Darjeeling

A twist in the politics of the Darjeeling hills

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Bimal Gurung , Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supremo, addressing a press conference in Kolkata on October 21. Photo: PTI

Supporters of the Anit Thapa-Binay Tamang faction of the GJM staging a rally against Gurung at Sonada in Darjeeling on October 25.

GJM leader Bimal Gurung’s return to West Bengal and declaration of support for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress changes the political dynamics of the Darjeeling hills, but it has not gone down well with a large section of the people.

THE reconciliation between the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and Bimal Gurung, the erstwhile undisputed leader of the Darjeeling hills of north Bengal, has given a new twist to the volatile and unpredictable politics of the hills. The former supremo of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), who had been on the run for the past three years, suddenly appeared in Kolkata on October 21 and announced that he was parting ways with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and that he would support Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the 2021 State Assembly election. The dramatic development will lead to a re-examination of the political dynamics in the trouble-torn Darjeeling hills and its separatist politics.

The Trinamool Congress’ readiness to accept Bimal Gurung’s overture has caught political observers by surprise. In 2017, Gurung fled the Darjeeling hills after the Mamata Banerjee government slapped a number of criminal charges, including those under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), on him for leading a prolonged violent agitation demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland.

Gurung, who had remained undercover apparently in Delhi and Jharkhand, said: “In the three years that I spent outside, I found that Mamata Banerjee is a singular individual – like an idol. She does whatever she says she will do. We will request her to find a permanent political solution [for the hills].” By “permanent political solution” he admitted that he meant the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland, carved out of the Darjeeling hills and parts of the Terai and Doars. He alleged that unlike Mamata Banerjee, the BJP had not been true to its words. By helping Mamata Banerjee return to power in 2021, Gurung wanted to “give a fitting reply to the BJP”. The GJM’s long-standing alliance with the BJP had ensured the saffron party’s victory in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in the 2009, 2014 and 2019 elections.
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Responding to Gurung’s offer of support, the Trinamool Congress posted on social media: “We welcome Bimal Gurung’s commitment to peace & decision to withdraw support from NDA while reposing faith in @MamataOfficial’s leadership. BJP's attempts to use Gorkhaland issue for petty politics & their untrustworthy nature now lay fully exposed before people of Bengal. We’re confident that all the key stakeholders in hills, including political parties & GTA along with civil society will work together & join hands with us for the peace & prosperity of our motherland.”

Gorkhaland issue

However, the fact that Gurung once again brought up the issue of Gorkhaland even as he pledged support for Mamata Banerjee complicates the situation politically and may make matters a little uncomfortable for the ruling party ahead of the election. With the establishment of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), an autonomous elected body, in 2011, Mamata Banerjee had claimed that she had resolved the separatist problem in the Darjeeling hills.

After six years of relative peace, the region flared up once again in 2017 with Gurung making a fresh call for Gorkhaland. In the violent agitation that followed, more than 10 people were killed and normal life in the hills came to a standstill for a record 104 days. When the agitation came to an end and Gurung fled to avoid arrest, a breakaway faction of the GJM led by Anit Thapa and Binay Tamang, with the support of the State government, took control of the GTA. With an iron hand, Mamata Banerjee restored peace in the hills. The issue of Gorkhaland was replaced by a demand for peace, stability and development.

However, the leaders of the new political order were perceived as puppets of the State government, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the hills voted overwhelmingly for the BJP, which had the support of the GJM’s Gurung faction and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). In the subsequent byelection to the Darjeeling Assembly seat, Binay Tamang, who was supported by the Trinamool Congress, lost to Neeraj Zimba of the GNLF. In the given situation, Gurung’s act of extending the olive branch to Mamata Banerjee has not gone down well with a large section of people of the Darjeeling hills. Even the Trinamool Congress in the region is ambivalent about the new development.
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Binny Sharma, senior Trinamool leader from the hills, told Frontline, “We are happy that he has extended his support to the party and we, being the party soldiers, will abide by whatever decision the leadership takes in the matter…. But the peace and harmony that has been prevalent in the hills for the last three years should not be disturbed. The violence and burning of houses of opposition party members has all stopped, and the people of the region want it to remain this way.”

Another member of the Trinamool Congress admitted that the new political development was not received well by the people of the hills, including a section of Gurung’s supporters. The source said: “The people are fed up of the constant strife. The 104-day bandh was too much and people were gradually leaning towards Anit and Binay and looking at them for a period of peace and development. Bimal’s return is causing confusion and worry—something that is not really needed at present. Nobody is really happy in the Trinamool either, because before the 2017 agitation, Bimal was fast losing ground to the Trinamool. Certain political blunders caused the flare-up and people shifted away from the Trinamool.”

Rallies have begun in the hills in support of Gurung as well as against his return. On October 25, supporters of Anit Thapa and Binay Tamang took out a massive anti-Gurung rally in Sonada in Darjeeling.

Hopelss predicament

According Neeraj Zimba, the GNLF MLA of Darjeeling, by allying with the Trinamool, Gurung has put himself in a hopeless political predicament. “Now he cannot go back to the BJP and the Trinamool not only has its own team, but also a B-team, which is the Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa faction of the GJM. It will not want to disturb the status quo. We are witnessing Bimal Gurung’s political death,” Zimba told Frontline.
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Some of those who supported Gurung on the issue of Gorkhland see his political tie-up with theTrinamool as a “surrender” to the State government, which has made no bones about its opposition to the formation of Gorkhaland. In fact, when Gurung fled and Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa sided with the State government in 2017, they were looked upon as “traitors” to the cause of Gorkhaland. In the subsequent elections, it was apparent that they did not have the support of the people of the hills. Moreover, a lot has changed in the three years of Gurung’s absence from the hills. It remains to be seen whether he retains his power and influence among the people.

According to Sandeep Jain, a well-known political observer in the hills and editor of Himalayan Times, Gurung’s core following in the hills is still loyal to him, and he will continue to remain an influential factor in the politics of the hills. He said: “Even after three years the key people in his organization are still with him and there are people who will follow him. There are those who feel he made this compromise to save those people who were displaced because of their loyalty to him.”

Many observers see the developments as a desperate move by Mamata Banerjee to salvage whatever she can from the BJP’s grasp. According to a source in the Trinamool, the decision may have been based on the calculation that Adivasi and Gorkha votes will be crucial for a favourable outcome for the Trinamool in about16 Assembly seats in the hills and the Terai and Dooars region. The ruling party hopes that Gurung’s return may result in a change of political fortunes in its favour.
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