Smouldering hills

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Bimal Gurung, Gorkha Janamukti Morcha leader, in Darjeeling. - ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Bimal Gurung, Gorkha Janamukti Morcha leader, in Darjeeling. - ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

A fresh call for a separate Gorkhaland plunges Darjeeling again into political uncertainty.

Bimal Gurung, Gorkha

A FRESH spell of political uncertainty looms over the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal following a renewed call for a separate Gorkhaland State. Only, this time the campaign is being spearheaded by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), a breakaway faction of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) which agitated for Gorkhaland in the 1980s. Sporadic disturbances, which even prompted the local administration to requisition the Army on standby duty, and strikes and counter-strikes by the two rival parties have rekindled memories of the crippling violence associated with the Gorkhaland movement of 1986.

At a public rally in Darjeeling on October 7, Bimal Gurung, once considered a close associate of GNLF supremo Subash Ghising, announced the formation of the GJM, a new political outfit, and gave a fresh call for a separate State of Gorkhaland, seeking the united support of people cutting across party lines. The huge turnout at the rally gave a clear indication that Ghisings supremacy in the hills was finally facing a challenge. On the dais, Gurung was joined by representatives of the All Gorkha Students Union, GNLF rebels and leaders of the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist, a breakaway faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

According to knowledgeable sources, Gurungs expulsion from the GNLF on the grounds of anti-party activities has weakened the party and fuelled speculation that all is not well within the GNLF. It has also further strengthened the anti-incumbency sentiment among the hill people. People are fed up with Ghising and want a change for the sake of change, which is not a healthy sentiment, an informed source told Frontline. Moreover, since the disbanding of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), the GNLF has lost direct contact with the masses through its elected councillors and, as such, its support base has suffered serious erosion.

The GJM does not support the GNLFs demand for an autonomous Gorkha Hill Council, Darjeeling with greater powers under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in place of the DGHC established in 1988 by a statute. (On November 30, the Union Cabinet approved the creation of the Council under the Sixth Schedule.) The DGHC was wound up in March 2005 when the GNLF called for the formation of a new council with constitutional instead of statutory status. Gurung, a former councillor of the DGHC, called Ghisings demand a betrayal of the promise made to the hills people by him in 1986 for a separate Gorkhaland State.

Meanwhile, the rising popularity of the GJM has prompted the GNLF to hold public meetings to educate the people about the benefits of the Sixth Schedule. The Front decided to call a 48-hour general strike across the hills from November 6 to pressure the Union government to pass the Sixth Schedule Bill in the winter session of Parliament, which began on November 15. The strike was, however, withdrawn in view of the festival season. Instead the GNLF called a 108-hour bandh in Kalimpong on November 22. Ghising was reported to have stated that the inclusion of the council in the Sixth Schedule was better than the creation of a separate State, as it would promote greater equality among the people and help establish a more egalitarian government.

The GJM retaliated by calling a 96-hour bandh in the Darjeeling hills on the same day to protest against the implementation of the Sixth Schedule and State Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjees scheduled visit to attend the CPI(M)s three-day conference in Darjeeling from November 23. Gurung called off the strike when the venue of the conference was shifted to Siliguri in North Bengal. A five-member GJM delegation led by K.S. Ramudamu, the partys vice-president, went to New Delhi on November 22 to garner the support of top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, against according Sixth Schedule status for the hills.

Inclusion in the Sixth Schedule is expected to lead to the establishment of a 33-member council, in which 10 seats would be reserved for the Scheduled Tribes and 15 for non-tribal communities. Three seats would be open for all communities and five members would be nominated by the State Governor from the unrepresented sections.

Subash Ghising, GNLF

However, according to sources in Darjeeling, people of the hills are confused about the Sixth Schedule. Nobody really knows what the Sixth Schedule is all about and it has polarised the community totally on ethnic lines, a prominent citizen of Darjeeling told Frontline. Ajay Edwards, convener of the GNLF youth wing, agreed that the Opposition now led by the GJM was successful in mobilising a large section of the people against the Sixth Schedule. The GNLF failed to reach out to the people in time and inform them of the benefits of the Sixth Schedule, he said. Conceding that it was still the dream of the hill people to have a separate Gorkhaland, he said: We have to be practical. We are still smarting under the impact of the agitation for Gorkhaland. An entire generation was practically lost in that struggle. Now, whatever the problems may be in Darjeeling, at least there is peace. Gurung is precipitating a repeat of the bloody agitation of the 1980s.

Edwards words found an echo in a peace march organised on November 27 by citizens of Darjeeling. Residents of the town from all walks of life participated in it and demanded a bandh-free Darjeeling. Neeraj Lama, one of the main organisers of the march, said: The turnout was overwhelming. We expected barely 50 people, after all it was during an indefinite bandh called by Subash Ghising; but more than 5,000 people participated. Earlier nobody would step out during a GNLF strike. This was a clear sign of the frustration among the people of the hills. They have had enough of bandhs.

A few thousand members of the GJMs womens wing, the Gorkha Janamukti Nari Morcha, joined the march holding pens in their hands, in contrast to the GNLFs khukuri march in Kurseong on November 23, following a khukuri (knife) attack on party leader Kul Bahadur Gurung in Darjeeling that morning, allegedly by some GJM activists.

The GJM, however, denied any hand in the incident. The incident was followed by clashes between supporters of the two parties in which 11 persons were injured and houses of GNLF activists were ransacked. Anticipating major violence, the local administration requisitioned the services of the Army. The GNLF again called for an indefinite strike from November 24. The strike was called off on November 27.

Any move to carve a separate Gorkhaland out of West Bengal may create a public reaction that the CPI(M)-led Left Front government will find hard to withstand, for the memories of two unfortunate partitions in the past first in 1905 and then in 1947 are still alive. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee sought to quell the agitation when he said at the CPI(M) conference in Siliguri: We want unity between the hills and the plains The Sixth Schedule means that the councils powers will be further enhanced; it will be a constitutional body with consequential permanence in status. It will mean also that Darjeeling and Siliguri will stay together in peace and friendship.

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