Having dragged the Darjeeling hills and neighbouring areas into a total bandh which lasted three months, and is continuing, leaders of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha are wringing their hands in desperation. Their predicament is dire as they cannot call off the agitation without showing the people some advance towards achieving Gorkhaland, and in that direction they have not advanced an inch.
People made real sacrifices. Grocery stores, vegetable shops, indeed, entire markets have been closed. No hotel or restaurant is open. All the 88 tea estates are overgrown with weeds and “jungalee” plants. No tea has been picked. A people so mobilised will pelt stones at the leaders who promised them the moon and have shown no results.
It is possibly a blessing in disguise for GJM president Bimal Gurung that the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal has slapped 43 cases against him. This is designed to immobilise dissent, but it has provided Mr Gurung with the opportunity to take refuge in nearby Sikkim. Others with similar cases against them are keeping themselves busy with “Gorkhaland” related lobbying in Siliguri, Kolkata and New Delhi.
In the course of this lobbying some serious meetings have taken place — with Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata or Union home minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi. The Gorkha leaders go into these meetings motivated by a desire for an independent Gorkhaland. But their aspirations run headlong into hard realities.
For instance, why would West Bengal part with the magnificent hill station, the lore of the plantations, the Toy Train, which Bengali families enjoy so much in their summer vacations?
New Delhi is trying its best to cope with the Nepali/Gorkha phenomenon in Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and has to apply itself to the nuances of another Gorkha/Nepali-speaking entity. What about “Gorkhaland” as a Union territory? The move will set the cat among the Trinamul Congress’ pigeons. It will also bring a sensitive area directly under the Centre. This move is being talked about, and somewhat seriously. Don’t forget, there are thousands of Gorkhas in the Army. This is a powerful group which must not be allowed to nurse abiding grievances.
There are, however, political uses of the situation. The Trinamul Congress, and before that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal, were useful counterpoints for the BJP at the Centre. Jaswant Singh was a two-term MP from Darjeeling. There is a frenetic quest to outflank Mamata Banerjee from, say, Tripura and possibly from the Darjeeling Hills.
Ms Banerjee, meanwhile, is eager to consolidate herself in the hills. Towards this end, the desperation within the Gorkha Movement Coordination Committee at the prospect of a fruitless bandh has come in handy: the TMC can divide the movement and use one faction as a vehicle for the Trinamul Congress in the hills.
This precisely is what happened after a meeting of the Gorkha leaders with Ms Banerjee on August 29. Vinay Tamang, joint secretary of the GJM, and Anit Thapa, member of the executive committee, took the leaders and the agitators by surprise by asking them to end the bandh because positive but unidentifiable developments were expected by September 12. By that time, the next round of meetings with Rajnath Singh and Mamata Banerjee would have been held, they said.
The bandh could always be resumed if nothing worthwhile was announced after September 12. The agitators smelt a rat. At a meeting outside Kurseong (Toy) railway station, a fiery speaker used an expression which is a Nepali version of an old adage: “Does the soufflé rise twice?”
A “sellout”, the crowd bellowed. Tamang and Anit Thapa had to be given police protection — a clear case of leaders hiding from their people. The president of the GJM, Bimal Gurung, is already living “underground” in Sikkim.
The bandh call was occasioned by Mamata Banerjee and other Trinamul leaders seeking to insert Bengali in the three-language formula operational in the hills. Before this “Bengali imposition” could register with the Gorkha coordination committee, Biaml Gurung had jumped the gun — he had announced an open-ended bandh.
Among the more sensible colleagues of Bimal Gurung is one Swaraj Thapa, who also has bogus cases slapped against him. He has been spending some time in New Delhi as part of the delegation which met the home minister, who has recently agreed to tripartite talks on the Gorkhaland issue, should Mamata Banerjee agree.
R.B. Rai, a two-time member of Parliament and president of the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist central committee, possibly the most politically savvy and respected leader in the hills, believes that “tripartite talks” are a promising enough outcome to end the bandh.
He is cross with the amateurishness of Bimal Gurung for playing “the ultimate card of a total bandh without having a backup plan... We should have started with mohalla marches, struck work for a few hours, tested the political reaction in Kolkata and New Delhi, gauged the plantation workers’ capacity to survive long strikes without wages. And so on”. There was no plan, he laments....