One Agitation many leaders, Gorkhaland demand takes a backseat to identity politics and development

One  Gorkhaland Agitation Many leaders
In the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, sloping up from the plains of Siliguri to hilly Kurseong, the wind appears to be blowing in a different direction this time.

The decades-old rhetoric about carving out a state of Gorkhaland from West Bengal has become a murmur. The talk now is mostly about “Gorkha pride” and the need for development in this rare BJP base in Trinamool-ruled West Bengal.

All principal political players here — the BJP, the Trinamool and the two factions of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), are all avoiding the statehood issue for now.

Even though the tragic turn of events in the summer of 2017 — the 104-day strike, violent clashes and 14 deaths — are still fresh in public memory, there is a strong sense of battle weariness among the locals.

“Gorkhas need to understand that despite so much effort and so many deaths, we are yet to achieve Gorkhaland,” Binay Tamang, chairman of the self-governed Gorkha Territorial Administration, told ET Magazine.

He said the demand of a separate Gorkha state has not been swept aside, but there more pressing issue to tackle. This includes a call to review the India-Nepal Peace & Friendship Treaty of 1950, and a clear demarcation of international borders between the two countries. “People still call us Nepali and treat us like foreigners.

If these aren’t done, we can’t remove the foreigner tag,” says Tamang, a leader of one of the GJM factions.

The Darjeeling constituency that borders Nepal and Bhutan is made up of seven assembly segments — Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong (the dooars or hills) and Matigara Naxalbari (SC), Siliguri, Phansidewa (ST) and Chopra (terai or plains). The seat gave the BJP its first MP from Bengal with Jaswant Singh’s win in 2009. In 2014, SS Ahluwalia won the seat for the BJP.

But this time, the BJP is not repeating Ahluwalia who faced flak for being absent from his constituency. The veteran has been asked to contest from Bardhaman-Durgapur Lok Sabha seat (held by Trinamool) and in his place, the BJP has brought in a young industrialist — Raju Singh Bista, the 39-year-old managing director of Surya Roshni Ltd, a fan and light manufacturing company. Bista is a native of Manipur but has Gorkha lineage and was once a part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

On the other side is Amar Rai Singh, the veteran GJM legislator from Darjeeling, who is contesting on a Trinamool ticket this time with the backing of the Binay Tamang faction.

BJP’s Bista, predictably, has the support of the Binay Gurung faction of the GJM.

But Gurung is missing in action. The GJM founder fled Darjeeling in 2017 agitation after more than 100 criminal cases (including that of murder) were slapped against on him. Bista also has the support of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the outfit that started the Gorkhaland movement in the 1980s.

Trinamool Congress has never won this Lok Sabha seat even as it controls most of the other 41 seats. Rai’s victory will bolster chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s steadfast opposition to giving away anything to the Gorkhas beyond the partial autonomy the GTA enjoys. She has tried to bring in investments to the area after a recent misstep of trying to make learning Bengali compulsory in local schools. 

The BJP that had showed sympathy towards the Gorkhaland agitation is coy about it in these elections perhaps not willing to spoil its chances in other seats in Bengal. The BJP, in its manifesto, has promised to recognise 11 Gorkha subtribes as Scheduled Tribes and reserve assembly seats in Sikkim for representatives from Limbu and Tamang tribes. “We are committed to work towards finding a permanent political solution to the issue of Darjeeling hills, Siliguri, Terai and Dooar regions,” the manifesto says.

“The pride of Gorkhas is most important for the community and it cannot bow down under the pressure of the ruling party in West Bengal,” says Bista, who has been campaigning hard for the polls, due on April 18.

His opponent, the 68-year-old Rai, is also talking about Gorkha identity, along with a promise of more forest rights. “The election will be fought on the issues related to Gorkha identity and forest land rights. The chief minister has promised to award pattas (land rights) to people here,” he told ET Magazine.

But Neeraj Jimba, a senior GNLF leader supporting Bista, says Rai’s position is weak since Darjeeling will “never support people with anti-Gorkha sentiment”.

“Mamata Banerjee tried to divide us and interfered in hill autonomy. Her hands are stained with the blood of innocent Gorkhas. Her party will not be able to win the elections.”

To this, local Trinamool leader Binny Sharma says: “The BJP is here for 10 years.

What did it do towards the cause of the Gorkhas? We will fight the elections on the plank of development and peace.”

Meanwhile, Bimal Gurung, who is said to be in hiding in Delhi, remains influential in the hills and often releases audio and video messages on social media platforms.

He led the GJM for over a decade and was in a tie-up with the Trinamool till 2016 when they parted ways. The GJM also split thereafter. Even from his hideout, he was able to mobilise a large crowd to welcome Bista when he first visited Darjeeling after his nomination was announced.

There was also a rumour about Gurung making an appearance.

So, many voters here see this is as a proxy battle between Gurung and Banerjee.

But whichever side wins, there is a sense of fatigue among voters.

A luggage shop owner in Darjeeling’s Chowkbazaar, who did not want to be named, summed up the mood: “Kranti bahot dekh liya, ab shanti chahiye (Have seen a lot of rebellion, now need some peace).”

One Agitation many leaders, Gorkhaland demand takes a backseat to identity politics and development, In the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, sloping up from the plains of Siliguri to hilly Kurseong, the wind appears to be blowing in a different direction this time.

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