The sun was out, and there were patches of clouds in the morning sky, as the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong heaved a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday. The "indefinite" shutdown to press for a separate state of Gorkhaland had lasted for over 100 days — the longest strike to press for such a demand in recent history.
But with the region hobbling back to normality, there came unmistakably disquieting signs of a fresh spell of political uncertainty. The question uppermost in the minds of its residents was "how long will the calm last". Even excitement surrounding the upcoming Dashain festivities — arguably the most important of events in the Nepali/Gorkha social calendar — are tainted by scepticism.
Under siege by the political parties' brinkmanship for over three months, locals here have endured enough inconvenience to not know that a permanent resolution to the impasse is still elusive. Despite two rounds of bilateral talks between the hills' political establishment and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and despite more recent (albeit belated) assurances by Home Minister Rajnath Singh of tripartite talks on "related issues", peace remains elusive.
Moreover, the local economy has taken a severe battering due to the lockdown, and will take time to get back on its feet, especially with business and trade communities looking at the days ahead with circumspection in the face of political uncertainties.
Needless to say, the shifting political landscape, particularly in the past few weeks, combined with the realigning of certain political forces and the resulting redrawing of battle lines, have all contributed to these uncertainties. Was it for such a scenario that the region has had to endure hardship over the last three months?
Neither the state nor the central governments seem to have any clear-cut answer on the statehood issue. In all fairness, it may be a bit premature to even ask for one immediately. But all stakeholders, for all their appearances, are caught in a bind. And there is restiveness among the locals, even though the strike has been called off and the hills are back in cyberspace, after over three months of being cut off from internet services.
Discussions on the future of the Gorkhaland demand will have to be foremost on the agenda of tripartite talks, which, as Rajnath Singh announced on Tuesday, will be convened within a fortnight. Also crucial is whether Bimal Gurung, chief architect of the present statehood agitation, who is presently on the run after having a lookout notice slapped against him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, will be allowed a seat at the table. Much of the political future of the hills depends on these two key factors.
It needs to be mentioned here that the first two rounds of talks between a section of the hill leadership and Banerjee — in Kolkata on 29 August, and in Siliguri a fortnight later — were shorn of much of their consequence, as Gurung wasn't among the invitees.
Significantly, it was left to Gurung himself to announce the formal lifting of the strike following a reported request to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leadership by the home ministry. All hill parties are backing the demand for Gorkhaland, but the GJM remains its main sponsor. Even today, though the party is a divided house, with its powers that be from Kolkata having a key role to play.
Dissident GJM leader Binay Tamang, who has found favour with Banerjee, recently took over as chief of the board to run the tottering Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). He is the person the state government would ideally like representing the GJM in the upcoming tripartite meeting. His appeal to the protesters, urging them to relax the strike, had failed to elicit the desired response.
With mixed messages emanating from within the GJM leadership over the future of the statehood stir, the party's own future is at stake. Will Gurung, its president, continue to be in charge, or would he have to cede ground to Tamang, who clearly enjoys the favour of the state government, and has also been able to wean away a section of the party workers? Or are we looking at a formal vertical split of the party ranks?
Against such a backdrop of dissonances within a political entity that continues to be a principal force in the hills, the question of whether or not Banerjee would even agree to the tripartite talks if Gurung is to be invited is moot. After all, both Gurung and Tamang had been striving in their own separate ways for the prospect of tripartite talks, and it's also this promise which has paved the way out of the protracted shutdown, which took more than simply a political toll in this troubled region.
And to turn away from the uncertainties ahead would be at one's own peril. Will the sun be able to break through the dark clouds that hover over the hills? Only time will tell.
Bimal Gurung denies seeking meet with Mamata, intention to surrender in audio clip as Binay Tamang makes development pitch
Congress, CPM ganging up with BJP for West Bengal panchayat polls, says Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal storm kills 15, leaves nearly 50 injured; Mamata Banerjee directs chief secretary to look into situation