West Bengal

Uphill task for Bimal Gurung

Print edition : November 10, 2017

Bimal Gurung. Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee holding an all-party meeting on Darjeeling with Binay Tamang (seated third from right) and members of the Board of Administrators for Darjeeling and members of other political parties, in Kolkata on October 16. Photo: PTI

FOR the past decade, Bimal Gurung’s writ was law in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal. But today the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) president, who has reigned unchallenged in the region and has spearheaded the movement for a separate State of Gorkhaland (to be carved out of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and parts of the Terai and the Dooars in the foothills), is a cornered man—on the run from the law and fast losing the ground beneath his feet. The latest episode of violence, on October 13 between the police and alleged supporters of Gurung in which one policeman was killed, may well be the final nail in the coffin of Gurung’s political supremacy in the region.

When Gurung and several top GJM leaders were forced to flee Darjeeling to avoid arrest on June 15, a week after the hills erupted in violence, the stage was set for his ouster. With the police subsequently bringing several charges against him, including those under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the GJM supremo could neither be present for the bandh he himself had called in the hills, which lasted 101 days, nor could he give direction to the movement he instigated. From his hideout, sending video and audio messages, Gurung could only watch helplessly the enormous power that he once wielded rapidly slip away from his grasp. The other political parties of the hills, for so long suppressed by the might of the GJM, found the scope to assert their identities as the grievances against the GJM began to come to the fore. But the decisive blow was when the party itself split, with Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa, two of Gurung’s trusted lieutenants, turning against him.

The two leaders, who represented the GJM in meetings with the State government in the absence of Gurung and general secretary Roshan Giri (who also went into hiding), openly opposed the bandh and were promptly expelled. However, they refused to accept Gurung’s expulsion order and continued to represent the GJM, unchallenged by other members of the party. With the rift coming out in the open, the Trinamool Congress government struck a strategic blow that weakened Gurung’s position further. It put its weight behind the rebel faction and nominated Tamang and Thapa as chairman and vice chairman respectively of the reconstituted board of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA, the autonomous administrative elected body from which Gurung and all the other members had resigned on June 23). However, the shadow of the absent Gurung still stretched across the hills, and shops and offices remained closed despite the State government’s concerted efforts to get them to reopen. It was only when the GJM chief officially called off the bandh on September 27 that shops and business establishments in the region opened. But if Gurung expected any sort of clemency for ending the strike, it was not to be. The charges against him remain (as of October 16), making it impossible for him to attend the tripartite talks in New Delhi, talks that he himself had been demanding. The State government, too, voiced its reservations on sitting for a meeting with Gurung, a person facing charges under the UAPA.

Meanwhile, Gurung began to lose his political strongholds and following within the party. The councillors of Kurseong and Kalimpong civic bodies announced their support for the Binay Tamang faction; even in Darjeeling, the majority of the councillors pledged their support toTamang. The Gorkha Janmukti Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the party, also shifted its allegiance to Tamang, with more than 80 per cent of its members apparently opting to go with the new power centre. “We are supporting the Binay Tamang-Anit Thapa camp as we believe that the statehood agitation can move forward only through democratic means,” said Arjun Chhetri, the Yuva Morcha spokesperson.

The manner in which Gurung has lost his hold in the hills can be compared to the way in which his predecessor, Subhash Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), was dethroned. Ghising, whose name was synonymous with the Gorkhaland movement and who ruled the hills for 22 years, found himself outmanoeuvred by one of his most trusted aides, Bimal Gurung. In 2008, when Gurung wrested control of the hills from Ghising, he made sure that Ghising could not re-enter the hills until all his support bases were in Gurung’s grasp. Ghising died in 2008 in political obscurity. Now, as normalcy returns to the hills, Gurung’s inability to enter Darjeeling weakens his position with every passing day, rendering the possibility of his staging a comeback more and more remote. Gurung’s position was pushed further to the brink when a police officer was killed in an exchange of fire between the security forces and alleged supporters of Gurung on October 13. The incident took place in a forested area at Sirubari in Darjeeling, where, according to the police, Gurung and his supporters had set up a camp. “On the basis of specific information that Bimal Gurung and his team were there, the police conducted a raid. They [the police] had to face very heavy firepower, which led to the death of a sub-inspector, Amitabh Mullik, and injuries to some police personnel.... We have information that Bimal Gurung had instructed his followers to attack the police,” said Anuj Sharma, Additional Director General of Police, Law & Order. The police seized nine AK-47assault rifles, more than 1,800 rounds of ammunition and a large number of gelatin sticks and detonators from the camp. The police are seeing it as a last-ditch effort by a desperate Gurung to win back his position.

Gurung’s slide actually started a few years ago. Although the GJM remained the single-most powerful political force in the hills, it had perceptibly lost its universal appeal among the people. The decline began with the assassination of Madan Tamang, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), allegedly by GJM workers in broad daylight in 2010. Madan Tamang was not only one of the most respected leaders of the hills but also a very vocal critic of Gurung’s policies. The subsequent investigation into the assassination by the Central Bureau of Investigation put the GJM on the back foot, and until the flare-up in July this year, Gurung was forced to tone down the agitation for a separate State, a fact that did not go down well with a section of the people. However, with muscle power on his side and no viable opposition, Gurung to continued to rule the region. The Gorkhaland movement that he took over from the GNLF and revived also began to fizzle out with the establishment of the GTA in 2011. The following year, the GJM won the election to the autonomous body unopposed.

Although it registered convincing victories in the subsequent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the erosion in its support base became apparent, with the Trinamool Congress gaining inroads into the hills and even winning the Mirik municipal body in May this year. Many believe that the flare-up in the hills orchestrated by Gurung in June against the State government’s decision to make Bengali compulsory at the school level was nothing but a ploy to avoid the GTA elections scheduled for July. If it was indeed a ploy, it backfired. By reviving the Gorkhaland issue, he may have won back his dwindling support among the masses, but after having to flee the scene, he now stands to lose it all.

However, Binay Tamang’s position, in spite of the backing of the State government, may not be all that secure. The fact that he was placed in power by the State government has not gone down well with a large section of the hill people, who see it as a blatant compromise with the Gorkhaland cause. There is the danger of the resentment of the masses rising once the initial relief that comes with the lifting of a prolonged bandh passes. The other prominent hill parties, too, stand firmly against the State government-backed GTA board. “Nobody is in favour of this GTA Part 2. The people of the hills are against it as it goes against their sentiments and aspirations. The State government will have to look for an alternative long-term settlement,” GNLF leader Niraj Zimba told Frontline.

A section of political observers also feels that even now, with all the setbacks, it may be a little premature to write Gurung off. “As things stand, it appears to be difficult for Bimal Gurung to come back to the mainstream of politics. But I would not count him out, as a section of the hill people still identify with him and support him. Just because he has been accused of preparing an armed uprising does not mean one can write his epitaph,” said Sandip C. Jain, editor of The Himalayan Times.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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