SC order dismissing GJM leader Bimal Gurung's plea seeking protection from arrest could alter political calculus in hills
The Supreme Court has dismissed GJM leader Bimal Gurung’s petitions seeking protection from arrest. The ruling could alter the local political calculus.
In a ruling “welcomed” by the West Bengal government, the Supreme Court on Friday dismissed Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung’s petitions seeking protection from arrest in connection with several cases against him by the state police and also seeking an independent probe into the alleged killings of ‘Gorkhaland’ supporters.
“We welcome the court verdict”, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said a few hours later in Siliguri in north Bengal, but declined to comment on whether the ruling would now facilitate Gurung’s arrest.
Gurung had in November 2017 moved the apex court invoking its extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 32 of the Constitution. His petition sought protection from arrest in the wake of a series of charges against him by the state police in connection with the violence during the June-September 2017 shutdown in the hill districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. He was the chief architect of the 104-day long agitation to press for the demand for a separate ‘Gorkhaland’ state. Charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act had been slapped against the GJM leader and a lookout notice was also issued against him.
Gurung had been on the run from the police in the hills since the charges were lodged against him. Subsequently, the fugitive leader appeared in New Delhi to move the Supreme Court, following which an order was issued on 20 November, returnable in two weeks, restraining the West Bengal police from resorting to “any coercive action” against him. The GJM leader had claimed that he was being politically persecuted by the state government.
Friday’s ruling comes as a major boost to the state’s efforts to restore its grip on the hills after months of turbulence last year. It could also further alter the local political calculus, and to an extent allay anxieties over the region’s political future. The verdict will also bolster the state-propped ruling dispensation’s ongoing efforts to consolidate its control in the hills and marginalise its political detractors.
Yet, despite the chief minister’s claims that her government has no intention to interfere and that she has not come “to seek votes”, it could be difficult to erase the deeply embedded popular perception that it is she who is calling the shots with the elusive Gurung. The GJM leader, on the run since charges were brought against him, has now for all appearances, been relegated to the political margins.
The hills are anxious about the fallout of the apex court ruling – one that most certainly will have a crucial effect on Gurung’s political future. There is little doubt that his political fortunes have been on the decline ever since he fled the region in the face of charges slapped against him. Now that the Supreme Court’s ruling has gone against him, there is a likelihood that there could well be a desperate move to revive the statehood demand –which was foremost on Gurung’s political agenda. However, whether there is any immediate appetite among the people for a fresh statehood movement now is the question. How would his playing victim to the state’s machinations against him go down with his constituency?
With his plea for protection from being apprehended turned down, the concern on the ground is the potential for further trouble in the event of Gurung’s arrest. Recent revelations by the police which indicate that he was planning an insurgency in the region further stack the odds against him.
Yet, no assurance from the ruling dispensation that the days of trouble are over can wish away the volatility in the political environment, the apparent present calm notwithstanding. Not till the next elections to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) will the situation become clearer. There is little sign of the state government being in any hurry to call for the over-due polls; it would rather continue with the present ad hoc arrangement, buying time for the anti-Gurung forces to consolidate their hold on the public by providing them with the required administrative leeway, laced with assurances of development funds.
On the Supreme Court ruling, Binay Tamang said that it now legally invests the state government with the authority to arrest Gurung. But even though he welcomed the verdict, it should be remembered that in the absence of any public mandate, it is now incumbent on Tamang and his associates to prove the legitimacy of the ruling caucus they represent. He also needs to successfully dismantle the vestiges of what once was Gurung’s hegemonic control over hill politics. Needless to say Tamang and his associates continue to enjoy the confidence of Banerjee who appears content to leave the political bear-pit to the hill parties, setting aside for now the aspirations of her own Trinamool Congress.
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