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Anti-BJP Sentiments Stir Darjeeling Amidst Drastic Changes in Hill Party Equations

As demand for Gorkhaland grows, two of the main parties that pushed for this in the Bengal Hills have now seen a sudden spate of changes.

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Darjeeling: A tweet by Union minister Kiren Rijiju thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a Cabinet decision to include several Arunachal Pradesh tribes in the Scheduled Tribes list has rubbed the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha the wrong way.

“The BJP has no sincerity towards Indian Gorkhas…We appeal to all the Gorkhas not to trust the BJP,” said GJM spokesperson Keshav Raj Pokhrel. The GJM has been calling for a separate Gorkhaland and is now alleging that the BJP has not made good on its promise in spite of capitalising on the demand.

In 2009, backed by the GJM, Jaswant Singh, the BJP candidate from the Darjeeling constituency bagged a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections – the first BJP seat in Bengal.

An addendum in the election manifesto of BJP had then committed to “sympathetically consider the long pending  demand of the Gorkhas.”

In 2014, S.S. Ahluwalia, the BJP candidate from the Darjeeling constituency once again won. He too was backed by the GJM. This time too there was a similar addendum in BJP’s election manifesto.

In a campaign rally at north Bengal’s Siliguri, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the dream of the Gorkhas is his dream. 

In 2017, a violent agitation broke out in Darjeeling which saw arson and rioting as security forces locked horns with the agitators. Amidst regular deaths, a strike lasted for 104 days. 

“The Hills turned to the Union government for respite but let alone stand with the people, the BJP MP did not even visit his constituency during the upheaval,” said Pokhrel.

Also read: Can North Bengal Afford Another Political Unrest Even as BJP Fuels Statehood Demand?

In 2019, the BJP election manifesto again promised a permanent political solution for Darjeeling. BJP candidate Raju Bista, backed by the Bimal Gurung faction of the GJM and the Gorkha National Liberation Front won a thumping victory from Darjeeling seat.

Incidentally, the 2019 BJP manifesto had also promised the inclusion of 11 Gorkha sub-communities in the Scheduled Tribe list. Before the West Bengal assembly elections, too, Union home minister Amit Shah had promised to include 11 Gorkha sub-communities in the list.

The West Bengal government in 2014 had sent a recommendation to the Union government for the inclusion of 11 Gorkha sub-communities. The Sikkim government too recommended the same. 

But the office of the Registrar General of India rejected the recommendations of an expert committee which was set up by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs just before the West Bengal assembly elections in 2016. 

This committee was to examine and recommend the granting of Scheduled Tribe status to Gurung, Bhujel, Mangar, Newar, Jogi, Khas, Rai Sunwar, Thami, Yakkha (Dewan) and Dhimal sub-communities.

Headed by Vishnu Maini of the tribal affairs ministry, the committee had made field visits to Darjeeling and Sikkim and handed over its report just before the Lok Sabha election in 2019. 

“All this was pre-election gimmicks then. They have just been using us. They know that Gorkhas easily trust people,” said Pokhrel.

The GJM is not alone in this distrust.

Breeding ground of unrest 

The history of the Darjeeling Hills indicates that periods of uncertainty – as we are witnessing now – have usually led to unrest. 

With Hill parties vying for political space, there is mounting pressure on BJP, even from its own alliance partner, to set the wheels rolling for the permanent political solution.

BJP has, until now, not revealed what this solution would be.

Sources claim that the GNLF, an ally of the BJP, wants talks for the permanent political solution to be initiated in Delhi – at parliament – at the earliest and has been mounting pressure. 

Darjeeling MP Raju Bista’s Twitter profile photograph.

“Our issues don’t find mention in the list of business. On the other hand granting Scheduled Tribe status to tribes from Arunachal will feature in this session. MP Raju Bista is silent,” said Vikram Adi Rai of the All India Gorkha League (AIGL,) the oldest political outfit of the Gorkhas.

AIGL holds BJP and its allies responsible for the present impasse in the Hills. “Bista had won from the Darjeeling Hills on assurances of a permanent political solution. Two years have passed yet there is nothing, not even a single round of talks. We hold him accountable for this,” stated Rai.

The AIGL has lined up a series of agitations  in protest.

“From August 1, we will hold two days of Dharna in Darjeeling. We invite all pro-Gorkhaland forces to come and join us. If the MP still fails to raise the issues in parliament or make positive headway on a solution, we will launch a fast unto death from August 3,” said S.P. Sharma, a member of the AIGL.

Meanwhile, GJM’s Bimal Gurung faction has raised the demand of autonomy for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts along with contiguous areas of Dooars by amending Article 244 A of the Indian constitution.

Article 244A of the constitution allows for creation of an autonomous state in certain tribal areas of Assam. It has provision for a legislature and council of ministers.

“Our demand has always been Gorkhaland or Union Territory status. However if the Government is incapable of this, they should give us highest form of autonomy accorded by Article 244A. It will be on the lines of a state within a state,” stated Roshan Giri, general secretary of GJM (Bimal).

Granting tribal status to the remaining 11 sub communities of the Gorkhas would further justify the autonomy under Article 244 A, the GJM (Bimal) group feels.

The demand comes on the heels of a three-member GJM delegation meeting state ministers and Trinamool Congress top brass including Abhisek Banerjee, the general secretary of the party and chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, in Kolkata recently.

While BJP won the two assembly seats of Darjeeling and Kurseong, many believe it did so because the GJM had split into two factions which were contesting against each other. The cumulative vote share of the two factions of the GJM was more than BJP’s in these two Hill seats.

Also read: BJP to Divide Bengal? Only on Our Terms, Say Leaders of 3 Identity-Based Movements

The seat of Kalimpong, also in the hills, was won by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Binay faction) candidate.

Bengal BJP leaders seem not to be in the loop of matters pertaining to the Hills.

“When the Central leadership has assured of a permanent political solution in the Sankalp Patra, it will definitely happen. The same holds true for the Scheduled Tribe status for the 11 Gorkha sub-communities. Even Union Home Minister Amit Shah has assured us that it will happen,” said Manoj Dewan, member of BJP’s policy making body for West Bengal

He stated that in 1952 the BJP had raised the issue of reading down Article 370 in Kashmir, which ultimately happened in 2019. “These are complicated matters and take time,” Dewan said.

The State Government also seems to be in no hurry to hold Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) or panchayat elections in the Hills. An administrator was appointed by the Mamata Banerjee government after the Assembly elections at the GTA. The panchayats have been defunct in the Hills since 2005.

Binoy Tamang’s sudden resignation

In a sudden move on July 15, Binoy Tamang tendered his resignation from the post of president and primary membership of his own Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Binoy faction), taking moral responsibility for the party’s debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha and with 2021 assembly elections. 

In the resignation letter addressed to GJM vice-president Satish Pokhrel (quoted earlier) and general secretary Anit Thapa, Tamang wrote “Analysis of the result also showed that party functionaries are not serious in organizational matters and played double standard role which resulted in alliance partner TMC not winning the Darjeeling and Kurseong seats.” 

Hatching a conspiracy theory, Tamang stated that there have been attempts to keep him away from Hill politics since January 2019. “It is being planned at the national level with agents within and outside the GJM party,” claimed Tamang.

Binoy Tamang. Photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

In a volte face Tamang, who had parted ways with Bimal Gurung and had split the GJM in 2017, stated “I will now return the GJM flag to the rightful owner Bimal Gurung.” The day later, he sent the GJM flag to Gurung.

Tamang  stated that henceforth the faction he had resigned from should abstain from using his name.

Tamang’s political association with Gurung dates back to 2007 when they had floated the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Hills. 

Gurung had ousted the Subash Ghising-led GNLF and resurrected the Gorkhaland agitation. After rounds of talks between the GJM, state and Centre, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration took shape in 2012. Gurung and the GJM won the GTA elections and were at the helm of affairs.

Gurung’s relation with the West Bengal government has been hot and cold. While running the GTA, Gurung led a series of agitations. He even forged an alliance with the BJP and gave the party it’s first Bengal victory in 2009. 

Also read: Bengal’s Hills Grow Tense as Pre-Poll Politics Upends Old Equations

 In 2017 Gurung spawned an agitation alleging that the TMC government was forcefully imposing Bengali language in the Hills. The protests soon grew into the Gorkhaland agitation that defined the year.

Charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Gurung and his aides fled the Hills. Later, the GJM suffered a vertical split with Binoy Tamang and Anit Thapa taking control of what came to be known as GJM (Binoy.)

Gurung suddenly resurfaced in Kolkata on October 21, 2020, declared his allegiance to TMC and severed ties with long-time ally BJP. In December, he returned to Darjeeling. 

Bimal Gurung addressing a rally in Kalimpong, Gorumathan area. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya/The Wire

Political developments on the heels of Tamang’s resignation

Burying the hatchet, Bimal Gurung reciprocated to Tamang by saying, “My doors are always open for Binoy Tamang. He can return whenever he wishes too. He is one of the founder members of GJM.”

Wasting no time, he dubbed Tamang’s resignation as an end to factionalism and unilaterally declared himself the leader of the GJM.

Some local leaders of Kalimpong who were Tamang’s supporters immediately crossed over to the Gurung camp. Darjeeling too witnessed the same.   

With Tamang’s resignation, the faction he was leading called a meeting of the central committee along with representatives of frontal organisations in Kurseong. The house accepted Tamang’s resignation and declared Anit Thapa the working president.

“There has to be an end of individualistic politics. We will continue treading on Tamang’s path of violence-free and bandh-free Hills and development,” stated Thapa. 

Opposition camps said it is time the Hills do away with GJM’s misrule. “GJM has been reduced to a soap opera,” said Ajoy Edwards, GNLF leader.

Also read: Can Bimal Gurung Change the Equations in Bengal’s Himalayan Foothills?

He alleged that 14 years of GJM rule (under Bimal Gurung, Binoy Tamang or Anit Thapa) has been riddled by corruption and nepotism. “We want a permanent political solution for the Hills but want peace also,” added Edwards.

The Trinamool Congress, to which both Gurung and the other GJM factions are allied, has been silent.

Why the sudden resignation ?

A rift had been forming between Tamang and Thapa since 2019. 

In 2019 Amar Singh Rai, the GJM MLA was asked to resign and was fielded as the Lok Sabha MP candidate. Tamang decided to contest as GJM candidate in the assembly by-election from the seat.

The GJM lost both the Lok Sabha and assembly seats, leading to discontent over the decision in the party. With Tamang having resigned as the GTA chairman to contest elections, Anit Thapa was nominated to the position.

Recently, Tamang had dissolved various GJM committees, further aggravating the situation. With the committees dissolved, many GJM leaders joined the Gurung camp. 

Thapa has reinstated the GJM committees but feels that Tamang could have easily discussed matters within the party.

“We had supported him in the most difficult and violent of times. We really felt bad when he surrendered the flag to Bimal Gurung stating that he was just the keeper of the flag since 2017. This raises serious doubts as to whether the whole Bimal-Binoy fiasco was orchestrated from the beginning,” said Anit Thapa.

Thapa stated that his faction had started from scratch in 2017 and now has a large support base in the Hills, winning Kalimpong MLA seat this time. “Among the two factions of GJM our performance was much better despite the Hill TMC supporting the Bimal faction,” stated Thapa.  

Rumours have it that Tamang had written to the TMC expressing a desire to join the party but is yet to receive a favourable response. 

With not many options left, Tamang could turn to Gurung and play second fiddle.

When asked whether he would return to the Gurung’s fold, Anit Thapa replied “I would rather leave politics than join Bimal Gurung. I had come out to end violent politics in the Hills and will continue to do so.”

Also read: Behind Sikkim’s Firm Aversion To A Darjeeling Merger Is Two Centuries Of Politics

Multiple power centres in the Hills

The TMC could be trying to get the trio (Gurung, Binoy and Tamang) in one camp to ensure that opposition parties do not reap electoral dividends owing to the division.  

Until now, TMC had tried to creat multiple power centres in the Hills, to check and balance each other.

The Left Front government had a tacit understanding with Subash Ghising. There was not much interference by the state and Ghising was given a free hand to administer the Hills along with the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).

After his tenure was over, instead of elections, Ghising was nominated the Administrator of the DGHC by the state government, and got multiple extensions.

This changed with Gurung laying siege of the Hills. The TMC government then propped up other leaders in the Hills to check Gurung.

During the assembly elections, Mamata Banerjee abstained from fielding party candidates in the three hill seats. Instead she forged an alliance with both the factions of the GJM stating that the seat was open to “friends” and who so ever would win would be a natural ally of the TMC in the assembly.

After the assembly election, instead of nominating Anit Thapa, Binoy Tamang or Bimal Gurung, the state appointed the Principal Secretary as the Administrator of the GTA.