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What’s behind the unending Darjeeling crisis?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-06-2017 Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar

Kolkata: As Darjeeling is plunged into a fresh crisis with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) calling for a partial but indefinite strike from Monday in demand for creating a separate state for the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, history is only repeating itself with no solution in sight to a long-standing impasse.

For almost 70 years, the settlers in the hills of West Bengal have viewed the Bengalis from the southern parts of the state as the “sole wielder” of political power, says Amiya K. Samanta, a former police officer, in his book Gorkhaland Movement: A Study in Ethnic Separatism.

As early as in 1949, the erstwhile All India Gorkha League (AIGL) started a movement to reduce the political domination of Bengalis over the Nepali-speaking migrants who came to Darjeeling under British patronage, according to Samanta, who retired in 1995 as director general of the intelligence branch of the state police.

Under the leadership of the moderate AIGL till the early 1980s, the movement was aimed at securing more autonomy for Darjeeling. But as the AIGL fizzled out, the movement under Subhash Ghisingh of the Gorkha National Liberation Front turned violent and was aimed at carving out a separate state for the Gorkhas, says Samanta.

In all these years, various Nepali-speaking tribes, who are commonly referred to as Gorkhas, have been fighting to neutralize Kolkata’s control over Darjeeling.

It isn’t surprising that Gorkha leaders even today are “extremely unhappy” about West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee making political inroads into their turf, Samanta said in a phone interview.

“She is going to grab everything,” Roshan Giri, spokesperson for the GJM said on Saturday, shortly after announcing that the party had started a “decisive movement” for securing Gorkhaland.

Since taking office as chief minister in 2011, Banerjee has created 19 welfare boards for various hill communities, which is seen by the GJM as a divisive move aimed at creating rifts within the Gorkha unity.

GJM chief Bimal Gurung had said in an interview earlier this year that this “divisive politics” wouldn’t pay dividend.

But he was proved wrong. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) managed to secure a toehold in the hills: her party’s candidates were recently voted to run the municipality in the small town of Mirik. Cracks have started to appear in the Gorkha bastion, and the TMC is fast expanding its support base in the hills.

Various Gorkha communities such as Tamangs, Lepchas and Kaamis do not have much difference between themselves, said Dipesh Gatani, member of a board formed for the development of the Kaami tribe. These communities were previously united in the fight for greater autonomy and even Gorkhaland, he said.

But now people have started to lose confidence in the movement. “We don’t know if Gorkhaland is a viable proposition at all... so, the focus now is on development,” said Gatani. The movement for Gorkhaland “lacked continuity”. Gurung fell out with Ghisingh, and built the movement from scratch, he said.

On the other hand, Banerjee holds out promise for development, said Gatani, who on Saturday joined the TMC’s rally in Darjeeling in protest against last week’s unrest.

Before Banerjee, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPM, had tried to undermine the Gorkha movement by backing second rung or “moderate” leaders.

In the early 2000s, the party had discussions with moderate leaders such as the slain Madan Tamang, admitted Ashok Bhattacharya, a veteran CPM leader and mayor of Siliguri town. But when the party realized that even these leaders were firm in their demand for Gorkhaland, the CPM decided not to back them, Bhattacharya said.

Darjeeling has perennially been on the boil because both the CPM and the TMC have failed to culturally integrate the Gorkhas with the mainstream, said Samanta.

“Why do we still not have a road in Kolkata named after a Nepali luminary such as Bhanubhakta Acharya (a poet) when we have roads named after Ho Chi Minh and Vladimir Lenin?” asked Samanta.

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