West Bengal

Demand for a new hill district

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Harka Bahadur Chhetri, an MLA representing Kalimpong. Photo: PTI

THE growing demand to carve out Kalimpong as a new district from the Darjeeling district of north Bengal has given a fresh twist to the politics of the hills, which is likely to adversely affect the movement led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

On the face of it, the demand to make Kalimpong a district is driven by the need for better development. Harka Bahadur Chhetri, MLA from Kalimpong and former GJM heavyweight, who is spearheading the movement for a separate district, told Frontline: “Kalimpong has for long been a deprived region. We do not have any tea industry here, and even though there is ample scope for the development of tourism, it is Darjeeling that gets all attention. Kalimpong is like a forgotten place where people just stop by for tea on their way to Sikkim. Even Darjeeling deprives us, as it takes the bulk of the development funds.”

Moreover, Kalimpong is the largest of the three hill subdivisions—Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong—of Darjeeling district, covering over 1,056 square kilometres (around 34 per cent of the total area of the district), and stretching from Sikkim on one end to Bhutan on the other. “There are areas that the administration has not yet reached. We need to address such problems. The Chief Minister has taken these issues quite seriously,” said Chhetri.

According to political sources in the hills, the new developments have made the GJM—still the single-most powerful political force in the region—a little apprehensive. Earlier in September, when Chhetri resigned from the GJM (he continues as an independent MLA), the party lost not only one of its most respected leaders but also one who is held in high esteem by the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal.

“The GJM is in a state of panic as far as Kalimpong is concerned. Chhetri has a good deal of support in the region, especially among the educated people,” said a political observer.

Moreover, there have been rumblings of discontent against the GJM in Kalimpong for a while, mainly owing to the perceived step-motherly attitude of the successive ruling parties in the hills; and the GJM can ill afford the rise of an alternative political force, particularly at a time when its own mass support is facing erosion. That may also be why the GJM has thought it prudent to support Chhetri’s demand for Kalimpong district. “The demand for a separate district was raised by the GJM not Harka Bahadur Chhetri,”said GJM general secretary Roshan Giri.

Another factor that may be of concern for the GJM is that Chhetri’s popularity seems to have increased after his departure from the party. His is a unique case in hill politics, where a leader, however prominent he may be, inevitably disappears into political wilderness if he leaves or is thrown out of the party in power. “We have seen very prominent leaders such as Tsheten Sherpa and C.K. Pradhan of the GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front, the party that was earlier in power in the region) go into political obscurity once out of the party. Anmole Prasad, Amar Lama and Trilok Dewan met a similar fate once they left the GJM. But Harka Bahadur seems to be the only leader who has actually gained in prominence after leaving the party in power,” said Sandip Jain, editor of the Kalimpong-based Himalayan Times.

Though a moderate in his approach, Chhetri’s was one of the more acceptable faces of the Gorkhaland movement, and his perceived deviation from the demand for Gorkhaland has undoubtedly come as a blow to the GJM. He has made it clear that the development of Kalimpong is of more immediate necessity than the establishment of Gorkhaland. “The priority is more on development than on Gorkhaland because Gorkhaland without development is as bad as the situation prevalent now. You have not been able to give drinking water to the people, and you are talking of Gorkhaland. Will drinking water start flowing automatically once Gorkhaland is achieved?” he said.

The GJM maintains that Chhetri does not pose any challenge to its supremacy. “He is not a threat to us, as we are also demanding a separate district of not just Kalimpong but also Kurseong, Mirik and other places. Moreover, there are very few people supporting Harka Bahadur Chhetri—only the Lepcha Development Board and the Tamang Development Board, both of which have been constituted by Mamata Banerjee,” Giri told Frontline.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay