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With demand for autonomy, GNLF tries to regain lost ground in Darjeeling

Mann Ghising at the GNLF rally in Darjeeling
The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the party that first launched an agitation for statehood in the Darjeeling hills in 1986, is trying to regain lost political ground with its old demand for granting Sixth Schedule status to the hill district.

The GNLF, which was replaced by Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in 2007 as the most popular party in the hills, is trying to take advantage of the political vacuum in the north Bengal hills to revive its fortunes. The Subash Ghising-led GNLF agitation over three decades ago had claimed 1,200 lives.

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution lays down special provisions for the administration of autonomous regional councils for the tribal-dominated areas of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram. It grants these councils autonomy to frame laws (especially on land, agriculture, forest, irrigation) for the area under its jurisdiction.

Now with the Gurung faction of the GJM on the run, the GNLF feels this is the right time to bring its original demand back in focus.

With his statehood demand going nowhere, Ghising in 2005 advocated Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling hills. But he failed to make any headway despite signing a tripartite memorandum of settlement with the Centre and the state government on December 6 that year.

“We have decided to revive the demand. We realised that the concept of Sixth Schedule status was not properly communicated to the people earlier. We are reaching out to all sections of the hill people to make them understand the benefits of the special status,” said current GNLF president Maan Ghisingh, son of the late Ghising.

On January 28, the GNLF organised its first big rally in Darjeeling in years, during which its leaders demanded dissolution of the board of administrators in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) headed by Tamang.

In order to reach out and convince the youth, the party launched its Twitter handle, Facebook page and website. It also launched a membership drive based on missed phone calls.

“We cannot continue the movement for another 2,000 years. For now, the Sixth Schedule fits the bill,” said Ghising.

The 104-day-long GJM?bandh between June 15 and September 27 last year demanding Gorkhaland failed following the crackdown by the Mamata Banerjee administration. Bimal Gurung and his associates, facing UA(P)A charges, went into hiding.

The Centre, on which GJM leaders pinned their hopes, refused to play ball with them. The Morcha that spearheaded the movement suffered a vertical split.

“Our party’s ultimate aim is Gorkhaland and the Sixth Schedule may be the best medium to achieve statehood. We are ready to hold talks with leaders of hill parties and opinion-makers to understand their mind on the issue,” said Ghising.

“As bilateral meetings between the state government and the hill political parties to find a long lasting political solution continue, the board of administrators in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) should be dissolved. GTA can function with state government officials at the helm till long lasting solution is achieved,” said GNLF general secretary Mahindra Chhetri.

Interestingly, both Binay Tamang and Ghisingh are considered to be close to the chief minister.

Incidentally, the Constitution amendment bill aiming to bring Darjeeling hills under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution was tabled in Parliament by former Union home minister, Shivraj Patil on November 23, 2007.

But it was shelved after the matter was referred to the standing committee on home affairs headed by BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. This was after all political parties -- except the GNLF and the Left Front constituents -- and different social and literary organisations launched a movement opposing the demand.

Many believe that the Sixth Schedule status could be a viable alternative only if the 11 hill communities (such as Gurung, Newar, Mangar, Khas, Jogi Sunwar, Dhimal), who inhabit the Darjeeling hills, are given schedule tribes status.

Though during his election campaign at Madarihat in April 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the process of granting ST status to the 11 communities has started, it has failed to make any headway.

A Trinamool Congress leader, seeking anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said it is unlikely that Mamata Banerjee, after having established her control on the hills, will accept the GNLF demand right now.

Asok Bhattacharya, former state municipal affairs minister and the CPI(M) legislator from Siliguri said, “As Gorkhaland is not attainable, the only solution for the problems in the hills is strongest autonomy with constitutional guarantee. This could be attained through Sixth Schedule status. But it needs open discussions. Bimal Gurung should also be invited.”

GJM leader Binay Tamang refused to comment on the GNLF demand.(HT)

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