Who’ll Blink First? Mamata Faces Toughest Test as Darjeeling Burns

In the municipal elections in May, Mamata Banerjee lost Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.

4 min read
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s cry for Gorkhaland has become West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s toughest challenge in her six-year-rule. (Photo: Liju Joseph/<b>The Quint</b>)

In the mid-eighties, it was Subhas Ghising who had emerged from the shadows and his cry for Gorkhaland became a major political force. He used the confrontation between the then Congress government at the Centre and the Marxists in West Bengal to carve out his own power base.

In 1988, after the signing the Peace Accord, in an interview with me, Ghising had said, “I want peace, yes, I do. I’ve asked the CPI-M to control their cadres, I’ll control mine. If they don’t, if my men are victimised, I’ll ask for Gorkhaland again. I cannot disappoint them.”

As the quote goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same”.

The Story, 29 Years Later

Twenty-nine years later, the protagonists are different, but are we back to square one?

Subhas Ghising’s GNLF (Gorkha National Liberation Front) has been replaced by Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which is an ally of the BJP at the Centre. In West Bengal, the Marxists have made way for the Trinamool Congress and the GJM’s cry for Gorkhaland has become West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s toughest challenge in her six-year-rule.

Banerjee returned to power with a thumping majority in 2016. Her detractors feel that she was desperately eyeing the hills in a bid to capture more power. In the municipal elections last month in the hills, she won Mirik but lost Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.

With the Gorkha Territorial Administration’s (GTA, the semi-autonomous body set up to manage the affairs of the hills) elections scheduled for next month, she announced that she would hold a Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling.

I don’t think Banerjee merits this kind of backlash. Elections were democratically held in the municipalities in the hills. The TMC got about 30% of the votes. I don’t see what is wrong if the CM wants to hold a Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling. Should this provoke stone-pelting and unwarranted demonstrations?
Senior Bureaucrat

It was in 1973 that the then chief minister of West Bengal Siddhartha Shankar Ray had held a cabinet meeting in Darjeeling. Since then no chief minister of the state has held a cabinet meeting outside Kolkata. Could Darjeeling not be given the same benefits by holding the meeting in Kolkata?

This coupled with Banerjee’s announcement that “Pahar haschhey, Jangal Mahal hashchhey (The hills and troubled areas like Jangal Mahal are now beaming with smiles)" sent mixed signals.

Critics felt she was claiming the entire credit and marginalising Bimal Gurung and his party. Unfortunately, the promised transfer of power from the state government to the GTA, as envisioned in the 2012 agreement, never did take place.

A sense of insecurity began to grow as Banerjee set up 15 development boards of tribes in the hills, whereas earlier there were none. She was accused of weaning away the hill people. Did she want to divide and rule?

Making Bengali Compulsory

Her announcement to make Bengali compulsory in schools was the last straw. Banerjee issued a clarification and did a neat volt face with regard to the imposition of Bengali in the hills, but her opponents had seized the opportunity.

Language is a hugely emotive issue – it stirs up sentiments, creates a feeling of alienation and unites people. It underscores the Nepali vs Bengali divide and challenges ethnic identities. Banerjee perhaps regrets having raised the language issue, but the damage has been done. Terror was unleashed and the tranquil hills were ablaze.

Banerjee announced a special audit for the GTA and then the three municipalities of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong (exempting Mirik which is under her party, the TMC together with the GNLF). A special team from Kolkata, comprising 12 officials, have been sent to the hills to carry out this audit.

She is holding an audit to look into the last four years. Close to Rs 1,600 crore have been given by the Centre and the state government. The chief minister wants to establish financial irregularities in the GTA else why is this audit being carried out now? The GTA elections are next month
Political Observer

Banerjee’s supporters have a diametrically opposite view. A bureaucrat who has a ringside view of the recent developments says:

The GTA is being run in a slipshod manner. There are a lot of irregularities – money has been misappropriated, contracts have been wrongly awarded. As a result, the people of the region have not got the benefit of the money allocated by the government

The timing of the audit has raised questions about the state government’s motive. Her opponents have now responded with a high-pitched cry for Gorkhaland. Is this the last ditch effort to carve out a part of Bengal and create a separate state?

Bureaucrats in the hills feel that the GTA is akin to a glorified zilla parishad. Can a person, who is a leader of a zilla parishad, think he is above the Constitution and above the state government’s rules and regulations?

The Centre, apart from a few initial flip-flops, is now helping to maintain law and order in the region with the help of the army and the CRPF.

Can Gorkhaland Ever Become a Reality?

Is Darjeeling on its own a viable option for a state? It is unlikely that Darjeeling will receive support from adjoining areas like the Dooars or Siliguri.

In the rare instance that it does, the number of plain people would far outweigh the hill folk. Out of the seven assembly constituencies in the region, three are in the hills and four are in the plains. Can a state be carved out in these circumstances?

The ethnicity of those who are making this demand for Gorkhaland is also being questioned. Gorkhas are from a village in Nepal called Gorkhey. The original inhabitants of the hills in this area are the tribes of Darjeeling like the Lepchas, Bhutias, Tamangs, Sherpas and Limbus.

While some in the state government would like us to believe the agitation is being fuelled by migrant Nepalis, it must be noted that Gorkhas are Indian nationals, who have been here for well over half a century and serve in the army too.

As the hills continue to simmer, Mamata Banerjee faces her toughest challenge.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist.)

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