Gorkhaland issue on back-burner as Bimal Gurung, Binay Tamang tussle for GJM stewardship

The ambivalence suffusing the political atmospherics in the hills of West Bengal's Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts was given a new twist on Wednesday. Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) president Bimal Gurung, now in hiding, called for a day's total shutdown in protest against the death of a party worker in the wee hours after, what he alleged, was "months of torture" while in police custody. In an audio message, he also charged the state police authorities of forcing GJM workers under duress to join the Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in the state.

The shutdown which had a marginal impact in Kalimpong and even less in the rest of the hills came less than a month after the lifting of the 100 days-and-more strike in the region to press for a separate "Gorkhaland" state. Gurung, who is on the run since being slapped with terror charges, and those for incidents of violence in the course of the stir also urged unity within a party that was divided with a section sold out to what he insinuated was the state government. He was obviously referring to those with rebel GJM leader Binay Tamang, who has not only emerged as a potent challenger to his hegemony within the party but had earlier, on assuming his present avatar, also ruled out strikes in the hills.

 Gorkhaland issue on back-burner as Bimal Gurung, Binay Tamang tussle for GJM stewardship

File image of GJM chief Bimal Gurung. Getty images

Over the passing weeks, the statehood issue that had propelled the June-September stir seemed to have been put on the back burner in local public discourse with attention diverted to the tussle for stewardship within the GJM. But in his message, Gurung recalled the sacrifices made in support of the "110-year-old Gorkhaland demand" and urged for a better future for the future generations in the hills.

On his part, Tamang, who has described himself as an "andolankari (agitator)", has been maintaining that he would continue with a democratic movement for a permanent solution to the statehood issue.

The on-going contest for power within the GJM has its fair share of intrigue, not least because it continues to rage with Gurung in absentia. For the first time since the party was formed a decade ago, he finds his supremacy more than just challenged; it is under considerable threat and reportedly suffering erosion every other passing day.

As the security forces continue their search for him, he is fighting his battle to retain control of his party from the forests where he is hiding. Leaving the rest to his acolytes who still continue to enjoy the liberties that come with not being forced as yet to go underground, he is left with little choice but to resort to the occasional audio clip to send across his message, with the desperate hope of keeping his flock together.

If this were a ploy of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to push the GJM chief and architect of the Gorkhaland stir out of reckoning by isolating him from the rank and file of his party, she seems to have played her cards well, at least for now.

But there is a flip-side to this game-plan: it also risks ending up enhancing Gurung's stature as a political leader fighting the Gorkhaland cause from distinctly hostile surroundings, in stark contrast to Tamang, out to unseat him from the saddle and who is enjoying the trappings of new-found power under the tutelage of Banerjee.

Given the animus of local hill sentiment with the state government – a factor that feeds the Gorkhaland demand and fuels the underlying political dynamic in the region – playing a victim to the alleged machinations of the state authorities can have its own political rewards. Not surprisingly, Gurung, in his audio messages harps on this theme and his contention could well resonate with the local public.

File image of Binay Tamang (centre). Getty Images

File image of Binay Tamang (centre). Getty Images

In this jockeying for power within the GJM, the advantage apparently presently lies with Tamang and the rebel faction of the party which he leads. Handpicked by the chief minister as chairman of the Board of Administrators of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, he is welcoming to his fold sections of the party leadership every other day. Loyalties apparently are switching with a rapidity that at times is confounding to even the most astute of political observers.

But it could be injudicious if not premature to even suggest that the developments are reminiscent of the times when leaders en masse forsook Subash Ghisingh, then mentor to many today occupying the top-rung of the GJM, to break away from the all-powerful Gorkha National Liberation Front to form the GJM under the leadership of Gurung in October 2007.

To be sure, Tamang, despite the emerging picture of being on the ascendancy at least for the time being has his own anxieties to contend with. They stem from primarily two sets of public perception. What is being perceived as his growing proximity to the state government and the patronage he enjoys of Banerjee could well backfire when the political crunch comes.

The aspirations of Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which is keen to first recover ground in the hills because of the recent statehood stir and, that done, consolidate its position is no secret. Neither is the fact that presently the only credible impediment to its political designs in the hills is the GJM, a party that Tamang is working towards tightening his hold on.

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Updated Date: Oct 25, 2017 18:29:11 IST