Cracks in Gorkha unity as key parties willing to settle for greater autonomy

Gorkhaland protest in Darjeeling in August 2017
Darjeeling: Cracks have started to appear in Gorkha unity over the demand for a separate state for the Nepali-speaking community with two key parties on Tuesday saying that they were willing to settle for greater autonomy in administration, albeit under two different provisions of the Constitution.

Describing the idea of Gorkhaland as “infeasible”, Neeraj Zimba, a spokesperson for the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), said his party would seek more autonomy for the Gorkha community under the sixth schedule of the Constitution.

However, Harka Bahadur Chhetri, leader of the Jan Andolan Party (JAP), said even the sixth schedule was unviable and that his party was exploring ways to secure greater “independence and autonomy” in administration under Article 371 of the Constitution.

For both, this is a U-turn from their previous stand that carving out a separate state of Gorkhaland was the only permanent solution to the problem.

On Tuesday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee visited Darjeeling for the first time since June last year, when her visit triggered violent protests by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The protests crippled the hills for over 100 days. But things have changed vastly since then as the GJM has got divided between two leaders.

The GNLF’s Zimba said the legislative process to create an autonomous council for the administration of Darjeeling under the sixth schedule had almost been concluded, but it wasn’t implemented. The proposal should be revived and the GNLF will independently push for it if other parties continue to demand Gorkhaland, he added.

Lately, the GNLF has gained substantial ground as a large number of erstwhile GJM supporters have shifted loyalty, said political leaders. On Tuesday, the chief minister renamed a key road connecting Darjeeling after Subhash Ghising, the GNLF founder who in the late 1980s abandoned the claim for Gorkhaland and settled for autonomy in administration.

The JAP’s Chhetri said sixth schedule works only for tribal communities. For Darjeeling’s Gorkha community, a more viable alternative was greater autonomy under Article 371 of the Constitution. Though he admitted the GNLF has gained from the rift within the GJM, he claimed that the Gorkha community viewed both the GJM and GNLF as “traitors”.

The faction within the GJM loyal to fugitive president Bimal Gurung also admitted that the GNLF had managed to expand its support base in the past few months. Gurung’s “core group of supporters” still remains loyal to him, but many fence-sitters have turned to the GNLF, said Topden Bhutia, said a close aide of the GJM president. Still, there was no question of giving up on the demand for Gorkhaland, he added.

Amar Singh Rai, a GJM lawmaker from Darjeeling, said rival leader Binoy Tamang continues to be the most popular representative of the Gorkha community. Rai, a loyalist, said the GJM under Tamang will continue to fight for a separate state even as he runs the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration as an interim arrangement to keep funds flowing for Darjeeling’s development and maintenance.

Both Gurung and Tamang have rejected experiments with autonomy such as the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988 and the GTA as having failed to fulfil the community’s aspirations. They fell out at the peak of last year’s standoff over means to take the movement forward.

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