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For the Darjeeling Hills in North Bengal, while the year 2017 began with renewed agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland, it ended with a tourism festival, celebrating the “return of normalcy”. However, for locals, this “normalcy” is nothing more than an uneasy calm with 2018 set to be an interesting year for the Gorkhaland movement.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which has been spearheading the movement, is now split into Bimal Gurung and Binay Tamang camps, with the latter being backed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. While Gurung is underground and has been booked in several cases, including under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his alleged involvement in bomb blasts in the Hills during the shutdown, Mamata has made Tamang – Gurung’s once-close aide – the chief of the Board of Administrators for the Hills. Amid this, 150 agitators who took part in the violent agitations in June and later in July still languish in jails. This despite Tamang’s plea that they be released.
While there have been agitations for Gorkhaland in the past as well, the 104-day-long stir – from June to September – was near complete, bringing Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kuresong and Mirik to a complete halt. Businesses, tea gardens, government offices, transport remained shut with only the odd pharmacist being allowed to operate at designated hours. The Darjeeling Tea Association has estimated a loss of over Rs 400 crore, with no leaves being plucked. According to the association, the agitation will affect next year’s production as well and take the tea gardens two years to recover.
The protests first started when the state government announced on May 16 that Bengali will be made compulsory in all schools. The Gorkhas, over the past few years, been fighting for the inclusion of Nepali as one of Bengal’s official languages. The inclusion of Bengali was seen as a “colonial attempt” by the government to forcibly repress Gorkha culture and disregard the 110 -year-old agitation for a separate state. By June, when Mamata held her first Cabinet meeting in the Hills in a show of strength after just having won the Mirik municipality for the first time, the agitation turned violent. Twelve people died in the protests that followed with scores sustaining injuries.
While the protests were on, came the very public spat between Gurung and Tamang, who called off the strike for 12 days on August 31, without allegedly keeping Gurung in the loop. Gurung expelled Tamang – then GJM chief coordinator – claiming “a new set of leadership has come about, which is again going to betray the Gorkha community after getting along with the Bengal government”. In November, claiming that he has the support of a majority of GJM leaders, Tamang expelled Gurung for six months and became the new party president. He maintained that Gorkhaland was still his primary demand.
Neeraj Zimba, spokesperson of GNLF, which had, along with the Tamang faction, participated in bipartite meetings called by Mamata, said: “This is not the end. The Gorkhaland demand is still on the table. The government has formed a Board of Administrators in place of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration but that is temporary. That is simply till our demand is met. We are waiting for the Centre to make its move. While we have been engaged in bipartite talks with the government, it is the government that had set up the GTA and it was the inefficiency of the body that led to the agitations.”
“Our aim is still tripartite talks with the Centre involved. If a separate Gorkhaland is not possible, then there needs to be a strong permanent political solution to the problem, which has to be acceptable to the people of Darjeeling – nothing less than the 6th Schedule. The person who burnt the GTA agreement between the state and the Hill parties (Binay Tamang) has now been appointed by the state government. There is ambiguity about what they (Binay Tamang and the board) are doing,” he added.
Zimba agreed that the peace in Darjeeling was forced. “This is not quite normal. It is a status quo and everyone is in limbo. Next year, we hope, will bring about some sort of a resolution.” Political observer Upendra Pradhan said the government has “played its hand well’’. “When more and more people joined the movement, Mamata Banerjee set up the GNLF and JAP (another Hill party) as Trojan horses and then eventually, weaned away Binay Tamang. She was successful in breaking the GJM and create divisions among the people, thus, squashing the movement. This agitation has opened up space for new leaders. But on the ground, nothing much has changed. Everyone is still waiting for the Centre to intervene,” he added.
Now, all eyes are on January 15, when Gurung’s plea seeking immunity against detention and arrest by the state government will be heard by the Supreme Court. “If he is granted immunity and he resurfaces, it will be interesting to see what happens then. Binay Tamang has not been able to muster as much popular support as they had hoped. Even if there are people who dislike Gurung, he is the face of the resistance against the Mamata government. There is a strong possibility of a resurgence of the movement once he is back,” said Pradhan. “As the politics of Bengal changes, and if the BJP gains traction in the rest of the state, the government’s hold on Darjeeling will also have to loosen,’’ he added.
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