Unrest in the plains

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Members of the All Gorkha Ex-Servicemen Morcha at a rally demanding Gorkhaland, in New Delhi, on March 5. On April 9, the Morcha clashed with the police when it was denied permission to take out a rally in Siliguri.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The Gorkhaland agitation spreads to the foothills and Siliguri as the GJM wants new areas included in the State it demands.

WITH Subash Ghising and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) all but out of the political scene in the Darjeeling hills and the hill people united over the call for a separate Gorkhaland State under the undisputed leadership of Bimal Gurung and his Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the tension in the hills is spilling over to the plains.

The State that the GJM demands includes not just the Darjeeling hills but also the Doars, the Terai and Siliguri, the main town in North Bengal.

For the first time since the demand for a separate Gorkhaland was raised by Ghising and the GNLF in 1986, the unrest in the hills has spread to the foothills and to Siliguri. The turning point came on April 9, when a procession organised by the All Gorkha Ex-Servicemen Morcha, a wing of the GJM, clashed with the police when it tried to enter Siliguri.

The local administrations reason for denying permission for a rally in Siliguri was that such an event could lead to a clash along ethnic lines, between Gorkhas and Bengalis. Leaders of the GJM, however, maintained that their supporters had every right to take out a peaceful procession. Following a police lathi charge in which 16 GJM supporters were injured, the party called for a shutdown of all Central, State government and Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) offices in the hills.

The Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) and the Greater Cooch Behar Democratic Party (GCBDP), both of which have been demanding statehood for Kamtapur and Greater Cooch Behar respectively, supported the bandh. The State government set up a high-level administrative inquiry into the incident. The report is expected to be submitted by the end of May.

Gurung has made it clear that there is no conflict of interest between his party, the KPP and the GCBDP over the overlapping of areas listed in their respective demands. The demarcation of areas has already been settled we have come to an understanding, Gurung reportedly said. The April 9 incident resulted in minor clashes between activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the ruling Left Front and the GJM in the hills.

On April 20, addressing his first public meeting in the Doars, at Bhanu Maidan in Bagrakote, Gurung said, Our journey has begun here and it will end only at Sankosh [on the Assam border].

Bimal Gurung, leader of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

He was re-emphasising the GJMs demand to include the Doars up to the Sankosh river, and the Terai areas of Siliguri, along with the Darjeeling hills in Gorkhaland.

Clearly in a bid to gain the support of the Adivasis in the region, he promised them a better deal in the envisioned Gorkhaland. Also present at the meeting to support the GJM cause was Suresh Mahato, president of the All Jharkhand Students Union.

Even though Gurung assured the gathering of around 25,000 people that nothing would veer the GJM away from its path of non-violent agitation, he warned the State government of dangerous consequences if it tried to suppress the Gorkhaland movement.

The GJM continued to press the State government for permission to hold a rally in Siliguri town on April 27. Siliguri is our own place and we are going ahead with the rally even if we have to lay down our lives, said Gurung at another rally in the Doars on April 24. The State administration, fearing the possibility of ethnic clashes arising from such a rally, initially refused to give it permission.

The GJM struck back by announcing an indefinite hunger strike in Siliguris court area. It also called for a boycott of payment of taxes and electricity and telephone bills from May 1 and threatened to disrupt work at the hydro-electric projects in the hills. If power supply to households in the hills is disconnected for non-payment of dues, we will stop work at all the power generating plants that feed Siliguri, Gurung reportedly told the press on April 29, at Pintail, on the outskirts of Siliguri.

With tension mounting in the hills, Asok Bhattacharya, West Bengals Urban Development Minister, who hails from Darjeeling district, advised tourists to avoid Darjeeling this summer. Accusing the GJM of fomenting trouble, Bhattacharya said, The situation is very complicated there and it could be risky for tourists to go there now. The Ministers comments did not go down well in the hills. GJM general secretary Roshan Giri, calling for the immediate sacking of the Minister, said, Asok Bhattacharya has proved that he is anti-Darjeeling and anti-hill people. There will be no major problems for tourists if they come to the hills.

With the tea industry in the doldrums and many tea gardens either shut or on the verge of closure, tourism is at present the main source of income in Darjeeling. Pradeep Lama, secretary of the Darjeeling Association of Travel Agents (DATA), told Frontline: If tourists are dissuaded from coming to Darjeeling, it will practically block our lifeline, and those who will be suffering the most are the common people. On an average, Darjeeling receives an inflow of over 35,000 foreign tourists and over two lakh Indian tourists every year.

On May 1, trouble broke out in Siliguri when GJM supporters, violating administrative orders, tried to enter the towns court area to stage the threatened hunger strike. Over 270 people, many of them women, were detained by the police. Peace in Siliguri was marred by intermittent clashes between GJM supporters and CPI(M) and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) activists, but normalcy was quick to return when, on May 3, the State government conceded the demand of the GJM to hold a rally in Siliguri. The GJM, in turn, called off the hunger strike that was under way in Mirik and three sub-divisional towns of Darjeeling district.

On May 7, the GJM, in a blatant show of strength in the plains, organised a huge rally at the Indira Gandhi Maidan on the outskirts of Siliguri, which was attended by more than 2.5 lakh people. Leaders of the KPP and the GCBDP shared the stage with GJM leaders. Though the meeting passed off peacefully, tension was palpable on the streets. A strike called by an organisation called Amra Bangali (We Bengalis) made the situation more tense.

For all the resolve and menace in Gurungs words at the rally when he said We will not leave an inch of Siliguri outside Gorkhaland, many political observers feel that the demand for the inclusion of Siliguri and the foothills in the proposed State of Gorkhaland may not be realistic. The GJM perhaps understands that but is using it as a bargaining point, a knowledgeable source in Darjeeling told Frontline.

From a dreaded strong arm of the GNLF, Gurung, who was once a close aide of Ghising, has transformed himself into a trusted leader of the Gorkhas overnight. There has been a great coalescing of the Gorkha people not just in the hills but everywhere in India, and Gurung is being seen as the great unifying factor. He has given all of us hope again in our dream for Gorkhaland, a prominent resident of Darjeeling told Frontline.

December 1986: A banner in Darjeeling when Subash Ghisings Gorkha National Liberation Front first raised the demand for "Gorkhaland".-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

If any antipathy exists in the hills for the plains, Gurung has been careful to not allow differences along communal lines to surface among the different communities that have long been residing in the Darjeeling hills.

Representatives of other communities such as Marwaris, Gujaratis and Bengalis have been included in the Gorkhaland movement. This was evident at the May 7 rally, in which representatives of these communities and Muslims and tribal people were present. Those opposed to the GJM, however, claim that the other communities are being coerced into participating in the Gorkhaland movement.

Whatever maybe the truth, one thing is undeniable that the overwhelming majority of the hill people are firmly behind Gurung and his GJM.

And if the repeated claims of GJM leaders that they will not stop until they achieve Gorkhaland is to be believed, it could well be a cause for concern for the State government.

However, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee seemed optimistic about resolving the crisis. Talking to the press on May 9, he said, The hills and the plains will remain as one. There is no need for any kind of division. Unless there is peace, there can be no development in the hills.

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