West Bengal - Darjeeling: Unseemly Hill Queen

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Mamata Banerjee got her handpicked man to replace the ‘dangerous’ Bimal Gurung, but the movement finds no support from either state or central BJP, which the Gorkhas supported, but now detest for letting them down

PRASANTA PAUL

PRASANTA PAUL

The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the eastern bureau of Parliamentarian

Have Darjeeling and what is now a fledgeling district Kalimpong been threatening to alter the map of peace in the eastern part of India? A close study of the contours of the agitation, indefinite shutdown and a state government-foisted leader – Binay Tamang versus a dangerous fugitive – Bimal Gurung’s plan to scuttle the fragile peace will only confirm that a political solution to the turmoil in Darjeeling is far from sight.

What is the most intriguing and what defies logic is a strange yet bitter political bickering that has currently been afflicting the picturesque hill region with the ruling disposition in West Bengal and its counterpart in North Block not seeing eye to eye over the way a permanent solution can be found by talking to all the stakeholders.

To a vast majority of people living in the twin mountain districts, lasting peace in the hills is nothing but a will-o’-the-wisp. Because apparently, the leadership of the political conglomerate in the hills comprising disparate groups would need to keep the foot soldiers happy without compromising the Gorkhaland demand; it needs to be periodically revived.

The fact is that the parties in power in West Bengal and New Delhi would need to keep fighting over various issues where political stakes are pretty more important than national. A series of Dokhlams or other identical intrusions are perhaps required to pop up in the midst or so to buy temporary peace and pull the rug over the statehood demand and then, pull the strings conveniently again later, when necessary.

Tamang Tryst

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. After a prolonged shutdown, when a state government-enforced peace plan was about to take effect in the hills, the new acting GTA (Gorkha Territorial Administration) chairman Binay Tamang sought to amend the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) narrative by seeking to shift the focus of the Gorkhaland stir to the Centre.

Tamang, formerly a deputy of the now fugitive GJM chief Bimal Gurung – on the run since he has been ousted and handpicked by the Mamata Banerjee government to revive a semblance of administration in the twin hill districts - was keen to allay any misgivings over his intent but stoked the for Gorkhaland demand, albeit differently.

As Tamang hoisted the party flag on the GJM foundation day in the first week of October after ousting his party chief Bimal Gurung, he demanded that the Centre must start talks on Gorkhaland and place a bill in parliament in the coming winter session for the creation of a separate state.

Giving a new twist to the tale, he hastened to add that there would not be any bandh, however, in the hill districts to press the statehood demand.

Again a weird contradiction is simply allowed by the powers that be there may be compulsions behind Tamang’s raising the bogey of statehood though. Why the talk of Gorkhaland again when neither chief minister Banerjee nor the BJP government at the Centre is least prepared to grant it?

Darj Reprive

First, the hill people have just managed to extricate themselves from a more-than-three-month shutdown that has immensely inconvenienced them. They are loathed to listen to any talk about bandh in THE near future.

Secondly, the new rebel GJM leader could ill-afford to summarily drop the statehood issue from the palate of his administration even though he enjoys the backing of the chief minister.

Gorkhaland is an emotive issue, and barely a couple of months back, in his previous avatar as deputy of Bimal Gurung, Binay Tamang himself had fiercely harped on the issue, accusing even ‘Didi’ Banerjee herself of the double standard! Hence, in his new avatar as the acting chairman of GTA, there’s no way he could soft-peddle or dilute the statehood demand.

Thirdly, Gorkhaland is still the political ammunition of Bimal Gurung, though he is on the run.

Dangerous Gurung

“Gurung rules by fear,” said a police officer who once served in the hills. Subhas Ghising, the father of the maiden statehood agitation and leader of the Gorkhas in the 1980s, had to flee Darjeeling after his bitter fallout with his disciple Gurung.

Madan Tamang, a prominent Gorkha leader critical of Gurung, was hacked to death in broad daylight in 2012. It is for Tamang’s political as also physical survival that he cannot eschew the demand for Gorkhaland.

Thus, a tell-tale seed of contradictions and a fresh spell of uncertainty have been effectively sown, with the Bengal administration winking at it. Bimal Gurung, entrenched in his various hideouts, had been planning revenge, leaking several audio and video messages in periodic intervals and cautioning people against `traitors’ and vowing to fight for Gorkhaland with all his might `through democratic means.’

The development was soon be followed by Gurung’s reported bid to stage a comeback, leading to a fierce encounter at Lepchabasti which left a young cop, Amitava Malik, dead and some of Gurung’s trusted aides injured.

Alarming Armaments

The cache of arms recovered from the Lepchabasti hideout by police stunned the Nabanna, the state administrative headquarters, which has replaced the erstwhile Writer’s Building at the iconic BBD Bagh. AK 47 rifles, Insas rifles and automatic pistols and more than 1,000 rounds of cartridges besides IED materials.

The encounter, deadliest so far in the renewed stir for statehood, forced the other hill outfits like GNLF and Harka Bahadur Chetri’s Jan Andolan Party(JAP) to distance themselves from Gurung and there was almost a chorus that they would hardly love to see Darjeeling turning into another Kashmir. At this juncture, two developments have left Bengal flummoxed: the Centre’s sudden decision to withdraw forces from the hills and the remark of the BJP state president Dilip Ghosh. Ghosh rushed to throw in his weight behind ‘ousted. GJM chief’ Gurung and embarked on a veiled criticism of the encounter. “It’s difficult to ascertain who pulled the trigger first. But the operation continues with a definite pattern, with the state government is striving to establish its hegemony of the Trinamool Congress and its cohorts in the hills. That Ghosh will support Gurung is a fait accompli; as long as the deadlock continues, he and his party will be in demand in the volatile region.

Dogged Issue

This is a typical `Dog’s tail syndrome’ of the political parties in India. Whenever they are in the opposition, the only mantra is to oppose; oppose first, and forget the country. The tail can’t be made straight for the sake of the nation and national interest.True, the Gorkhas have traditionally supported the BJP and the party has sincerely reciprocated through various gestures. Ironically, neither Ghosh nor his party at the state or the central level supports Gorkhaland. Neither does the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal.

Then where is the conflict ?

If Mamata Banerjee hurls jibes at the BJP for stoking unrest in the region by pandering to Gorkhaland fire, she cannot rather afford to shake off her responsibility for sowing the seeds of the present edition of the crisis. It was her government which suddenly decided in June to make Bengali compulsory in the state-run and state-aided schools; precisely, it lit the spark as former GTA chairman Bimal Gurung, immensely popular then, was exactly lying in wait for an opportunity like this to fan the regional passion.

Secondly, when the hill people’s patience had almost hit its nadir following a prolonged 104 day- indefinite shutdown, Mamata Banerjee decided to appoint the GJM rebel Binay Tamang as the head of an administrative board to run the GTA. This move caused quite a resentment, triggering alienation of a large section of the Gorkhas, a nebulous and sociologically and historically undefined political banter.

The only saving grace for Banerjee was the decision of the Calcutta High Court which stalled the Centre’s decision for troops withdrawal. Unfortunately, it was left to the judiciary to restore the rule of law when people look up to the executive to do the job. Already, it is still fresh in the memory of the hill people how parties in the plains and the hills have played the Gorkhaland card for self-aggrandizement.

The tale a la Subhas Ghishing in the 1980s is quite well-known and more than 1,200 people lost their lives in the fight for Gorkhaland. And expectedly, of course, none in the current hill leadership bothers to remember them, nor have any of them any clue about their family members are.

In the face of such odds, there are certain things which are discernible.

First, there has been a growing sense of exasperation among the people with the powers that be on the outstanding political issues; coupled with it are distinct signs of a growing restiveness as there are little indications of an end to the stalemate. Second, recovery of sophisticated arms from the Gurung hideout and cops stumbling on proofs of an arms conduit between Darjeeling and Northeastern rebels like NSCN via Nepal have given rise to intense speculation about the ousted GJM leader preparing for a prolonged armed struggle. “We’ve specific information about the arms deal (between NE rebels and Gurung-led squad) and details of the arms consignment trickling into the hideouts from the Northeast,” confided a police official who is in the loop of the development. Reports that are worrying the intelligence agencies are the present stand-off between Gurung and Tamang, with each gearing up for a fight to the finish and the ranks divided in their loyalties between the two leaders.

To rub salt to the wound, Sikkim’s role vis-à-vis the current agitation for Gorkhaland is quite intriguing. To ensure that the conflagration keeps on boiling, Sikkim chief minister P K Chamling has made it amply clear where his sympathies lie. He along with popular soccer player and Trinamool Congress leader Bhaichung Bhutia has openly espoused the cause of Gorkhaland. The fractious relations between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress notwithstanding,

imbroglio in Darjeeling brook no politicking. India has, even now, been paying a costly price for political misadventures in the border states of the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. Let us accept this fact with bitterness; but at the same time, let us also learn from them. Darjeeling, popularly known as the crucial part of the Chicken’s neck, is immensely important strategically; for the region provides direct land access to China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and other northeastern states. Security ramifications of India vis-à-vis this region far outweigh the petty, mean and a blinkered perception of politics.

There may always be a healthy debate on the pros and cons of the demand for Gorkhaland. Mamata Banerjee may have more than one reason against backing the statehood stir as the bifurcation of the state will mean an equal bifurcation of her existing vote bank. She is perhaps keen to ensure the motley Gorkha leaders to tire out while she maintains her hardline posture. The BJP on the other hand, may have axes to grind so far as Trinamool Congress is concerned; the saffron is not in favour of a division of West Bengal either. However, the party would do well not to indulge in jettisoning the impractical insistence of the Gorkhas’ agitation as this would only assist the fissiparous elements to implant their seed of fomenting anti-India feelings. This will also increase the Gorkhas’ sense of alienation further.

It is high time the top political honchos bury their hatchet and thrash out a modus vivendi, dovetailing the genuine aspirations of the Gorkhas and their demand for a separate state. Let Darjeeling chug along like a toy train; let the rich debate on whether to dine at Glenary’s or Shangrila ; Keventers or Gymkhana for dating a girl.

Let the tourists bargain with the hard-working Tibetan refugees over woollies; let the little momo and thupka stalls flourish along the stretch to the famous Mall. Let one more T --- teaching-- be added to existing quartet of Ts – tea, tourism, Teesta and toy train since the hill’s branded schools have downed their shutters. Let the governing dispensation redeem the dignity of life of the ‘Dajus’ of unseemly ‘Hill Queen’ Darjeeling’.

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