Gorkhas call off strike, to join in tripartite talks on 21 December

Gorkhas call off strike, to join in tripartite talks on 21 December

Darjeeling, West Bengal: The Union government and leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) convinced Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of Darjeeling in northern West Bengal on Monday to call off a strike launched to press for the creation of a separate state for themselves.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (literally, Gorkha People’s Liberation Front), or GJM, however, said it would not settle for “anything less than a separate state" and the agitation was being suspended till the tripartite talks with the Union and state government, which are to be held in Darjeeling on 21 December.

The agitation in Darjeeling intensified last week after the Union government announced its decision to carve up Andhra Pradesh to create Telangana state.

“The Centre has opened a Pandora’s box by agreeing to create Telangana," said Nirupam Sen, West Bengal’s commerce and industries minister. “This flare-up is entirely because of the announcement last week."

Led by Roshan Giri, GJM’s general secretary, a team of top leaders has been camping in Delhi for the past few days and Giri claimed on Monday to have secured a commitment from the Union government that the demand for a separate state would be “considered".

Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, however, said last week that carving up West Bengal was out of question. Even Mamata Banerjee, India’s rail minister and leader of the Trinamool Congress, West Bengal’s principal opposition, is opposed to the demand for Gorkhaland.

Only the BJP is backing the Gorkhas; the party’s Jaswant Singh—since ousted from the BJP—won in the general election from the Darjeeling constituency. BJP leader L.K. Advani has assured them that his party would fight for them, said Giri.

Singh raised the Gorkhaland issue in the Lok Sabha on Monday. He said the Gorkhas felt “emotionally separated" from the rest of West Bengal.

The state government is willing to offer the Gorkhas more autonomy, but the GJM had thus far refused to take part in the tripartite talks on 21 December because it wasn’t interested in discussing “anything other than creation of Gorkhaland".

Autonomy to the Gorkhas was first granted by the Jyoti Basu-led government of West Bengal, which, in 1988, created the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), partly divesting to it administrative control of the hills in northern West Bengal.

Even as the strike was called off, GJM president Bimal Gurung said he had promised his people Gorkhaland would be created before “ March 2010". “If the Centre agreed to the formation of Telangana, how can it turn a blind eye to the 100-year-old agitation by the Gorkhas?" asked Gurung.

Though the strike has been called off, 21 GJM activists will continue to fast, said Gurung. If the 21 December talks fail, GJM supporters will take to the street and block national highways (NH) 31 and 55, he added. NH31 is considered the gateway to the seven north-eastern states.

Gurung doesn’t have the sting that his predecessor Subhas Ghising did, said Shikha Mukherjee, a political commentator.

It was under Ghising’s leadership that the Gorkhas secured some autonomy in 1988.

Gurung had issued diktats making it mandatory for the Gorkhas to wear ethnic outfits and banning the use of mobile phones and motorbikes, but not many in Darjeeling and adjoining areas seem to be doing this, added Mukherjee.