Darjeeling hills

Turf wars

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Supporters of the GJM take out a rally in support of the bandh in Siliguri on September 28. Photo: Diptendu Datta/AFP

With elections to the Gorkha Territorial Administration due next year, a bandh by the GJM in the Darjeeling hills means a proxy war against the Trinamool Congress.

FEELING increasingly cornered and politically isolated, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), in a desperate bid to reassert its claim as the most powerful political force in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal, called a 12-hour strike on September 28, bringing back the spectre of unrest in the region. Peace had returned to the strife-ridden hills with the formation of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), a statutory elected autonomous body in charge of the administration of the Darjeeling hills. The GJM won the election to the GTA practically unopposed in 2012.

The GJM leadership had then made it clear that the days of violent agitation and bandhs, which had become synonymous with the movement for a separate State of Gorkhaland, were over. Roshan Giri, general secretary, GJM, then told Frontline: “Our main focus now is to run the GTA in a proper manner. There will be no more bandhs and agitations in Darjeeling.” GJM supremo Bimal Gurung had also made it clear that his party would not take on the State government head-on anymore and instead would take the Gorkhaland agitation to the Centre.

So, when the GJM announced the strike, panic and confusion swept across the region. Coming at the peak of the tourist season, and with barely 10 days to go before Durga puja began, a strike would severely disrupt not only the economy of the region but also the society of the hills, which, after years of violence and political uncertainty, was finally settling down to a period of peace.

Interestingly, for once, a strike called in the hills was not about Gorkhaland. In fact, it came in the wake of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s three-day tour of the region in the third week of September, during which, in a thinly veiled attack on the GJM, she alleged that no development work had taken place in the hills in the past four years despite the State government pumping in Rs.4,000 crore. Mamata Banerjee’s confrontational statement was clearly made in view of next year’s GTA elections and her proposal to hold early elections in the municipal bodies and panchayats in the hills.

GJM’s response

Bristling at the attack, Gurung struck back, threatening a 12-hour bandh if the Chief Minister did not clarify her remark. He insisted that the State government had so far sanctioned only Rs.238.10 crore. He even indicated that the hills could once again plunge into agitation and asked tourists to be careful. “An atmosphere of agitation is building up in the hills, and tourists should check the situation before they make their plans,” said Gurung. On September 25, the GJM decided to go ahead with the strike and threatened to prolong it if the police and the administration tried to foil it.

Many political observers have interpreted the GJM’s reaction as an act of panic, brought about by an increasing sense of insecurity over its diminishing support base. It is also evident that the Trinamool Congress is projecting itself as an alternative political force in the hills. Thus, the issue of the bandh became a proxy battle between the established power in the hills, the GJM, and the pretender to the throne, the ruling party of West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress.

Just as the GJM was determined to make the bandh a success, the government left no stone unturned to foil it. It issued orders to government offices and government-aided establishments to remain open and imposed the penalty of a pay cut in the event of absence from offices in defiance of the government order. On September 27, the day before the bandh, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court comprising Chief Justice Girish Chandra Gupta and Justice Arindam Sinha stated that bandhs were illegal and directed the government to ensure that normal life was not disturbed in the hills.

In the face of mounting public criticism and pressure from the government, the GJM softened its tone. In an obvious effort to smooth ruffled feathers, a cornered Gurung also roped in the cause of the tea garden workers at the last moment. “Since the strike call is also in the interest of the tea garden workers, the 12-hour strike will take place. We request everyone to maintain peace,” he said the day before the bandh. Some of the top GJM leaders even sounded a little apologetic about calling a bandh. “We were compelled to call a strike because of the apathetic attitude of the State government. In all the spheres, it has been non-cooperative with us. They are dividing the people of the hills by creating different development boards for the different communities,” Roshan Giri told Frontline.

A success

The bandh itself was a success as expected, and the hills, particularly Darjeeling, remained largely shut. However, behind the victory, there was also a shadow of uncertainty within the GJM itself. “Just the fact that the bandh was a success does not mean the people endorsed it. Fear psychosis still plays a big role in keeping the GJM in power. I myself did not open my shop fearing a violent reaction from GJM activists,” a businessman from the hills told Frontline.

However, the success of the bandh indicated that the GJM has not lost its political grip over the region. “It was a spontaneous bandh. The message is loud and clear. People of the hills are united. Though this bandh was not for Gorkhaland, people have reposed their faith on Bimal Gurung’s leadership,” Roshan Giri told Frontline. However, the GJM was prudent enough not to push its luck and decided that there would be no more bandhs, at least during the festive/tourist season.

The GJM’s moment of triumph did not come without a price. The bandh exposed the weakening of the party. The GJM could not mobilise even half the number of people it could earlier to enforce the bandh. It also became clear that the success of the bandh owed more to a collective apathy among the people of the region, an apathy brought about by years of violence and uncertainty, than to any spontaneous support of the people. It looked as if the days when the GJM could do whatever it wanted with impunity were gone.

The GJM cannot but be aware that though no opposition has yet emerged strong enough to defeat it, the party has been losing its support base. In the 2016 Assembly elections, the GJM won all the three hill seats of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong but with drastically reduced margins.

In Darjeeling, it secured 59.85 per cent of the votes as against 78.5 per cent in 2011; in Kalimpong, it won 49.05 per cent as against 87.36 per cent in 2011; and in Kurseong, it won 53.02 per cent as against 74 per cent in 2011. While in Darjeeling and Kurseong, the GJM’s nearest rival was the Trinamool Congress, in Kalimpong it was the new Jan Andolan Party set up by the former GJM heavyweight Harka Bahadur Chhetri.

In the last couple of years, the GJM has been witnessing defection from its camp to the Trinamool Congress. After Chhetri’s departure, the biggest shock to the party came when GJM vice president and chairman of the GTA, Sabha Pradip Pradhan, joined the Trinamool Congress in August. Other notable names from the hills to join the Trinamool Congress were Jiten Tamang and Parishima (Paru) Giri, Roshan Giri’s sister.

Moreover, over the past five years, Mamata Banerjee’s clever ploy of establishing “development boards” for the 10 different communities of the hills has contributed to reducing the people’s dependence on the GJM. “The Trinamool Congress has been rapidly gaining ground in the hills. The GJM is realising that it is losing its hold on the region. People also realise that the issue of Gorkhaland is just an excuse. People today need development and peace,” said Binny Sharma, general secretary and spokesperson of the Darjeeling unit of the Trinamool Congress.

However, it is too early to write off the GJM as it still remains the most powerful political force in the hills. It is also important to keep in mind that “Gorkhaland” cannot be separated from the politics of the hills. If the Trinamool Congress, emboldened by its recent political gains, starts believing that its promise of peace and development will prevail over the demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland in the coming elections, it may find itself grievously mistaken.

According to the veteran political observer of the hills and editor of Himalayan Times, Sandip Jain, the bandh also served to awaken the Trinamool Congress to certain harsh realities. “It is not possible for a national party or a State party to usurp a regional party in Darjeeling. Despite what it looks like at present, the Trinamool Congress can at best emerge as the number three party in the hills. It would be more in the Trinamool Congress’ interest if it made strategic alliances with the local parties against the GJM rather than going it alone in the coming elections,” Jain told Frontline.

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