Darjeeling lockdown ends, but fissures within Gorkha Janmukti Morcha could throw region into political uncertainty

The monsoon is on the retreat but the clouds are yet to clear from the political firmament in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpoing districts of West Bengal. The region is fraught with a sense of uncertainty and disquiet as fresh alignments are forged even as it tries to shrug off the memories of the recent lockdown. The strike, which was called to press for a separate “Gorkhaland” state, was called off late last month. Although there are indications of a return to normalcy in these especially troubled times, deepening divisions within the principal organisation behind the statehood movement seems to have thrown the region’s political future into question.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), whose supremacy in the hills has remained unchallenged ever since it came into being a decade ago, is today a faction-ridden party with leaders turning on each other. This ongoing feud has led to a re-drawing of political battle-lines in the region. Suddenly the West Bengal government, with its only too well-known policy of red-lining the Gorkhaland demand, does not seem to be the main adversary. The enemies are within, imparting an altered dynamics to local politics in the region. Developments in the aftermath of the agitation could well define the course local politics takes.

File image of Bimal Gurung. Getty images

File image of Bimal Gurung. Getty images

Of particular political salience is the fact that the dragnet of the security forces appears to be closing in on GJM president Bimal Gurung. The GJM leader has been on the run since being served a look-out notice and slapped with charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with incidents of violence during the strike. One policeman died in the wee hours of Friday in an armed encounter between the security forces and GJM activists. After the encounter, the police claim to have seized a large cache of arms from a hideout in the forest close to Darjeeling district’s border with Sikkim. The seizure would go a considerable way to vindicate Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stand that Gurung and his cohorts have links with insurgency outfits. While the BJP-led government at the Centre has chosen to be taciturn in the face of such charges considering the ruling party’s alliance with the GJM, the incident flies in the face of claims by Gurung that the statehood agitation led by him has been peaceful and democratic. Reports that he will come out of hiding and make a public appearance in the hills on 30 October have led to nervous anticipation, not just within a beleaguered GJM where his absence is coming at a cost to his popularity among its rank and file, but also the State authorities backing the rebel GJM forces, led by Binay Tamang who enjoys Ms Banerjee’s confidence.

Much to Gurung’s chagrin, with every other passing day, sections of the GJM leadership including municipal councillors have been teaming up with the faction of Tamang who was handpicked by the chief minister to take over as chairman of a hurriedly constituted Board of Administrators for the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). The board has been left tottering after en masse resignations of its elected members following the call for the statehood agitation in June. It would indeed be naive to suggest the on-going switch of loyalties has nothing to do with Tamang’s proximity with the powers that be in Kolkata and the trappings of authority he now enjoys as a consequence. Not to be discounted are those among the party’s activists who look up to his patronage for a withdrawal of penal charges brought against them by the state police in the course of the recent agitation.

As for Tamang, he has his work cut out. His task calls for treading an exceedingly fine line; appeasing the state administration bent on keeping Mr Gurung at bay, while also ensuring a large swathe of the local population that had expressed its solidarity on the Gorkhaland issue during the recent strike that he remains steadfast to the statehood cause. At every given opportunity he has made clear that he will continue working towards taking the Gorkhakland movement forward. He hastens to add, however, that it had been derailed to a large extent by the violent tactics employed by Gurung – for all practical purposes now a mentor-turned-adversary.

Tamang is only too well aware that any wavering on his part vis-a-vis the statehood issue could be politically suicidal. However, he also cannot afford to ignore the aspirations of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which is keen to manoeuvre its way back into the reckoning in the region after having suffered a massive erosion in its support base in the wake of recent statehood agitation. What cannot be missed is the fact that any gain by West Bengal’s ruling political party can only come at the expense of the GJM in the hills, if the gain is to be substantial.

Against such a backdrop, the public discourse in the hills is now focused on whether the outcomes of the upcoming third round of bilateral talks between Banerjee and a section of the hill political leadership to be led by Tamang slated for later this month and the discussions the Centre reportedly plans to convene to resolve the impasse surrounding the statehood issue would help ensuring a less tentative and more enduring calm in the region. And then there is the crucial question whether the widening rift within the GJM itself will make things any easier.

Updated Date: Oct 14, 2017 15:07 PM

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