The long-awaited election to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the regional autonomous administrative body in the Darjeeling hills of north Bengal, has been a significant victory in more ways than one for the ruling Trinamool Congress. Not only did its “political friend”, the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM), win 26 of the 45 GTA seats, the Trinamool also won for the first time ever in the hills, capturing five seats. The newly formed Hamro Party won eight seats, while independent candidates won six.
The most significant takeaway from the election, something that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee can be happy about, was the peaceful participation of the people in the election process, which signified a temporary shifting of priorities from the demand for a separate Gorkhaland to development and peace.
However, none of the traditional parties in the hills, including the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist (CPRM), and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), one of the principal signatories along with the State government in the GTA Accord, took part in the elections, indicating that while the Gorkhaland issue may be dormant for now, it is certainly not dead.
The main contest in the election, which took place after a gap of 10 years, was between two newly formed parties—the BGPM headed by Anit Thapa and Hamro Party headed by Ajay Edwards. The Trinamool’s challenge was led by Binay Tamang, Thapa’s former colleague in the GJM. The BGPM, which entered into an electoral understanding with the Trinamool, contested 35 seats in all. It won seven out of a total of 17 in Darjeeling, eight out of a total of 15 in Kalimpong, and 11 seats in Kurseong. The Trinamool contested 10 seats and won five. The two parties had an unofficial electoral understanding with each other, and apparently did not field candidates against each other.
Hamro Party, which recently won the municipal elections in Darjeeling, contested all 45 seats but contrary to expectations, managed to win only seven seats in Darjeeling and one in Kurseong.
The GTA election also brought in new power dynamics to the hills. Since 1986, the hills have been under the autocratic rule of a single political party: first the GNLF under Subhas Ghising and then, from 2008 onwards, the GJM under Bimal Gurung. Both the parties had seized political control of the region after riding a violent agitation for separate Statehood; and both the parties, while in power, were in alliance with whoever was in power at the Centre, and adamantly resisted the State government in the region.
Following the latest GTA election, the region has witnessed not just the rejection of the Centre by the party that won but also the promise of cooperation and harmony with the State government in the days to come.
BGPM chief Anit Thapa, during a visit to Kolkata on July 5 to meet the Chief Minister, said: “We had only one narrative: the GTA is under the State government. Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts are under the West Bengal government. If we do not work alongside the State government, there will be no development in the Darjeeling hills.”
Moreover, the fact that 177 independents were allowed to contest and that the entire polling process passed off peacefully may also signify a return to democracy in the hills. It may be recalled that in the last GTA election in 2012, the GJM, which ruled supreme, won all 45 seats uncontested. Time and again, other parties in the hills have alleged that both the GNLF and the GJM used to brutally stifle the voice of the opposition.
Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a former MLA and one of the most respected political figures in the hills, told Frontline: “The situation now is like what it was before 1986, where nobody is scared of anybody and no single party has absolute control. This is so important for democracy.”
Chhetri also said that today, the people of the hills want development, but added that their endorsement of the GTA does not mean turning their back on the demand for Gorkhaland. “It is not a reflection of any disillusionment with the idea of Gorkhaland, but disillusionment with the leaders who have been only using the issue of Gorkhaland to rule over the people. What is Gorkhaland? It is solving the immediate issues of drinking water, education, jobs, infrastructure development. But all these issues since the days of Ghising have taken a backseat in the name of Gorkhaland. People here are so poor now, that their priority is survival,” said Chhetri, who is also the chairman of the District School Board of Kalimpong.
Anit Thapa emphasised that the first priority of the new GTA board to be formed would be to “set the system right” in the hills. “The entire system in the hills has collapsed. Once that is set right, things will begin to fall in place,” he said.
The traditional hill parties that, along with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had boycotted the GTA election, believe that the election was a “setback” for the Gorkhaland movement and the political endeavour to find a “permanent political solution” in the hills.
GNLF leader Neeraj Zimba, who won the Darjeeling Assembly seat on a BJP ticket in 2019, told Frontline: “The GTA election was a speedbreaker for our peaceful agitation for separate Statehood, which had been continuing through dialogue. The BJP had already called for a dialogue for finding a “permanent political solution” for the hills. The election has completely derailed all talks for greater autonomy.”
According to him, the GTA election was not a true reflection of the political will of the people as it was “forcefully imposed” by the State government. “Mamata Banerjee forced this election on the people because she feared that the Central government would come up with a plan for the hills. We have seen that the GTA has utterly failed to address the political, economic, educational, social-cultural aspirations of the people from the time it was formed,” said Zimba.
The BJP has been winning the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat since 2009, thanks to the support of the ruling power in the hills. However, with the shifting of political dynamics, the BJP may well be losing its position, as its allies appear to be losing ground.
Sandip Jain, editor of Himalayan Times and well-known political observer in the hills, said that the real reason why the traditional parties boycotted the election was that they would have suffered a “huge loss of face” once the results were declared. “The municipal elections showed that these parties were rejected outright by the people. Actually, they were too scared to take part in the GTA election,” said Jain.
For Mamata Banerjee, the GTA election was a major political triumph. The formation of the GTA was her trump card in dealing with the unrest that has plagued the Darjeeling hills since 1986. When she came to power in 2011, she replaced the practically defunct Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council (DGAHC) with the GTA and proudly proclaimed: “The hills are smiling.”
However, after a few years of peace, violence erupted again in 2017 over the proposed introduction of Bengali in the school syllabus.
Many alleged that the fresh agitation for Gorkhaland was orchestrated by GJM leader supremo Bimal Gurung to avoid the GTA election, which the State government was insisting upon. At that time, the GJM’s undisputed sway was perceptibly weakening, although it was still the strongest political force in the region, and the Trinamool was finding ways to make political inroads in the hills.
But the matter went out of GJM’s control after more than 10 people died in the violence and the hills shut down for a record 104 days.
Gurung, who had ruled unchallenged for 10 years, went into hiding in June 2017 after the State government slapped a number of charges on him, including a few under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), for his role in the agitation.
The GJM broke up into two factions—one led by Gurung and the other by Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa. Tamang and Thapa made peace with the State government and were installed as temporary heads of the GTA. During that time, not only was Mamata Banerjee’s popularity in the hills at its lowest, Tamang and Thapa were also perceived to be puppets of the State government.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the people’s resentment found expression in the ballot box. The BJP, in alliance with the GJM, administered a most humiliating defeat to the Trinamool, and in the by-election to the Darjeeling Assembly constituency the same year, Binay Tamang lost to GNLF’s Neeraj Zimba, who contested on a BJP ticket.
In the 2021 Assembly election, although the Binay Tamang faction of the GJM backed by the Trinamool won the Kalimpong seat, the BJP won in Kurseong and Darjeeling. However, Tamang’s faction came second in the two constituencies won by the BJP. Subsequently, Binay Tamang joined the Trinamool.
For the people of the Darjeeling hills, Gorkhaland is as much a demand as it is an unfulfilled dream. It now remains to be seen whether the State government, through development and establishment of order, is able to wean away the people from the hard embattled road they have been travelling for the last four decades.