West Bengal

Twist in Gorkhaland demand

Print edition : September 20, 2013

A GJM rally in Darjeeling on August 23. Photo: Lila Sah

The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) appears to be at a crossroads on the issue of a separate Gorkhaland, vacillating between softening its stand and asserting its unquestioned power.

The GJM renewed its agitation for a separate State following the Congress party’s nod for a separate Telangana State. On August 3, the GJM called for an indefinite strike. Reacting quickly, the Trinamool Congress government arrested more than 700 of its supporters in two weeks. It also stationed 15 companies of Central forces in the region. Among those arrested was Anit Thapa, a central committee member and close aide of GJM supremo Bimal Gurung.

On August 7, the Calcutta High Court declared the strike “illegal” and on August 10 Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee gave a 72-hour ultimatum to the GJM to withdraw its strike. The GJM responded with a three-day relaxation of the strike and announced a “janata curfew” for two days, wherein it directed people to stay indoors.

When the High Court called the curfew illegal, the GJM changed it to a “ghar bhitrai janata agitation”, in which people would stay indoors “voluntarily”. This agitation was announced by the newly formed Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee, a platform of nine political and apolitical organisations from the hills. Though the GJM points to the High Court’s ruling, rather than Mamata’s ultimatum, for changing its stand, political quarters perceived the move as a rare climbdown by the GJM. Moreover, the GJM expressed its willingness to sit for talks.

However, all that changed with the arrest of Benoy Tamang, a high-profile leader of the GJM, on August 22 for his alleged role in a clash with the police more than two years ago. The GJM called for a “ghar bahira janata” agitation on August 23, in which people would take to the streets and everything in the hills would remain shut until all those arrested were released. It agreed to participate in a meeting with the State government in September to elect the new head of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA, the statutory autonomous body that replaced the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 2011) provided the arrested GTA activists were released. (Gurung resigned as GTA Chief Executive in July.)

On August 27, Gurung gave a twist to the issue when he told the media that his party would explore alternative demands instead of Gorkhaland. “We will now not ask for Gorkhaland anymore. We will ask for something else, which I will reveal when the time comes,” he said.

Until the arrest of Tamang, the GJM’s comparatively tepid response to the arrests of its leaders and activists was uncharacteristic, leaving people wondering whether the ruling force of the hills was weakening under pressure. According to a political source in the hills, earlier it was inconceivable that the arrest of even an ordinary GJM functionary would not have repercussions. Yet, this time, until Benoy Tamang’s arrest there was hardly a word of protest.

According to an informed source in the State administration, the government’s tough stand was to “send a message” to Gurung that it would not be bullied by his strong-arm tactics. There are many who believe that the State government may be trying to bait the GJM by its own strong-arm methods. “It is clear that the State government, in the absence of grounds to arrest GJM activists because of the peaceful nature of the movement, is nabbing them on old charges in the hope that the GJM will react with violence and give the government a strong reason to crack down on the movement,” said a political observer in the hills who did not want to be named.

However, the State government’s move may have alienated the people of the hills. “Mamata’s attitude has served to unite the people of the hills. There is now maximum participation in the agitation programmes. Even those who were against the GJM now take part in its processions and meetings voluntarily. She has lost whatever goodwill she had here,” said a resident of Darjeeling. The people ignored even the government’s programme of distributing food through the public distribution system in the hills.

“We believe it is not possible to have a Gorkhaland State now, nor is it desirable; but since it is the aspiration of a people, it should not be stamped down with force. The need of the hour is discussion at the tripartite level,” said Jibesh Sarkar, Darjeeling district secretary of the CPI(M).

For the GJM, the recent turn of events has come as a shot in the arm after its image took a beating with the assassination of Madan Tamang, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, in 2010 allegedly by GJM activists. The people had also got tired of the politics of bandhs and agitations. With the establishment of the GTA, the hills were looking forward to a period of peace and development.

It is perhaps sensing this mood that the GJM did not come out of the body—in which it won all 45 seats practically unopposed—even though Gurung himself resigned. However, Gurung’s new strategy for an alternative to Gorkhaland seems more like a desperate attempt to find a way out of the present imbroglio.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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