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Mainstream, VOL LV No 27 New Delhi June 24, 2017

GJM Revives Separate Gorkhaland Demand—Darjeeling Burns Again

Saturday 24 June 2017, by Barun Das Gupta

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) has suddenly revived the demand for a separate Gorkhaland and the Darjeeling hills are witnessing widespread violence. GJM supporters have repeatedly clashed with the police, burnt police and government vehicles and set fire to police posts and government offices. Several police personnel have been grievously injured and two GJM workers died of bullet injury, though it is not clear who fired the shots. The police denied having opened fire.

But following the sequence of events since the first week of June, it is obvious that there is more in the GJM suddenly going on the war- path than meets the eye. State Education Minister Partha Chatterjee announced on May 15 that henceforth students of all schools, irrespective of the Boards they were under and irrespective of their mother tongue, would have to learn three languages from Class I to X, one of which will be Bengali. “From now on, it will be compulsory for students to learn Bengali in schools. English medium schools will have to make Bengali an optional subject from Class I so that the students can study it either as a second or third language.”

The GJM did not react to this announcement or oppose it at that time. Trouble suddenly broke out when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee decided to hold a meeting of the State Cabinet in Darjeeling. The meeting was held on June 8. Incidentally, it was after 40 years that a State Cabinet meeting was being held in the hill town. As the Cabinet was meeting, workers of the GJM came out on the streets and indulged in widespread violence. The GJM said it would oppose tooth and nail the ‘imposition’ of Bengali on the Gorkhas. Mamata later clarified that Bengali was not compulsory but optional. This did not have any effect on the GJM because introduction of Bengali was just a ruse. The real cause of their violent agitation was very different.

The Ministers and the large number of tourists who usually visit Darjeeling during this time of the year, suddenly found themselves trapped. They could not drive down to Siliguri as the GJM supporters had blocked the roads. At this point of time Mamata took over command. Herself staying put in Darjeeling, she arranged her Ministers to leave the town and send them back to Kolkata. Next, she made arrangement for the safe passage of all the tourists who were passing hours and days in fear and anxiety to Kolkata and other destinations.

The situation took such a turn that the State Government had to ask for Army help. Two columns of Army, each of 80 men, were deployed to maintain law and order as the situation had gone out of control of the police. More security forces have since been deployed.

On June 11, the Morcha announced it would start an indefinite bandh from the very next day, June 12. Two days before, on June 9, that is, the day after the Cabinet meeting, it declared a 12-hour bandh. 

An interesting development took place before the sudden eruption of the Morcha’s belligerence. On June 7, the day before the Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling, GJM General Secretary Roshan Giri met the BJP State President Dilip Ghosh in a closed door meeting in Kolkata. What transpired at the meeting is not known. Giri also called on Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi and requested him to intervene in the State Government’s decision to introduce Bengali in schools.

Next, the GJM called a meeting of five hill parties on June 13. At the meeting, the State BJP announced its support for the separate Gorkha-land demand. This caused widespread resent-ment among the people of West Bengal. As an urgent damage-control measure, BJP National President Amit Shah said that his party had not taken a stand on the Gorkhaland question. But he refrained from saying categorically that the party does not support the Gorkhaland demand. It was a clever ploy to assuage the feelings of the people of West Bengal and at the same time to assure the GJM that the Centre had not decided against it either.

Meanwhile, the police raided the residence of GJM chief Bimal Gurung and the office of the GJM on June 16. A huge cache of traditional arms like bows and arrows and khukri, firearms, explosives, night vision binoculars, wireless transreceivers and lakhs of rupees in cash were recovered. Obviously, the arms were not acquired on a single day but over a period of time. It meant that not only the Intelligence agencies of the State but also those of the Centre were blissfully unaware of what was going on in the hills.

Police officials are of the opinion that the GJM was preparing for a long-drawn guerilla-type war. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said the GJM had contacts with some insurgent outfits of the North-East and that a ‘foreign country’ was also helping the Morcha. She did not name the country. A section of police officials have pointed out that there are many retired Army personnel among the Gorkhas and if they lend their support to the movement the situation may further worsen.

The real reason for Gurung’s discomfort and anger is believed to be Mamata’s decision to send special audit teams to audit the accounts of the Gorkha Territorial Council and the three municipalities of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong—all controlled by the GJM. The audit teams have been asked to scrutinise how much money the GTA and the three civic bodies received from the State and the Centre and how the money was spent.

In the eighties the CPI-M Government never undertook any audit of the accounts of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), run by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader, Subhas Ghising. The Left Front Govern-met deliberately allowed Ghising to spend money as he liked without any accountability because the CPI-M wanted to buy peace with Ghising. Ultimately, Ghising discredited himself so thoroughly that he had to leave Darjeeling and take up residence in Siliguri. Bimal Gurung took advantage of the situation to float his own outfit, the GJM.

Mamata Banerjee and many others believe that the GJM is getting support from the BJP party and government. There is one view that if violence continues and spreads in the hills and the contiguous Dooars and Terai region, then a case can be made out that the constitutional machinery has broken down in the State and imposition of President’s Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution has become unavoidable. This seems rather far-fetched because such a step will play directly into the hands of Mamata. The BJP will shoot itself in the foot. It will have no chance of increasing its footprint in Bengal in the midterm poll that will have to be held within six months or in the general elections in 2019. The BJP has no leader who may be put up as a chief ministerial face and who can come anywhere near Mamata’s charisma and personality. As a party, the BJP cannot take on the powerful organisational machinery of the Trinamul Congress.

But the BJP may be tempted to keep the pot boiling in Darjeeling. One of the two BJP MPs from West Bengal is elected from Darjeeling with the support of the GJM. Interestingly, the Bengal units of the CPI-M and the Congress are also criticising Mamata’s ‘handling of the Darjeeling situation’. They have accused her of ‘dividing the hill people’.

In the last two to three years, the Trinamool Congress has been able to dent the GJM’s mono-poly of power in the hills and register its presence. It has won the Mirik municipality while in each of the other three civic bodies it (Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong) it has been able to win a seat or two. By setting up separate Development Boards for the non-Gorkha communities, like the Lepchas and Bhutias, Mamata has been able to corner the Morcha.

Mamata is firm in her resolve not to allow the separation of the hills from Bengal. She will not submit to any pressure or threat from any quarter. Talks with the GJM will be possible only after it withdraws the bandh. If the Morcha still persists in its confrontation with the State Government and does not retract from the path of violence, it will only deepen the suspicion that Gurung & Co. has powerful political backers, as Mamata has hinted.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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