Interview: Harka Bahadur Chhetri

‘Leaders are scared to call off the bandh’

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Harka Bahadur Chhetri.

Interview with Harka Bahadur Chhetri, leader of the Jan Andolan Party.

After much violence and a bandh that has lasted nearly three months, there is no indication of the agitation for a separate State of Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal being called off (as of September 7). If the long-awaited meeting between the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal and the representatives of the hill parties led by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) on August 29 had given cause for hope for a speedy resolution of the impasse in the hills, expectations were soon dashed with GJM supremo Bimal Gurung’s announcement that the shutdown would continue. To add to the prevailing political uncertainty and general confusion, differences within the GJM top leadership on the issue of the bandh came to the fore, culminating in the expulsion of the party heavyweight Binoy Tamang, assistant general secretary and chief coordinator of the GJM.

Harka Bahadur Chhetri has for long been one of the most respected political leaders in the Darjeeling hills. Once a heavyweight of the GJM, the former MLA from Kalimpong broke away and formed his own party, the Jan Andolan Party (JAP), and became one of the GJM’s most outspoken critics. Though a long-time advocate of a Gorkhaland State, Chhetri does not believe that agitations and confrontations with the State government will yield the best results. Speaking exclusively to Frontline on the ongoing agitation, Chhetri said that the reins of the movement are now in the hands of the people rather than any political party. “It is really a confusing situation, where we have no idea where the movement is heading.” Excerpts:

This has been the longest ever continuous strike in the hills. Under the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), a bandh once lasted for 40 days. What do you think is the essential difference between the old movement and the new one?

During the GNLF’s movement, once the bandh was announced by Subash Ghising, nobody questioned it. He was in complete control of the movement. Though people suffered a lot during the 40-day bandh and would talk in private about the fruitlessness of it, nobody would dare say such things openly. But in the present case, it is the people who are more interested in the bandh than the leaders. Now the leaders are scared to call the bandh off. In fact, when delegates from different parties are going for the GMCC [Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee—a body comprising representatives of the different hill parties] meeting, they are stopped by the public and told: “If you are planning to stop this strike, then you had better not come back here.” In the earlier movement there was one undisputed leader, but this time the people have refused to accept one single party or individual as the sole leader.

During the 1986 agitation, mostly Darjeeling was involved, and the Dooars were affected, and there was sympathy from different pockets of the country where there was Gorkha population. But it was nowhere close to being as strong as it is this time. For the Unity March on July 30, Gorkha people from all over the world, including Italy, Australia, the United States and France, had come to show solidarity. This time it has become a pan-Gorkha movement.

Can we say that the Gorkhaland movement is today facing a leadership crisis?

Well, there are too many leaders now, but the GJM being the largest party is still the most powerful political force. The crisis is there in terms of programme rather than in the leaders. We know that this bandh is not going to provide a solution. Those who are agitating feel that both the State government and, more importantly, the Union government will feel pressured and so the agitators will not lift the bandh— that is the general mood in the hills. But the Centre seems to have its own political compulsion. It is clearly looking at the 2019 general elections and is targeting all the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in West Bengal. So why would they risk 41 seats for one? That seems to be their only reason to remain silent.

I also feel that maybe because of the nature of the agitation; it has become a law and order issue rather than a constitutional-political issue. So it is easy for the State government to label it a law and order problem and demand forces from the Centre. When the GJM leaders are meeting representatives of the Union government, they are being told: “You settle it with the State.” It is really a confusing situation in which we have no idea where the movement is heading. But the guiding force is not a single party, nor the GMCC, but the common people who for some reason are convinced that this time they will achieve Gorkhaland. But even they cannot suggest the right way to move forward.

Most people had hoped that after the first round of dialogue with the State government, the bandh would be relaxed. Now it is almost three months. What is the rationale behind it?

The JAP has always maintained that strikes will yield nothing in Darjeeling, and such long strikes are inconsequential and against the interest of the people. But since this strike was called by the GJM, we told them that it is your prerogative to decide, we don’t want to get into this mess.

Now, let us take the case of the GJM. It is clear that there is a fight for leadership taking place there. Bimal Gurung and Roshan Giri [GJM general secretary] are scared that the State government is projecting Binoy Tamang as an alternative. The dissatisfaction in their rank and file is showing.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged that foreign hands are playing a role in the ongoing agitation. What do you think?

That is very difficult to digest. When we talk about foreign hand, it is a very serious allegation. The weapons used by the agitators are bricks and stones so far, not the kind of sophisticated weapons we can expect if foreign hands have got involved in Darjeeling. But, as the saying goes, give a dog a bad name and hang him. There is no denying that it has become a mass movement, and this is one way of demeaning it.

The recent blasts, in which the police claim explosives similar to the ones used by Maoists were involved, should be treated in isolation. Before jumping to conclusions and arresting leaders of the movement, a full inquiry needs to take place. During the previous agitations, such improvised gadgets were never used. It is possible that this long bandh has given scope for anti-social elements to cause mischief. If indeed forces across the border have a hand behind the blasts, then it is the worst that could happen to Darjeeling.

You have been one of the most respected leaders of the GJM and now are one of its most vocal opponents. What is your stand on the agitation?

After the formation of the JAP, we knew we had to have a long-term road map and that we needed to proceed gradually and not in haste. Within three months of the formation of the JAP, we even prepared a Bill for a separate State. Whether that finally materialises or not is a different issue and rests with Parliament. That is precisely why I have always been insisting that there is no need to fight with the State. The State government has no role in it—even if they support it, it does not count.

What we had decided to do was to place our demand for a separate State and, in the meanwhile, work within whatever system there is to assure the Union government that we are capable of running things on our own. The DGHC [Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council], the GTA [Gorkhaland Territorial Administration], and the next thing that will come are all essentially systems that will test our capability and we can upgrade ourselves from one level to another. For example, if the DGHC and the GTA had been utilised to the hilt, there would undoubtedly have been a point where we could have turned to the Centre and said we have utilised the system and still there are things that remain to be addressed, so we need to go to the next stage, and in this way we get closer to the ultimate realisation of Statehood. At the same time, we enter into dialogue with the Union government. We need to convince them on the basis of logic and facts and not just emotion. That was the direction in which the JAP was heading. Meanwhile, this [the fresh agitation] happened, and respecting the popular sentiment, we also joined it.

Instead, if we had taken some programme that would hurt the interests of the Union government, it would have served us better. The Union government had some commitments towards us. We did not use the MPs properly either. Even now, the leaders of the agitation are not refuting the reasons being put forward against the formation of a separate State—for example, the small area, no resources, population, etc. We, in fact, qualify in every aspect to be a separate state—size, population and even revenue.

When the State government submitted its report on the extent of damage and loss because of the agitation [10 days after it had begun] to the High Court, it put the figure at Rs.150 crore: Rs.20 crore for destruction of government properties and Rs.130 crore for loss of revenue. Rs.130 crore of revenue in 10 days means Rs.4,680 crore in a year. That is the revenue by the State government’s own submission. In 2015, when I was an MLA taking part in budget discussions, West Bengal’s budget was Rs.39,000 crore, and Darjeeling got Rs.178 crore only as planned budget; if you add the non-plan budget, it hardly exceeded Rs.500 crore. So, on the one hand our revenue generation is Rs.4,680 crore, and we are getting back less than Rs.500 crore. Doesn’t that say it all?

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