The States

Hills in chaos

Print edition : July 21, 2017

Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters take part in a rally with the bodies of three protesters who were killed in the agitation in Darjeeling on June 18. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Her repeated attacks against the GJM leadership served as the trigger for the agitation. Photo: PTI

The GJM president, Bimal Gurung, at a news conference in Darjeeling on June 14. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA /AFP

The Gorkhaland agitation seems to be heading for a point of no return after three persons die in alleged police firing and violence engulfs the region.

THE agitation for a separate State of Gorkhaland, to be carved out of West Bengal and including the Darjeeling Hills and parts of the Terai-Dooar region in the foothills, seems to have reached a point of no return. In what is seen as the most violent agitation in the hills in the past 30 years, three protesters were killed, allegedly in police firing. The entire region has once again plunged into chaos and political uncertainty with ethnic animosity raising its ugly head.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the supreme political power in the hills, and other important parties have unanimously rejected the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the autonomous body established in 2011, marking the end of a period of relative peace and prosperity in the strife-torn region. With the mass frenzy for Gorkhaland that has been reignited and the certainty that the idea will not receive any support from the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government or the Centre, the GJM leadership is finding that it has run out of ideas for a resolution of the volatile situation.

The mass agitation for statehood reached a flashpoint on June 17 when the three protesters were killed. This was a culmination of the events that followed the GJM’s call for an indefinite bandh in the hills from June 15 after the police raided the house-cum-office of the party’s president, Bimal Gurung. Although the police and the security forces have denied that they had a hand in the shooting, the deaths served to whip up a frenzy of protests against the State government and strengthen the resolve of the people of the region for a long-drawn-out battle for Gorkhaland.

R.B. Bhujel, senior GJM leader and former executive member of the GTA, told Frontline: “There can be no rolling back or compromise on the issue of Gorkhaland now. No one in the hills will support any kind of autonomy or self-governance within West Bengal any more. We cannot even think of negotiating with the State government. The people are ready to agitate for a separate State at any cost. Come what may, they are now determined to achieve Gorkhaland.”

GTA resignations

On June 23, 43 elected members of the GTA, including chief executive Bimal Gurung, submitted their resignations from the autonomous body and demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the alleged police firing. The decision was taken unanimously at an all-party meeting in the hills on June 20. The rejection of the GTA was a clear indication that there would be no compromise in the struggle for Gorkhaland. The GTA, which was established after a tripartite agreement between the Centre, the State government and the GJM, had served to keep the hills free from violent agitations for the past six years.

Both the GTA and its predecessor, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), were temporary solutions, a compromise reached by all parties to bring immediate peace in the region. The DGHC, created in 1988 during the tenure of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government, brought an end to the violent agitation for Gorkhaland spearheaded by Subhash Ghising and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Between 1986 and 1988, more than 1,000 people were killed in the violence.

In 2005, Ghising demanded that the region be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. In 2008, he was dethroned by Gurung, his former protege. Gurung rejected the Sixth Schedule and once again started the agitation for Gorkhaland. Ghising, who was synonymous with the Gorkhaland movement, died in political obscurity in 2015, after being ousted from the very movement he had single-handedly built. The agitation under Gurung continued unabated until the Mamata Banerjee government came up with the GTA pact in 2011.

The eminent social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline: “There have been repeated attempts to grant autonomy to the hills to fulfil the aspirations of the people of the region, but neither the DGHC nor the GTA agreement was implemented properly. In neither case were the three Fs—funds, functions and functionaries—given to the elected bodies. None of the parties involved in the agreements showed any real interest in following this up. Further, no review meeting, as per the rules of the GTA, took place.”

While it is true that Gurung needed a reason to reassert his political supremacy in the face of a gradually rising opposition, the agitation may not have spiralled out of control had the State government adopted a more sagacious approach. Mamata Banerjee’s new language policy, making Bengali compulsory in all schools, including private English medium schools of the State, gave the GJM a cause to protest, given that language is one of the key factors behind the demand for a separate State. Later, although she made a compromise on that front by saying that Bengali would not be made compulsory in the hills and in parts of the Terai and the Dooars, her repeated attacks against the GJM leadership during her last tour of the hills served as the trigger for the GJM to take a drastic step. Encouraged by her victory in the recent municipal elections in Mirik, she said it would take her “one minute” to take the GJM to task. It was seen as a challenge to the GJM’s supremacy in the hills, and Gurung was forced to react.

“The communal sentiment in the region had almost disappeared. But when Mamata Banerjee brought in the language issue, Gurung once again whipped up communal feelings. This gave him such a handle that it took care of every problem he was facing,” Harka Bahadur Chhetri, president of the Jana Andolan Party and former GJM heavyweight and Member of the Legislative Assembly from Kalimpong, said.

The violent demonstration on June 8 when Mamata Banerjee was holding a Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling was clearly meant to be a show of might and to send out a message to the State government. However, the situation was still under control as the GJM opted for a shutdown of government offices only in the hills and did not call for a complete bandh. Many feel that the situation could have been salvaged at that point and that it was a political agitation that could have been settled politically. But when, on June 15, the police raided the residence-cum-party office of Gurung and recovered a large number of bows and arrows and khukris (Nepali daggers), Gurung was compelled to go into hiding and the GJM to call for a complete shutdown.

“Raiding the GJM office and the house of its president not only was hugely unconstitutional but also humiliated the people of the hills. It was unbecoming of a Chief Minister,” Bhujel said. The agitation reached the point of no return when the three GJM activists were killed.

To make matters worse, Mamata Banerjee accused the GJM of having links with terrorist organisations that are active in the north-eastern States. “Mamata Banerjee’s allegation that we are terrorists and linking of our movement with that in the north-eastern States deeply hurt the people of the region. Gorkhas have always been strong nationalists and have died for the country,” he said.

Asok Bhattacharya, senior CPI(M) leader from north Bengal and Mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation, said Mamata Banerjee’s style of politics had led to the present situation in the hills. “For nearly 20 years under the CPI(M) government there was peace in the hills. The reason for that was that we respected the autonomy of the DGHC. We never interfered. But the present Chief Minister’s impatience to secure control over everything, including the hills, has led to this impasse. Finally, when she tried to force the Bengali language on the people of the hills, they reacted. Now she is stoking the communal fire and trying to instigate Bengalis against the Nepali people,” he said. As a result, ethnic animosity between the hill people and the plains people has begun to surface. Rallies in the hills are being countered by anti-Gorkhaland rallies in the plains.

In order to clamp down on the movement, the State government has blocked Internet services in the hills—a move that has further alienated the general public. The district administration suspended Internet services and local cable television from June 18. “This is in the interest of public safety, preventing incitement and preventing commission of offences,” said an order issued by the District Magistrate, Darjeeling. As on June 27, Internet services remained unavailable in the hills.

The financial loss to the region owing to the indefinite bandh is expected to be enormous. Tea and tourism industries, the mainstay of its economy, have already suffered a tremendous setback. Sikkim has also been badly affected as a stretch of the National Highway that leads to the neighbouring State passes through the Darjeeling Hills. In a letter to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling urged the Centre to facilitate the creation of Gorkhaland. “Creation of Gorkhaland will also restore permanent peace and prosperity in the region and Sikkim will be hugely benefited as her developmental tempo can be maintained undisturbed,” Chamling wrote in a letter dated June 20.

GJM’S predicament

If Gurung needed a reason to revive the Gorkhaland agitation in order to check the rise of the opposition, he certainly did not intend it to reach a point where it threatened to go out of control. Having transformed a mass agitation into a major tumult, he has shut the door on any kind of compromise. “People are now not prepared for anything less than a separate State. How to scale down the movement is now the main problem for Gurung,” said Harka Bahadur Chhetri.

Moreover, the movement has given an opportunity to other parties, who for so long were suppressed by the GJM, to assert themselves. At times, Gurung himself is turning out to be a helpless onlooker and his actions betray his insecurity. He had at first invited all hill parties to take part in the Gorkhaland movement, but on June 22, after the GNLF took out a massive rally in Darjeeling, he announced that “the all-party chapter is now closed… all must come under one party and one flag”. The very next day he reversed his decision and once again appealed for a joint movement. “He was scared that other emerging political forces might hijack the movement,” said Chhetri.

BJP in a spot

The fresh Gorkhaland movement also put the BJP in a politically tricky situation. The GJM’s support has provided the party with an assured Lok Sabha seat in Darjeeling Hills since 2009—a point the GJM has been raising to pressure the ruling party at the Centre to lend its support. However, the BJP is aware that if it is seen to be sympathetic to the cause of Gorkhaland, it may as well abandon any political ambitions in the rest of West Bengal. In a carefully worded section in its manifesto before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP said that it would “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas”. However, the BJP Member of Parliament from Darjeeling, S.S. Ahluwalia, has not visited the hills even once since the GJM relaunched its agitation for Gorkhland. “We are disappointed that the MP is not with us at such difficult times,” said Amar Singh Rai, GJM MLA from Darjeeling.

While the BJP’s Darjeeling unit was seen agitating shoulder to shoulder with the GJM, the party’s State leadership has made it clear that it did not support the creation of Gorkhaland. “We had to make this clear, otherwise the Bengalis of the plains would go against us. We cannot give up 41 Lok Sabha seats for the sake of one Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat,” a BJP leader from north Bengal told Frontline.

For Mamata Banerjee, this is turning out to be her toughest political challenge. One of her biggest successes after coming to power in 2011 was bringing peace to the hills. Now the same hills are turning out to be a thorn in the side of her government. All her initiatives to restore normalcy in the region have failed. An all-party meeting convened by the State government on June 22 turned out to be a damp squib. None of the major opposition parties, including the Congress, the CPI(M) and the BJP, attended the meeting. Even the representatives of the Development Boards she had created in the hills gave it a miss.

The hill parties have refused to enter into any dialogue with her government, and resentment against her is growing with every passing day in the region. Whatever gains her party may have made in the hills have been reversed, with Trinamool Congress members leaving the party and joining the Gorkhaland movement. With no immediate solution in sight and a section of the young agitators even threatening to end their lives for the cause of Gorkhaland, the crisis in the hills may end up being a black spot in the Trinamool Congress’ record in West Bengal.

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