There’s a fundamental problem with ethnic political accords — you only know in hindsight whether it worked or not. Such accords are often, though not always, a result of political expediency, especially if one of the major parties is a new incumbent. But it is always fascinating to look at one at face value when one is scripted — like the tripartite agreement signed this afternoon by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the West Bengal government led by Mamata Banerjee, and the Centre.
Mamata, on paper, has certainly emerged a winner. She had promised to hammer out a solution on the Gorkhaland issue within three months — she has met her deadline. She apparently did in less than three months what the Left Front had been dithering over for close to three years. Mamata has emphatically ruled out a bifurcation of the state, but if you have been following the statehood aspirations of the GJM you will know that she has probably bought time for herself by conceding a number of demands. And, to give it to her, she has probably bought peace too, for a good time to come. It will now be up to the GJM to make the best of it, or mess it up altogether.
The Left Front, which formed the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988, is pretty much in the same position as the Opposition was at that time — that of a virtual non-entity. It has its own self to blame for the predicament it is in, and all it can do now is indulge in rabble-rousing. But people of West Bengal have heard enough of that for 34 years. Its wolf cries are destined to go unheard.
The DGHC, for its part, had never succeeded in fulfilling the aspirations of the people of Darjeeling. The supremo of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), Subhas Ghising, gradually lost clout to his close aide Bimal Gurung, who floated the GJM in 2007. The parting of ways ostensibly was over the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and that the GNLF had reneged on its demand for a separate Gorkhaland state. Gurung has never been convincing about why he took close to 20 years to realise this. But he did emerge as the undisputed leader of the hills, riding as he were on the popularity of Prashant Tamang, an Indian Idol contestant from Darjeeling he had thrown his lot with at the time. Gurung had learnt well from his mentor on how to stir up ethnic passions.
Leaders of the GJM are still openly asserting that the demand for Gorkhaland has not ended. The GJM has not given up its statehood demand — it has, like Mamata, only acquired time for itself. The negotiations that led to the signing of the agreement had been shrouded in secrecy. Whether the GJM was coerced, hoodwinked, or plain bought over, we will not know now. But time will certainly tell.
Then again, a political accord is always about powers. The DGHC had authority over some economic development programmes, tourism and culture — in fact, 19 subjects in all. The new administration will have jurisdiction over more than 50. It will collect levy from tea gardens and recruit junior-level government staff, but won’t be able to legislate or collect taxes. The nitty-gritty is yet to be worked out. A committee, comprising four members each from the GJM and the state government and one from the Union government, will study the demand on demarcating Gorkha majority areas in the Terai (plains of Darjeeling) and Dooars (foothills of the Himalayas) for inclusion in the new body. That’s one contentious area, and can run into problems. The onus here will be more on Mamata to ensure peace.
The devil may often lie in the fine print, but occasionally it may be staring starkly at you in the face. That’s what it is with the nomenclature of the proposed body. The exclusion of ‘Darjeeling’ and the inclusion of ‘Gorkhaland’ in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) has, therefore, raised a few eyebrows. For GJM it is a recognition of the Gorkha identity, for Mamata it might be appeasement.
The GJM, unfortunately, has blood on its hands too. The May 2010 murder of Madan Tamang, an Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) leader and a strident critic of the movement, allegedly by GJM cadres is a blot that cannot be wished away. Moreover, for Gurung, it could well be perform or perish – he has own personal history to learn from. Just as he vanquished Ghising away to the foothills in Jalpaiguri for not living up to his political rhetoric, Gurung would have to abide by his own too.
Ethnic political movements may be unique in their own ways, but most do have a common thread running through them — when moderates fail, hardliners always take over. Gurung should know.