Unrest in the hills

After years of relative peace, memories of the prolonged and violent agitation for Gorkhaland are revived and north Bengal teeters on the precipice.

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

A bus that was set on fire in Darjeeling on June 8 by Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supporters.

A bus that was set on fire in Darjeeling on June 8 by Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supporters.

THE uneasy truce between the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) of the Darjeeling hills has been shattered. The GJM, which for the last six years had kept the separatist agitation in the hills at bay, launched on June 8 the most violent agitation seen in recent years, requiring the Army’s intervention to contain the situation. The following day, the GJM called a 12-hour bandh in the hills and announced an indefinite shutdown of government and public offices from June 12. On June 15, after GJM supremo Bimal Gurung’s house was raided by the police and a huge cache of arms was recovered, the GJM announced an indefinite total bandh in the hills. After six years of relative peace, memories of the prolonged and violent agitation for a separate State of Gorkhaland were reawakened.

In a clearly premeditated action, thousands of GJM supporters launched an attack on the afternoon of June 8 barely 200 metres from the Governor’s House in Darjeeling town, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had just finished holding a Cabinet meeting. (It was the first Cabinet meeting to be held in Darjeeling in 45 years.) For over two hours, they threw stones and bombs at the police and burnt public vehicles. According to reports, 12 police vehicles and a public bus were torched and more than 50 police personnel were injured. The police countered with baton charges and tear-gas shelling. All the while, the Chief Minister and her 31 Cabinet Ministers, who were in Darjeeling to announce development work done in the hills, remained confined to the Raj Bhavan. The State government thought it necessary to requisition the Army, and as of June 13, six columns of Army personnel were stationed in Darjeeling.

The GJM declared a 12-hour shutdown on June 9, with the promise that more intense agitation would follow. In order to allay the worries of tourists in Darjeeling, Mamata Banerjee delayed her return to Kolkata and was out in the streets interacting with local people.

The violent outburst was the culmination of a simmering feud between the State government and the GJM over the last few months. The discontent found an outlet when the Chief Minister announced in May a new language policy making Bengali compulsory in the school curriculum as a second or third language. The GJM’s response was to declare a two-day strike in the schools in the hills on June 1 and 2. Mamata Banerjee yielded, saying Bengali would not be made compulsory in the schools of Darjeeling and in certain areas of the Terai and the Dooars (the foothills). But the GJM remained on the path of agitation.

For the GJM, this was an opportunity to reassert its position of supremacy in the hills in the face of rising opposition and the onset of an anti-incumbency sentiment. Its image took a beating in 2010 when Madan Tamang, leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) and an outspoken critic of GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, was hacked to death in broad daylight, allegedly by GJM activists. Following the establishment of the autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) in 2011, the GJM’s demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland appeared to have lost steam, particularly since it shifted its agitation to Delhi, opting for a strike-free environment in the hills to facilitate development and peace after nearly three decades of continuous strife. The GJM’s opponents saw this as a serious compromise on the promise of Gorkhaland, and for the first time an erosion was detected in the party’s support base. The Trinamool Congress’s increasing presence in the hills was, if not a threat, a source of irritation for Gurung. A separate group emerged in Kalimpong with friendly ties with the Trinamool, under the leadership of Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a former heavyweight member of the GJM. In this background, the municipal elections held in May must have given cause for concern to the GJM. The Mirik municipality in the hills elected the Trinamool to form the board—something that was inconceivable earlier.

As the GJM continued its agitation, Mamata Banerjee accused the organisation of trying to drive a rift between Bengali- and Nepali-speaking people. She even threatened the GJM leadership at a public rally in Mirik: “Those who have the murder case of Madan Tamang pending against them have the audacity to threaten me. It will take me just one minute…. But I do not believe in vindictive politics.” Many felt that this challenge to Gurung’s supremacy in the region left the GJM with no option but to react with a display of muscle power. Gurung said: “She [Mamata Banerjee] is the Chief Minister of West Bengal. I am also an elected leader, chief minister of the hills. If she can show her power, so can I.”

The GJM blames Mamata Banerjee for the deterioration of relations between the two parties. “The State government’s high-handedness and its policy of suppression over the last six years compelled us to resume the agitation for Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills,” GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told Frontline . Once again demanding a separate State, the GJM declared an “indefinite agitation”. Beginning on June 12, all government offices in the Darjeeling hills, including the State’s revenue-generation centres such as electricity bill-payment counters, will remain closed; banks will work only on Mondays and Thursdays. Courts and emergency departments and services have been exempted.

Giri said: “The closure is only for government offices. Hotels, shops, transport, schools and colleges are all open. We assure the tourists that they are welcome in Darjeeling. We will also be organising regular processions and torchlight rallies demanding Gorkhaland.” On the eve of the strike, however, Bimal Gurung gave cause for alarm by saying that tourists could stay behind in Darjeeling at their own risk. The situation took a turn for the worse on June 15 when the GJM declared an indefinite bandh following a raid on Bimal Gurung’s house. “We had information that the GJM was gathering arms and accordingly raids were conducted. We recovered bows and arrows, three or four firearms and a large amount of cash…. We do not think any peace-minded person will store such arms,” said Akhilesh Chaturvedi, Superintendent of Police, Darjeeling. Roshan Giri, however, claimed that the bows and arrows were for archery practice.

A POLITICAL compulsion The unrest in the hills has been a setback of sorts for Mamata Banerjee. One of her biggest success stories after assuming power in 2011 was that she brought back peace in the hills. After the establishment of the GTA, barring a few stray incidents, the hills seemed to be looking forward to a period of prosperity and political stability. The Chief Minister set up separate boards for the welfare and development of indigenous communities in the hills—Lepcha, Tamang, Sherpa, Bhutia, Limbu, and so on—and thus prised away some support for the Trinamool from the grip of the GJM. But Gurung’s show of strength proved that the GJM was still the most dominant force in the region. It is clear, too, that the demand for Gorkhaland continues to be the most vibrant and unifying political call in the hills.

The revival of the Gorkhaland demand has also taken the wind out of the opposition’s sails. Sandip C. Jain, editor of TheHimalayan Times , said: “The moment the GJM revived the issue of Gorkhaland, it blew away all opposition parties. Whatever gains they may have made over the last few years will now be reduced to insignificance.”

At an all-party meet called by the GJM on June 13, most of the local parties, including the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Gorkhaland Rajya Nirman Morcha, the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), set aside political differences and pledged to fight for Gorkhaland. Only the ABGL and the Trinamool were absent in the meeting. Interestingly, the GNLF, founded by Subhas Ghising, who began the Gorkhaland movement in the mid 1980s, was for long the Trinamool’s electoral ally. “The GNLF wholeheartedly supports the demand for Gorkhaland. We should go according to the wishes of the people,” said Neeraj Zimba Tamang. Admitting that his party was in an electoral understanding with the Trinamool, Tamang clarified, “The GNLF will stand with anyone who raises the demand for Gorkhaland.”

Not the GJM of old Notwithstanding the renewed aggressiveness of the GJM, the current agitation shows that the organisation is no longer able to take any extreme measure lest it alienates the masses further. It announced an “indefinite agitation” but stopped short of a total shutdown. After several years of stability in the region, Gurung did not wish to risk the people’s ire by shutting down the tourism industry, the mainstay of the region’s economy. He was finally compelled to call an indefinite bandh when he was cornered following the raid on his house. “The State government forced it on us. This was a political movement, not a law and order problem,” said Roshan Giri.

The State government has stepped up pressure on the GJM by ordering a special audit of the funds that went not only to the GTA but also the three hill municipalities of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. The GJM has turned to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with which it has a political understanding. Giri said: “We have requested the Centre to intervene on our behalf. Our president wrote to the Home Minister on June 10 and the Prime Minister on June 11. We have written that we are no longer satisfied with the GTA.”

With GTA elections due in July, the last thing the GJM wants now is to put itself in a corner. Many feel this is a desperate effort by the GJM to retain power in the hills and defer the GTA elections, as the possibility of losing in the elections is not as remote as it would have been considered earlier.

“Bimal Gurung has proved that he is still the big boss in the hills, but he is absolutely clueless about what to do next. If he backs down, he will appear weak; and if he intensifies the agitation, the people may just get fed up with yet another prolonged period of deprivation,” an informed political source from Darjeeling said. As of June 15, with the hills once again heading for a prolonged period of violence and agitation, it remains to be seen how the GJM leadership can find a solution that will bring about stability in the hills without appearing to compromise on the issue of Gorkhaland.

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