Gorkhaland:Shooting into prominence
"Is Darjeeling heading towards a rerun of 2007?" is the question that is doing rounds in the Hills with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha raising the ante and returning to the Gorkhaland agitation path. There is a call to the Hills to unite for what is being projected as the final battle for the demand of a separate state.
The demand for Gorkhaland shot into prominence in 1986 with Subash Ghising led Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) spearheading a 28-month long violent agitation which left 1200 people dead. The end result of the agitation was the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hills Council (DGHC- an administrative setup) with Ghising at the helm of affairs.
DGHC failed to win the hearts of the people. Subash Ghising then made a demand to grant the 6th Schedule status under the Indian Constitution, which protects tribal interests, tribal autonomy and their rights over land, to the Darjeeling Hills. Thereafter, a Memorandum of Settlement was signed by the Union Government, West Bengal Government and Subash Ghising in December 2005 to incorporate the Darjeeling Hills within the 6th Schedule.
While bills to grant the 6th Schedule status was underway, major political developments started garnering shape. Resentment over the hush-hush nature of the whole 6th Schedule matter finally snowballed into open criticism. Meanwhile, a popular reality show by a TV Channel in which Prashant Tamang-a Darjeeling boy was taking part sparked a mass movement. Tamang's victory gave rise to fresh beliefs and the 'Gorkhaland' dream was thus resurrected.
Bimal Gurung, one of the GNLF strongman and DGHC Councillor who had played an active part in ensuring Tamang's victory, started preaching against his own party. Finally on October 7, 2007, Gurung broke away from the GNLF and floated his own outfit 'The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha' (GJM) with a single point programme of freeing Gorkhaland.
Gurung and the GJM riding piggyback on the Gorkhaland demand finally managed to oust Ghising and the GNLF from the Hills thereby seizing reins of the Hills spearheading an agitation.
Though the agitation was labelled as 'democratic agitation,' the movement was witness to many flashpoints mainly in the plains bordering Terai and Dooars, which took on the mercurial colours of ethnic strife. Many of the flashpoints were deftly used by Gurung to recharge his own support base.
The initial stages of the movement were comparatively easy with accessible mass support, the other pro-Gorkha outfits (including the All India Gorkha League and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist) toning down their political activities as they were happy with Ghising's ouster and Gurung's separate state agitation.
However, things started to change with the Government starting to treat Gurung-led GJM party as the sole hill political outfit representing the Gorkhas. Things took an ugly turn with the brutal murder of All India Gorkha League (AIGL) leader and a strong voice against the formation of an autonomous body for the Hills instead of a separate state, Madan Tamang on May 21, 2010.
The neo-agitation culminated with the signing of a fresh Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the state, Centre, and the GJM on July 18, 2011, paving way for formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) which replaced the DGHC in August 2012.
Gurung was careful not to tread Ghising's path. Though he accepted the GTA, he made sure that the agreement clearly stated that the GJM was not dropping the Gorkhaland demand.
In July 2013 Gurung resigned from the post of GTA Chief as a mark of protest against the Government's reticence on the Gorkhaland issue while deciding to carve out Telangana from Andhra. He was nominated back as the GTA Chief again in December 2013 by the GTA Sabha.
Though enjoying mass support, Gurung suddenly brought the agitation to a grinding halt specifying that the Centre would initiate the process for the formation of Gorkhaland. Attempts at forging a united movement with other pro-Gorkhaland outfits were short lived owing to what was labelled as high-handedness by the GJM along with Gurung, and his men's decision to stay put in the GTA.
However political equations have changed drastically. Though the Left Front Government always adhered to a non-confrontation policy for the Hills, the present Mamata Banerjee-led Government has preferred to take an active stand.
Projecting herself as a strong antagonist of the Gorkhaland demand, the Mamata Banerjee-led State Government has been doling out development boards for different Hill communities.
The Gorkhaland demand which preaches a unified state for Gorkhas practices homogeneity over a culture that in reality is strongly heterogeneous, home to several cultures. Keeping this in mind, Mamata Banerjee set up 15 different boards to cater to all different ethnicities residing in the hills, not just the Gorkhas, who too have been riding on their own majoritarian politics.
The GJM has been quick to dub this as a 'divide and rule' ploy of the Government. "If the GTA would have done their job sincerely, there would be no need for development boards. Development boards are the demand of the people. We are not thrusting boards on them" argues Banerjee.
The State also met the long standing demand, upgrading the Kalimpong sub-division into a district and the Mirik block into a sub-division of the Darjeeling district. The TMC has been making successful inroads into the hills which had so forth been the bastion of the Gorkha leaders.
The election campaign of the GJM, based on an idea of 'Bengal vs. Gorkhaland' did result in victory, yet numbers reveal that there has been a sharp drop in their respective margins. TMC has managed to secure close to 40 per cent votes, a result which had been unprecedented so far in the hill constituencies. Though the GJM retained Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong Municipal Boards, the Mirik Municipality was wrested effectively by TMC.
The GJM sensing a threat from the TMC furthered their ante by severely reprimanding the three language policy initiated by the state government. Based on media reports and social media posts, the GJM weaved an agitation around the three language formula stating that the State Government was imposing the Bengali language. They began an agitation which managed to churn up sufficient support.
CM Mamata Banerjee arrived at Mirik, and keeping the sentiments of the residents of the hills in mind, declared that Bengali would be an optional language for the Hills. Despite this, the GJM continued with their language agitation, beefing up protests against the CM. Things went further downhill after a State Cabinet meeting on June 8 at the Raj Bhawan Darjeeling, when the GJM launched a sit-in demonstration near the cabinet meeting venue.
"The people of the hills can study whatever they wish to; Bengali will be an optional language for them" iterated the CM after the Cabinet meeting. However, this announcement had no effect on the Morcha camp who were ready to keep their guns blazing as that oxygenated their own movement.
A subsequent stone pelting incident compelled the police to resort to baton charge and fire tear gas shells. Police vehicles, state buses and a police booth were torched were violent protestors. Many police personnel were injured and finally, the army was called in. While the other Ministers left, the CM stayed back to oversee the evacuation of thousands of stranded tourists in an attempt to restore normalcy in the hills.
The GJM gave a Gorkhaland twist to the language agitation thereby announcing an indefinite bandh on all Government (both Centre and State,) GTA and Municipal offices in the Hills. Along with this regular rallies have also taken to the streets.
The State Government has adopted a "tough strategy" to counter the GJM unrest. "We will not compromise. Law will take its own course. No one is above law" stated CM Mamata Banerjee.
The government had provided the GTA close to Rs 200 crores for development activities, along with an additional Rs 400 crores from the central government, of which no utilisation reports have been received. This compelled the state government to announce special audits for GTA.
It was just at the onset of the audits that Bimal Gurung fuelled his movement, almost as a knee-jerk reaction anticipating the consequences of an audit. The TMC government, despite its many shortcomings, has been steadfast in restoring normalcy in the hills. While additional forces including central forces have been rushed along with army deployment, top police officers are camping in the Hills overseeing operations. The GTA front rung officers including the Principal Secretary, Secretary and Executive Directors have been transferred with IAS officers being moved in.
GJM got a shot in the arm with 5 outfits joining in to give shape to a collective movement for Gorkhaland. However, the GNLF has rendered conditional support to the GJM demanding that the GJM unilaterally withdraw from the GTA; the 3 MLA's including the Municipal Councillors resign. "The GJM has to stick to the Gorkhaland demand and not settle for anything short of a separate state" declared Neeraj Zimba, GNLF Spokesperson.
Gurung has now threatened to beef up the agitation. "With the passing days, our agitation will peak. Now, all have come together for a separate state. It is better for tourists to avoid the Hills" declared Gurung.
Despite all this, it is clearly an uphill task for Gurung and his men to keep up the momentum of the agitation for a prolonged period. As in the past, they are yet again relying on the Centre to provide them with a much-needed exit route to diffuse the situation.
"We want immediate intervention by the Central Government" declared Gurung. The BJP parliamentary candidates have twice managed to win the Darjeeling Parliamentary seat with the backing of the GJM riding
piggyback on the Gorkhaland issue in 2009 and again in 2014. The BJP party manifesto in both the elections had assured sympathetic consideration of the long pending demand of the Gorkhas.
Though the BJP has hinted at supporting the separate state demand in the Hills, they have always shied away from the word "Gorkhaland" and even conveniently opposed it from the plains of Bengal.
In the Gorkhaland all party meet while Suman Sharma, Assistant Secretary, BJP Hill District Committee signed on the resolution for Gorkhaland. Distancing itself from the Gorkhaland issue, Rahul Sinha, BJP National Secretary and former West Bengal State BJP President stated: "We are against the division of Bengal."