Gorkhaland movement

Anger in the hills

Print edition : October 13, 2017

A rally by Gorkhaland supporters at Mirik in Darjeeling on September 12. Photo: PTI

Schoolchildren on a deserted Darjeeling street in June. Photo: PTI

Bimal Gurung at a press conference on June 14. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

The rift within the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha adds confusion to an already chaotic situation in the Darjeeling hills, where the bandh in support of a separate State is now more than three months old.

THE situation in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal is going from bad to worse. On September 15, the bandh called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the most powerful political force in the region, demanding a separate State of Gorkhaland crossed three months. Violence, uncertainty and desperation stalk the region. After two rounds of talks between the State government and the political leaders of the hills failed to resolve the crisis, the leaders of the Gorkhaland movement are looking to the Centre to intervene and come up with a solution. The State, however, has so far shown little inclination to involve the Centre in the talks.

Neeraj Zimba, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader, told Frontline: “The situation is very bad here. Until and unless tripartite talks are held, with the Centre also getting involved in the dialogue process, things will not normalise. Very likely the bandh will continue. It is now up to the State government to call for tripartite talks.” According to him, the general mood of the people was against ending the bandh: what began as a political issue has transformed into a social one. “The people have already sacrificed so much in the last three months that they do not want to turn back now. They must be given something tangible to call off the bandh—tripartite talks may just be that,” Zimba said.

On August 29, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sat down for talks with the hill leaders and a breakthrough seemed imminent. Until then the GJM had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to the State government’s overtures, albeit unofficial. It wanted the Centre to intervene, but the Centre lobbed the ball back into the State government’s court. On August 13, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in a meeting with representatives of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee (or GMCC, a 30-member body set up on June 29 with representatives of all hill parties), appealed to the hill leaders to call off the strike and start a dialogue with the State government.

The second round of bipartite talks held on September 12 yielded no concrete results. The State government, while standing firm on the point that it would not consider a separate State being carved out of the Darjeeling hills, conceded certain demands of the hill leaders. It agreed to compensate the families of those who got killed or injured in the ongoing agitation; initiate a high-level probe into the recent bomb blasts; and relax the admission and form-filling deadlines for students from the hills. “Darjeeling is and will remain a part of Bengal. Having said that, there is a desire and an aspiration for the people here for Gorkhaland… I feel the dialogue process should aim to find a permanent solution,” Mamata Banerjee said after the meeting.

Rift IN GJM

The meetings with the State government brought into the open a serious rift within the top GJM leadership over the question of ending the bandh. After the first meeting, GJM assistant general secretary Binay Tamang, who represented the party at the meeting, announced a suspension of the bandh from September 1 to September 12, when the next meeting was due. Soon after Tamang’s announcement, GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, who has been evading arrest since the beginning of the agitation, proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the bandh would continue and the agitation would be intensified.

Subsequently, Tamang and an influential central committee member of the GJM, Anit Thapa, were expelled from the party. Tamang remained defiant and said that he was one of the founding members and would continue to remain in the GJM. He threatened to expose the corruption within the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), an autonomous elected body established in 2011, and the wealth amassed by top GJM leaders. The GJM leadership alleged that Tamang and Thapa were in collusion with the West Bengal government and were planning to start a new political party of their own.

But Tamang again represented the GJM at the second meeting and signed the charter of demand handed over to the Chief Minister as the GJM Chief Coordinator. Gurung, in an audio message released from his hideout, expressed disappointment at the outcome of the meeting and once again reiterated that the bandh would continue until a tripartite meeting took place.

This open struggle in the GJM has added confusion to an already chaotic situation. An influential political source in Darjeeling said: “There is no leadership at the grass-roots level any more, and that is why the entire Gorkhaland movement has become directionless and ineffective. Most of the top GJM leaders are at present on the run, and the next rung of leaders are not capable of leading the movement. The political rivals are waiting and watching, clearly with the intention of joining the winning side.”

The hill leaders themselves seem to have washed their hands of the bandh. Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa “left it to the people to decide” after the second meeting. The GMCC had placed the onus on the GJM to end the strike on the grounds that it was Bimal Gurung who had called it, but there are many who are now beginning to doubt whether even Gurung will be able to prevail upon the people. “Bimal Gurung is no longer a factor. Even if he now wants the bandh to be lifted, I believe the people will not pay any heed to him,” said Zimba.

Gurung on the run

Many feel that the GJM supremo’s absence in these turbulent times has weakened the party and given the opposition parties a chance to make their present felt. The complete sway of the GJM in the hills had earlier prevented these parties from asserting themselves. On June 15, the indefinite bandh was called and the police raided Gurung’s house. Gurung has since been in hiding. Though he has been trying to control the movement through video messages and press statements, his actual physical absence in an agitation in which eight Gorkhaland supporters have lost their lives (as of September 19) has been conspicuous. Tamang rubbed it in: “If he [Gurung] and Roshan Giri [GJM general secretary] are true Gorkha leaders, I challenge them to come to ground zero in Darjeeling and lead the movement from the front. A true leader never stays in the background and puts the lives of his followers in danger.”

In all this turmoil, there was temporary relief for Gurung when on August 17 a court in Kolkata ordered that his name be dropped from the list of accused in the Madan Tamang assassination case. (Madan Tamang, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League and an outspoken critic of the GJM, was hacked to death in May 2010 in broad daylight, allegedly by GJM supporters.) The court, however, ruled that charges be framed against the 47 other accused, including Gurung’s wife, Asha, Roshan Giri and Binay Tamang. The respite for Gurung was short-lived. Soon afterwards, he was booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act following three back-to-back IED blasts in the hills, in which a civic police volunteer was killed. His trusted aide Pravin Subba and party youth wing president Prakash Gurung were also booked. The GJM denied any hand in the blasts.

In a move to increase pressure on the GJM, the West Bengal Police issued “lookout” notices against several top party leaders including Gurung and Giri. On September 6, a court in Darjeeling district issued arrest warrants against Gurung and seven other leaders, including Asha, Giri, and GMCC coordinator Kalyan Dewan. The day before, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had approached the court over a police complaint registered in connection with the violence in Darjeeling on June 8 when the Chief Minister was holding a Cabinet meeting there.

Bengal-Sikkim tension

The hunt for Gurung resulted in a temporary souring of relations between West Bengal and Sikkim. On September 1, the West Bengal Police busted a high-level GJM meeting at Namchi, the district headquarters of South Sikkim. Several GJM leaders were nabbed and one person was killed in the operation. Gurung, however, managed to give the police the slip. The Sikkim Police claimed that the West Bengal Police had not followed proper procedures and did not possess the requisite documents for the raid. They even filed a first information report against the Superintendent of Police, Kalimpong. West Bengal Tourism Minister Gautam Deb, who is president the Trinamool Congress’ Darjeeling unit, accused the Sikkim government of trying to protect Gurung.

This was not the first time that the two States had serious differences over the issue of Gorkhaland. When the current agitation for Gorkhaland was launched in June, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling wrote to Rajnath Singh urging him to facilitate the creation of a new State so that Sikkim’s “developmental tempo can be maintained undisturbed”.

Normalcy claim

Even as the hills remained on the boil, Mamata Banerjee claimed that “normalcy has largely returned in Darjeeling”. She said: “All tea gardens will be opened and employees will be given bonuses… if the gardens are not opened, we will take necessary action.” Meanwhile, pitched battles between the security forces and Gorkhaland agitators continued to break out sporadically, and even heritage buildings like the Roy Villa, where Sister Nivedita breathed her last, were not spared from attacks. Sandip Jain, editor of Himalayan Times and a resident of Kalimpong, told Frontline: “Even going out to get some vegetables is a life-threatening proposition, with the agitators on the one side and the security forces on the other. People are too scared to venture out, such is the uncertainty here. So how can the Chief Minister say normalcy is returning?”

In another move to counter the agitation, the State government, on September 20, reconstituted the GTA by nominating Binay Tamang as the new chairperson. Mamata Banerjee said: “Today we have taken a very important decision.... Under Section 65 of the GTA Act we have appointed a board of administrators comprising eight members to look after the functioning of the GTA.” On June 23, all the elected members of the body, including Gurung, had resigned. Mamata Banerjee declared that the newly reconstituted body would function until fresh elections to the GTA took place. The GJM, as was expected, rejected the new set-up. Ramesh Alley, former deputy chief executive of the GTA and a central committee member of the GJM, told Frontline: “This has come as a bolt from the blue. Binay Tamang himself was a member of the GTA when the GTA was rejected for the sake of Gorkhaland. This will not be accepted by the people of the hills, and there will be protests.”

The way ahead

Three months of continuous bandh have completely crippled the economy and life in general in the region. According to the Chief Minister’s statement in the Assembly, losses, as of August, amounted to as much as Rs.550 crore since June 15. Many schools in the hills have been compelled to resume classes for the sake of those appearing for board exams either in Siliguri or in Kolkata. Tea and tourism industries, the two main pillars of the economy of Darjeeling, are teetering on the brink of ruin. The GTA, set up in place of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), has been rejected by the GJM, and it is now time to think of an option acceptable to both the hill people and the State government. The well-known social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, thought the concept of an “autonomous State within a State”’ as laid out in Article 244A of the Indian Constitution could be considered for the sake of lasting peace. “The State may forcibly break the Gorkhaland movement and lift the bandh; but that peace will not last long. If the government is really interested in bringing about a permanent solution, it should address the identity of the Gorkhas seriously. Article 244A of the Constitution will provide maximum possible autonomy: the people of Darjeeling can have their own legislature and government, but the overall control of the region will still be with the State of West Bengal.”

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