newspaper in Kalimpong, said.

The formidable list of projects in the fields of health, education and infrastructure, which the GTA has planned to undertake with financial assistance from the Centre and the State government, has raised the expectations of the people of the region. We all know that the demand for separate statehood was compromised by this agreement, but we are not going to talk about it. We are now just happy to look forward to a period of stability and development, a resident of the hills, who did not wish to be named, observed.

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