Vol. XLI No. 26 June 25, 2017

Bengal: Why Darjeeling is on Fire Again?

From Our Special Correspondent in Kolkata

THE beautiful hill areas of Darjeeling are on the boil once again.  The indefinite strike call by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) has fully paralysed  life in the hills. Three GJM activists were killed in police firing in Darjeeling town after clashes with security forces. Tensions have heightened with the fresh stir for the demand of separate Gorkhaland state.

Darjeeling hill areas have some distinct features including the topography, nationalities, language and culture. There are special provisions for these areas for quite long time. The slogan for separate Gorkhaland arose in later half of 1980s, then under the leadership of Gorkha National Liberation Front. The demand initially was even for separating these areas from India, though later it was tempered to separate state. CPI(M) and Left Front firmly opposed the demand for a separate state but favoured autonomous body with real powers for overall development of the nationality. The movement turned extremely violent and bloodshed occurred in the hills. More than 125 CPI(M) activists and supporters were killed during those years. In fact the Left activists were forced to leave the hills. However, the political goodwill of the then Left Front government prevailed and a tripartite agreement was signed to form Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988.  

The council worked for years. The Left Front wanted to give the council more powers and constitutional guarantee. In 2005, another tripartite agreement was signed to include DGHC in the Sixth Schedule. But this agreement could not be implemented due to opposition by the GJM, then an emerging force, decimating GNLF.

The third agreement was signed in 2011, after TMC won the assembly elections. This time Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) was formed but a fundamental difference was recorded into it. It was noted in the first page of the agreement that… “While not dropping their demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland”, GJM was signing the treaty. In the second page itself, it was written: “Now, therefore, the government of India, the government of West Bengal and the GJM, keeping on record the demand of the GJM for a separate state of Gorkhaland…”. The CPI(M) had then warned about the future consequences of such wordings which are now being proved true.

It was political opportunism of the TMC that led to such a pass. In 2011 assembly elections, the TMC struck a deal with the GJM. It helped them in plain areas and Dooars too. Immediately after assuming power in the state the GTA agreement was signed with much fanfare. It was a common refrain from the chief minister that the ‘hills are on smile’. Bonhomie between GJM leaders and Mamata Banerjee was greatly advertised.

But in reality, the GTA was weakened to a great extent in the last five years. Mamata Banerjee government has intervened in the matters transferred to the GTA in the agreement. They were not provided with necessary finance. The central government also failed to fulfill their duties mentioned in the agreement. Though the GJM supported the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections and twice their candidates were elected from Darjeeling constituency (SS Ahluwalia in 2014), the Modi government has overlooked the demands of the GTA.

Mamata Banerjee, in her typical style of forcibly taking over everything, has gone too far in the hills. She has tried to divide the hill people on the lines of sub-nationalities, tribes and castes. 15 development boards were formed for Tamang, Bhutia, Lepcha, Nimbu etc. None of them has any real constitutional authority, is fully dependent on the mercy of the state government and the GTA was kept in dark about these boards. Kalimpong was declared a separate district, again without consulting the elected GTA members.  The discontent increased day by day.

Immediate reasons of the latest outburst were provocations from the chief minister. Recently, municipal elections were held in four municipalities of the hills, and the GJM won three of them. The TMC won Mirik. Just after the elections, the chief minister herself raised the issue of language in the schools. From what she said it was conceived that Bengali will be compulsory in the schools in the hills too. From 1961, the official language in the hill areas is Nepali. This announcement helped to create emotions in the hills. Instead of clearing the air, the chief minister tried to flex muscles. The state cabinet meeting was called in Darjeeling town and there were protests on language issue.

Mamata Banerjee, instead of helping to calm the situation, declared closing of the GTA office and withdrew the principal secretary of GTA. Both these actions were not only provocative in nature but are in contradiction with the GTA rules. As the GJM turned to protests with Gorkhaland slogan, police raided the house and office of the GTA chief executive and the GJM leader, Bimal Gurung in his absence. The protests intensified and police, para military forces even army were deployed in huge numbers, leading to clashes. Mamata Banerjee’s utterances like terming GJM leaders as “goondas” and “linked with terrorists” have only added fuel to the fire. On the language issue, the chief minister retracted that Bengali was only an elective subject in the hills and not compulsory. But her clarification was not followed up with any notice.

Initially, the protests were not linked with the slogan of Gorkhaland. But the GJM leadership seized the opportunity and returned to this emotive issue.

BJP is in fix too. While they have extracted support from the GJM when needed they were nowhere in the hills during this unrest. BJP president Amit Shah has neither supported nor ruled out the possibility of a separate state when asked by the press.

The CPI(M) has demanded immediate talks in Darjeeling to defuse the tension and political settlement of issues. CPI(M) West Bengal state secretary Surjyakanta Misra has said that the situation has come to such a pass because of policies and consecutive provocative actions of the state government. 

Misra said, the CPI(M) has always stood against the demand of separate state of ‘Gorkhaland’ and stood for an autonomous body with real powers for the overall development of the nationality in the hill areas. The CPI(M) has opposed the call of continuous bandh. At the same time, the Party strongly condemns the manner in which the state government wants to forcibly take over the area by deploying police, para military forces and even army. The statements of the chief minister, instead of helping to restore peace, have ignited tension. The chief minister has alleged that extremist forces of north east India and foreign forces are working behind the scene in Darjeeling to create such a situation. The CPI(M) wants the centre to come clean on the issue also.

Misra said, the chief minister has done her way of politics of force in hill areas too. Then she delivered confusing statements about language. She has flatly refused any possibility of talks despite this serious situation. The CPI(M) has demanded tripartite meetings, provisions for which are already there in the GTA agreement. The CPI(M) wants political solution of the problems. The state government has to initiate positive, appropriate steps in this regard. The centre should also take necessary steps to arrange such a tripartite meeting.