The Gorkhaland sleight of hand
There is trouble in paradise again. In the Darjeeling hills, tourists are being bussed out in large numbers, there is heavy police presence on the streets, and angry mobs on the rampage have taken to stone-pelting, arson and violence. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the semi-autonomous body that administers the region, has called for an indefinite strike and is leading the charge against the West Bengal state government. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) party which controls the GTA has, as expected, revived the demand for a Gorkhaland separate from the state of Bengal.
Yet, it was only six years ago that the GJM signed a peace deal of sorts with this same government, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee—which in turn led to the establishment of the GTA, the empowered avatar of the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, in 2012. At the time, Banerjee had announced in triumph, “The Darjeeling problem has been solved.” Then why is there unrest in the hills again today?
The answer lies partly in the fact that “the Darjeeling problem” was never quite solved. The state’s plan to quell the demand for Gorkhaland by giving the locals more autonomy brought only limited results. The GTA, arguably still weaker than its counterparts in other states, was never satisfied with the powers it had been given and publicly accused the state government of betraying its trust. The long-standing ethnic and linguistic factors that had driven the Gorkhaland movement for over a century didn’t go away overnight either. Naturally then, when the Banerjee government announced that Bengali would be made compulsory in all schools in the state, the Nepali-speaking hill communities were not pleased. The perception is that it is this language imposition that served as the spark that lit the fire of unrest. But the Banerjee government rolled back the language requirement almost a week ago. Why then has the protest intensified in recent days?
The answer, perhaps, is that while the protest has its roots in long-standing ethnic and linguistic factors, the current flare-up is the result of a political turf war between Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party on the one hand, and the GJM and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other.
On its part, the TMC has made bold moves into the latter’s territory. The language announcement of 15 May was the proverbial red rag, but the more important development came two days later. On 17 May, the TMC won a rare victory in the civic elections held in the hill districts. The party took the Mirik municipality (winning six of the nine wards) and even secured one seat in the 32-ward Darjeeling municipality. The GJM still came out on top in the region—winning Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong—but the TMC win was not easy to swallow. The hill parties and the plains parties have had an unwritten understanding over the years that except in assembly and parliamentary polls, the latter would for all practical purposes keep out of the former’s electoral space. With the Mirik win, the TMC has effectively upended that old arrangement. Indeed, it is against this backdrop that Banerjee’s provocative 8 June cabinet meeting held in Darjeeling—for the first time in four decades—must be viewed.
That is not all. In her efforts to make headway into Gorkha territory, Banerjee has also made a carefully calibrated attempt to break the Gorkha stranglehold. For example, earlier this year her government carved out Kalimpong district from Darjeeling, clearly with an eye on the 2019 poll. Banerjee has also reached out to the region’s ethnic minorities, such as the Lepchas, the Tamangs and the Bhutias, with the establishment of “development boards”—much to the chagrin of the GJM and its chief Bimal Gurung.
In recent years, Gurung, once a firebrand leader who successfully took on the mighty Subhash Ghisingh, has struggled to deliver on good governance and his popularity has sagged. Note that on Monday, the first day of the bandh, the public response was lukewarm. Tuesday was more effective primarily because trade unions representing tea-garden workers joined in, demanding better wages. It will be interesting to see how Gurung leads the campaign from here on, especially with the GTA election due soon. He has a tough battle ahead—after the civil polls in May, he said, “This is one last chance that the people have given us”—and can be expected to leverage the Gorkhaland demand to the hilt.
For the BJP, which is allied to the GJM and aggressively building its presence in Bengal, this works fairly well. Though the Centre has been quiet on Gorkhaland demands at this time, the BJP, which has an MP in Darjeeling, supports the cause. And it will, no doubt, use it to open up the political space in Bengal for itself.
In short, Darjeeling will be the primary theatre where Bengal politics will play out. For the TMC, Darjeeling is the last frontier—the only part of Bengal that is not fully under its control. For the BJP, it is one of its early stepping stones. And for the GJM, this is a battle for survival.
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