Conflict zone

Published : Jul 18, 2008 00:00 IST

The Gorkhaland agitation in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal shows signs of degenerating into an ethnic conflict.

in Kolkata

The fresh agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state under the leadership of Bimal Gurungs Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) has taken an ugly turn. Ethnic clashes in the plains of northern Bengal have marred what has so far been largely a movement restricted to the Darjeeling hills. Even though the indefinite bandh in the hills called by the GJM on June 16 was later suspended until July 5, the West Bengal government could not achieve any breakthrough in the last round of dialogue with the GJM in Kolkata on June 27.

When the Gorkhaland movement was first launched by Subhash Ghising and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in 1986, the agitation was mainly confined to the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling district. To Ghisings credit, it was never allowed to degenerate into an ethnic conflict. But the movement spearheaded by the GJM includes not just the Darjeeling hills but also parts of the Doars, the Terai and Siliguri, the main town in northern Bengal in the proposed Gorkhaland State a place where non-Nepalis are predominant.

The GJMs rallies in the plains had already led to simmering tension between the Gorkha community and the Bengalis in the foothills. Fuelled by the success of its huge rally on the outskirts of Siliguri on May 7, the GJM wanted permission to hold public meetings in Naxalbari (just an hours drive from Siliguri), which was denied. In protest, on June 8, GJM supporters set up blockades on National Highway 31. Members of non-political outfits the Amra Bangali, the Jana Jagaran Mancha and the Jana Chetana Mancha grouped together to take on the protesting GJM members, resulting in violent street fights in various parts of the foothills, including Bagdogra, Naxalbari and Panighata, in which more than 16 people were injured.

Though the police succeeded in quelling the violence, the GJM called for an indefinite bandh the following day in all the areas under the proposed Gorkhaland, giving the 20,000-odd summer tourists less than 24 hours to leave the region. What followed was complete pandemonium, with tourists rushing to leave the hills and not enough vehicles to take them out.

A stretch of the National Highway (NH) 31 A that leads to Sikkim falls in the Darjeeling hills. The developments in the hills of West Bengal left the government of Sikkim with no alternative but to advise tourists to leave Sikkim. Otherwise, they were in danger of being indefinitely held up in the State. The mass exodus from both Darjeeling hills and Sikkim created enormous pressure on the hotel and transport infrastructure of Siliguri town.

On June 11, GJM activists wielding choppers and iron rods attacked a group of 16 tourists, including an elderly couple, from Kolkata who were returning to Siliguri from Chapramari forest in the Doars. They set ablaze the two cars of the tourists. The injured tourists were stranded on the highway. This was the first time in the history of the Gorkhaland movement that tourists were targeted. Ironically, the GJM had demanded the immediate sacking of West Bengal Urban Development Minister Ashok Bhattacharya, who hails from Darjeeling district, when he advised tourists to avoid Darjeeling this summer. GJM general secretary Roshan Giri had then assured, There will be no major problems for tourists if they come to the hills.

Matters came to a head when local non-political outfits led by the Amra Bangali announced a 48-hour bandh in Siliguri and the Doars. The bandh call coincided with the GJMs announcement of a 60-hour relaxation of the shutdown in the hills to facilitate stocking up on essential commodities. This was allegedly aimed at countering the GJM by preventing the transport of essential commodities to the hills. The following day, on June 12, Bengalis who were opposed to the Gorkhaland demand and large numbers of Nepalis took to the streets in Siliguri and adjoining areas with sticks and stones and choppers. As the situation spiralled out of control, the police resorted to tear-gas shelling, and the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a paramilitary force, carried out flag marches. Section 144 was clamped in certain parts of Siliguri and the Doars, and the Army was kept on alert. West Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, in a written statement, appealed to the people of the region to restore peace and communal harmony.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee called an all-party meeting on June 17 and invited Bimal Gurung separately to Kolkata to discuss measures needed to restore normality and speed up development work in the hills. Gurung, however, rejected the invitation on the grounds that he was not prepared for talks with preconditions attached, and reiterated his demand for tripartite talks involving the Centre. The GJM also called for an indefinite bandh in the hills from June 16, but this time it was cautious not to include the plains. Schools and colleges in the hills, and the cinchona and tea industries were exempt from the bandh.

The resumption of this mode of protest did not go down well with some of the other hill parties who are united in their stand for Gorkhaland under the leadership of the GJM. The Communist Party of Revolutionary (Marxist) and the All India Gorkha League, which had been fully behind the GJM until then, started making noises. Apart from supporting the demand for a separate state, it is tough to carry out any political activity in the hills at the moment, Rabindra Chhetri, CPRM chief, reportedly said. Madan Tamang of the All India Gorkha League said that a bandh is not the only solution.

The all-party meet called by the State government on June 17 decided to look into the possibility of expanding the economic and administrative powers of the Hill Council without altering the geographical outline of West Bengal. The meeting was attended by 12 parties excluding the Trinamool Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI). Following the meeting, the Chief Minister and the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who is also the State Pradesh Congress president, jointly addressed the media. We do not want conflict. We want a resolution to the situation in the Darjeeling hills through dialogue and political process. We have to be very patient and tolerant in dealing with the present situation, said Bhattacharjee. The GJM had earlier demanded the dissolution of the Hill Council.

As a counter to the meeting called by the State government, the GJM convened an all-party meeting of the hills on the same day. The meeting passed a unanimous resolution demanding that a separate Gorkhaland State be carved out of Darjeeling district and parts of the Doars. It also asked the Centre to hold talks on the issue of Statehood and to intervene in the plains to put an end to the atrocities committed by the State government against Nepalis. Interestingly, the 13 parties that signed the resolution included some which took part in the all-party meet called by the State government, which rejected the demand for a separate state.

The bandh in the hills threw neighbouring Sikkim into panic. Chief Minister Pawan Chamling appealed to the West Bengal government and the Centre to save Sikkim from collateral damage in the agitation in the Darjeeling hills. National Highway 31 A is the lifeline of Sikkim, with more than 250 trucks and over 1,000 passenger vehicles taking this route every day. According to S.K. Sarda, president of the Sikkim Chamber of Commerce, the pharmaceutical, distillery and tea industries are bearing the brunt of the turmoil. He said these industries faced the twin problem of having not been able to transport finished products and a shortage of raw materials. They have to shut down their production soon, he said on June 19, the fourth day of the bandh.

Other sectors such as tourism, horticulture and construction have also suffered huge losses. The cumulative effect of all these will have a drastic effect on the economy of Sikkim. The loss will be more than Rs.10 crore a day. Students, officials, traders, builders, industry workers, farmers all suffer for no fault of theirs, said Sarda.

The loss to the tourism sector in northern Bengal and Sikkim in the six days of the bandh has been estimated at Rs.1.04 crore a day. The tea industry, though exempt from the strike, has also been suffering huge losses because of the delay in plucking leaves and transporting tea for export auctions. According to industry experts, the production of tea in the hills, Darjeeling in particular, fell by about 20-25 per cent during the bandh. But the worst hit has been the trading sector, particularly in Siliguri the trade hub of the entire region. The loss has been calculated at over Rs.4 crore a day.

Though the overwhelming majority of the people of the hills stand firmly behind the GJM, prolonged periods of bandh have unnerved many, evoking memories of the Gorkhaland agitations led by the GNLF in the 1980s. We want Gorkhaland, but not at the price we have had to pay during Ghisings times, a resident of Darjeeling told Frontline.

It may be possible that the GJM is running out of ideas to sustain its agitation. On June 22, after six days of bandh, the GJM announced a three-day respite, ostensibly for the people to stockpile necessities, but warned them that hard times were ahead with stronger agitation on the cards. A four-member team led by party general secretary Roshan Giri also left for Delhi to garner support for the cause from national leaders of various political parties.

However, barely a week after it rejected Chief Minister Bhattacharjees invitation for talks for the second time, the GJM, at the insistence of the Centre, sent representatives for talks with the West Bengal government. Gurung had said that his party was ready only for tripartite talks with the involvement of the Centre. But what was more surprising to the hill people was that the three-day relaxation of the bandh was extended to last until July 5.

This flip-flop by the party has not gone down well with the people of the region. First Bimal Gururng said there was going to be an indefinite bandh, so there was this wild scurry to stock up essentials. In fact, I know of some poor people who have had to sell their ornaments to buy provisions to last an indefinite bandh. This attitude is very unfair on the people, said a resident of the hills.

Moreover, according to political sources in Darjeeling, fissures within the GJM are beginning to show. Many leaders of the GJM are in the dark as to what is going on. They dont know what Gurung is thinking or what his plans are, or whether he has a plan at all, said one of them. To some of the hardliners of the Gorkhaland movement, the repeated concessions that Gurung is making not including the plains in the bandh, extending the relaxation period of the bandh, agreeing to bipartite talks with the State government are signs of the weakening of the movement.

One person conspicuous by his absence in all the developments is Subhash Ghising the man who gave birth to the Gorkhaland movement and ruled the hills unchallenged for more than 20 years. Humiliatingly overthrown by Gurung, his own protege, the normally reclusive Ghising is seen even less in public. The GNLF chief, having lost his support base completely, has found himself friendless and spends his days practically alone in his sprawling bungalow, not stepping out even once in the last three months.

The GJM, for its part, is taking all measures to prove its sincerity of purpose. The party has announced that all vehicles in Darjeeling will bear the GL (standing for Gorkhaland) number plate, instead of the customary WB (standing for West Bengal) from July 7 onwards. Right from the beginning the GJM has adopted a non-violent path to achieving Gorkhaland, and this is a part of our non-cooperation movement, said Gurung on June 21. At the instance of the party, people in the hills have stopped paying taxes and electricity and telephone bills from May 1. The party is also on a drive to recruit volunteers for a special force (Gorkhaland Personnel) it proposes to start. The main function of this force will be to ensure that no anti-social element infiltrates into the GJM ranks, and also to provide security to its leaders.

On June 27, representatives of the GJM, headed by its central committee member Amar Lama and assistant general secretary Raju Pradhan, met the Chief Minister at Writers Building in Kolkata. The GJM rejected the State governments offer of greater economic powers and more autonomy to the Hill Council. Our demand is Gorkhaland and nothing short of that is acceptable to us, and we will continue our democratic agitation until we get Gorkhaland, said Amar Lama, addressing the press after the meeting.

All the same, the State government is ready for tripartite talks involving the participation of the Centre. I again told them we [the hills and the plains] should stay together as we have been all these years. There is no reason for separation. I also feel more administrative and financial powers should be given to the Hill Council. Let us continue our bipartite talks and find some mechanism to solve this problem, Bhattacharjee said after the meeting.

Critics of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government accuse it of not having acted when Ghising lapsed into inaction and his movement stagnated. However, it needs to be remembered that under the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) Act, practically all developmental functions have been statutorily transferred to the domain of the Council.

It is also not known widely that even without full utilisation reports or audit by the Accountant General, as required by law, funds have been released by the Centre and the State to the DGHC with a view to avoiding the oft-repeated allegation of step-motherly treatment to the hills. Therefore, any further intervention by the State government in the transferred subjects would have been immediately misconstrued as a violation of the Act and interference in the Hill Councils autonomy.

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