Bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir spurs Gorkhaland's statehood demand in Darjeeling Hills

More than the other new terms of engagement set by the Centre with Jammu and Kashmir it is the formation of a Union Territory (UT) for faraway Ladakh that has most animated political discourse revolving around a separate Gorkhaland state in the hills of West Bengal’s Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts

Marcus Dam August 12, 2019 12:19:44 IST
Bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir spurs Gorkhaland's statehood demand in Darjeeling Hills
  • The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, has leaders of the Darjeeling hill parties across the board scrambling to sing from the same hymn book, setting aside their differences which in some cases have even been adversarial

  • How this might define the future course of politics only time will tell, but underscoring the utterances of the local political leadership is an implicit acknowledgment of how deeply-embedded the Gorkhaland issue is in the region’s popular consciousness, whether in the form of statehood or of UT

  • A recent reminder was in the outcome of April-May General Election and by-election for the Darjeeling Assembly seat, only to be reiterated yet again in the aftermath of the developments centring on Jammu and Kashmir

More than the other new terms of engagement set by the Centre with Jammu and Kashmir it is the formation of a Union Territory (UT) for faraway Ladakh that has most animated political discourse revolving around a separate Gorkhaland state in the hills of West Bengal’s Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.

Even as there has been in recent times a niggling sense of despondency over the future of the somewhat chimera-like nature of the statehood demand, in a single stroke the call for a separate entity in the shape of a similar UT status for the region has gained fresh impetus, one that could well reorder political priorities in the hills.

The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, has leaders of the Darjeeling hill parties across the board scrambling to sing from the same hymn book, setting aside their differences which in some cases have even been adversarial. How this might define the future course of politics only time will tell, but underscoring the utterances of the local political leadership is an implicit acknowledgment of how deeply-embedded the Gorkhaland issue is in the region’s popular consciousness, whether in the form of statehood or of UT.

Bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir spurs Gorkhalands statehood demand in Darjeeling Hills

Representational image. Reuters

A recent reminder was in the outcome of April-May General Election and by-election for the Darjeeling Assembly seat, only to be reiterated yet again in the aftermath of the developments centring on Jammu and Kashmir. The clamour for a separate entity that embodies regional and ethnic aspirations which are inherently political has, ever since Gorkhaland took hold of the public imagination three decades and more ago, keeps simmering beneath the surface, only to be reactivated on occasions like the one last week, threatening to blow the lid off the prevailing status quo in the political order.

It is against such a backdrop that the present renewal of the call for Gorkhaland in the region should be viewed. Indeed it is also testing times for those comprising the local political leadership. Posters supporting that demand have come up in Darjeeling are staring them in the eye. Any hesitation to join in the chorus could be popularly deemed pusillanimous, let alone spell doom for political careers as fortunes pivot on the issue, even though it remains the elephant in the room for the power elite both at the Centre and in Kolkata.

Why else would those even under the tutelage of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has minced no words in her opposition to the statehood demand, be among those now openly giving it a fresh lease of life? Despite his proximity to her, Binay Tamang and the camp he leads in the faction-ridden Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) have made a rhetoric-switch , he himself quick to follow up the Centre's announcement to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir and form the Ladakh UT with a statement saying that "in the interest of national security the BJP must create Gorkhaland".

Tamang's remark that was an echo of the one made following the electoral defeat of his camp that was in alliance with the Trinamool Congress three months earlier, is ample indication not just of a move to redeem political credibility but also of the overriding influence of the Gorkhaland issue on local politics. As if to drive home the point, the GJM leader did not stop there. He went out of his way to reportedly thank Assam MP Biswajit Daimary for demanding UT status for "Gorkhaland, Bodoland and Karbi Anglong" while participating in a discussion in the Rajya Sabha on the Centre's decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status on Monday last.

There, however, might be more than meets the eye in this switch in tack by Tamang who had been tasked by Banerjee to rewrite the script in the hills in the wake of the June-September, 2017 Gorkhaland agitation there. Could it be part of a design, with or without a tacit understanding with election ally, the Trinamool Congress, of forcing the BJP into a corner by harping on the demand for separation from West Bengal at a time when the latter prepares to take on Mamata's party in the 2021 Assembly election? Any such move by the BJP could, it is argued, be detrimental to the party's prospects then, notwithstanding its emboldened posturing in the wake of gains made in the state in the parliamentary polls.

It would also be naive to suggest that Tamang is closing ranks with his associate-turned-adversary, fugitive GJM leader Bimal Gurung who has not just been single-minded in his demand for Gorkhaland but, perhaps more critically, been instrumental, even in absentia, for the BJP’s political ascendancy in the hills. Not only has Gurung, through a statement posted by a close associate in the social media, welcomed the Centre’s decision on Kashmir “in the interest of national security and unity” but also demanded a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bengal, in consonance with the BJP’s views on the matter.

"To provide justice to nationalist Gorkhas, the proposed Gorkhaland area should be brought under the Centre’s administration, like in Kashmir," he added.

Significantly, the BJP, which is also in alliance with the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) - that had been at the vanguard of the Gorkhaland campaign in the mid-1980s and following a hiatus, grown as a potent force in the hills. It has steered clear, as yet, of any commitment on the Gorkhaland issue, whether in the form of a separate state or a UT. Rather, it has left it to the public on whose mandate it presently draws in the hills to decrypt its much-vaunted promise of a "permanent solution" to the problems facing the region.

So it is that, for all practical purposes, the hill people are left none the wiser regarding their political future. Will the developments centring on Kashmir that have caused such a flutter in local political circles end up being cause for a mere frisson of expectation as was the case during the creation of Telangana five years ago? Or will it, this time around, be more consequential for the region? These are questions uppermost in minds.

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