Kolkata, August 23: In the words of veteran politician Harka Bahadur Chhetri, hill politics in West Bengal, with Darjeeling as the pivot, cannot be considered “normal” without complications in play; in fact, it is a sign of “visible” normalcy when complications multiply, Chhetri told Newsclick from his base in Kalimpong, when asked to give his assessment of the prevailing situation and how he sees things shaping up in the light of a number of recent developments that the hills have seen. Harka Bahadur, the very popular spokesperson of the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), parted ways with the GJM chief, and, following a short interval, formed the Jan Andolon Party (JAP) on January 27, 2016 with its headquarters in Kalimpong.
According to Chhetri, politics in the hills was dominated by a single person between 1986 and 2017 – Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader Late Subhash Ghising was the 'supreme leader' for two decades beginning 1986, the GJM’s Gurung stole the limelight thereafter, and remained the undisputed leader up to 2017. The situation gradually changed in the absence of a dominating politician, and political parties – big or small – are functioning in a “democratic atmosphere”, without any threat or opposition from any quarters. “We are breathing democracy after a long time,” he observed. The second reason for this welcome change is that people do not know for certain which party really has the majority's backing – it will be a thin 'majority'; if at all, he observed.
A new phase of political changes with ingrained complications began before the 2021 assembly elections in the state, when a politically weak Gurung severed his ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party and announced the GJM’s support to the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC). He then justified the shift in stance, saying the BJP did not keep its promises and that “Mamata keeps her word”. Following the move, Mamata had the support of both the GJM factions – the other faction led by Binay Tamang with Anit Thapa as the second-in-command.
After mid-July, politics in the hills witnessed more twists and turns. Tamang, who also headed the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), quit the GJM faction he had been leading for the last four years. It was now the turn of Thapa, who had stepped into Tamang’s shoes as the GTA chief, to spring surprises and, perhaps, add to complications. Thapa has announced that he will float a new political party in the first week of September as people in the hills deserve the chance of being part of practical and pragmatic politics. A report in The Hindu quoted him saying: “The emotive issue of Gorkhaland is still important but there are issues like jobs for our youths, the water crisis in Darjeeling and restoring the glory of Darjeeling by realising its full potential as a tourism destination.” It is reasonable to suggest he is trying to chart an independent course and acquire bargaining power.
Tamang is yet to reveal his plans, but, he told Newsclick he would embark upon “a new phase of my political journey and create a new platform from where I would articulate demands for land pattas for tea garden workers, cinchona plantation workers, forest dwellers, seasonal artisans and other eligible categories as 87.2% of these people in Darjeeling and Kalimpong remain deprived of land pattas.”
He also proposed to take up what he called a “technical” issue – bringing a stretch of 605 sq kms between Sikkim and the contiguous seven-sister states within the purview of the North Eastern Council (NEC) under the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER). Apart from the seven sister states – Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal, Mizoram, and Nagaland – the NEC has under its ambit the Himalayan state of Sikkim, which was a much later addition. That by calling it a “technical issue” he was being diplomatic was clear; for the areas he referred to included the hills, Terai and Dooars. He chose to describe it in terms of the geographical location and how much the area measured.
The last of the developments over the past six weeks is the possibility of the Centre convening a tripartite meeting in early September on a “permanent political solution” (PPS) in the hills. This became a talking point after BJP's Darjeeling Lok Sabha MP Raju Bista met Union Home Minister Amit Shah on August 6 and hinted at New Delhi’s intentions. The BJP’s manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections made a brief reference to the PPS and according tribal status to 11 hill communities.
Reactions to all these developments have been varied, but generally on expected lines. The BJP’s Darjeeling district president Kalyan Dewan told Newsclick that with Gurung and Tamang reduced to politicians without a mass base and with the TMC not a force to reckon with, the BJP is well-positioned to work for economic growth and welfare of the hill people. The party won two of the three hill assembly seats. It lost Kalimpong because of “resource constraints”. The move for a tripartite meeting is well-intentioned, and the state government should participate.
Dewan further said a separate administrative unit with the hills, Terai and Dooars was eminently desirable because of the similarity of cultural and ritualistic practices, even in dialects. Asked about its viability, he contended: “Why not? It will be bigger than Goa, Nagaland and Sikkim”. He did not think Thapa’s party will make any difference. “You can’t run a party with the help of builders and contractors and even with state patronage,” Dewan observed.
GNLF spokesperson Mahendra Chhetri told Newsclick the tripartite meeting should “clarify matters, not add to complications. The issue is political, the Centre has to decide the agenda and spell out what it means by the PPS,” Chhetri observed. The GNLF is the BJP’s alliance partner and one of its candidates, Neeraj Zimba, won the Darjeeling assembly seat on a BJP ticket.
Asked whether the state government would take part in the proposed tripartite meeting, the GNLF spokesman said its non-cooperation would strengthen New Delhi and the BJP's argument that Mamata was not at all serious about resolving long-pending emotive issues.
The TMC spokesperson for the hills, Nar Bahadur Khawash, told Newsclick: “With its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the BJP-led Union government should straight-away table a bill on its version of the PPS. Where is the need for a tripartite meeting? Did New Delhi call a tripartite meeting before abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution? Since 2009 Darjeeling has a BJP Lok Sabha member, and during campaign time, its leaders would ask voters to give them the seat and promise to solve pending political matters, including granting of tribal status to 11 hill communities. But, nothing has happened.”
“We believe in practical politics, in creating job opportunities, giving land pattas, ensuring proper wages to tea garden workers. We do not want to play politics with people’s sentiments and create unrest,” he observed.
Gurung-led GJM’s general secretary Roshan Giri called the Centre’s tripartite meeting move an “eyewash” and did not think that Thapa’s party would influence hill politics. About Tamang’s demand to bring the hills, Terai and Dooars areas within the ambit of the NEC, Giri said they had in the past made the same move. “But, we could not succeed as the NEC’s provisions do not allow inclusion of a part of a state in it. Only an entire state can be within its purview”.
After freeing himself from the GJM faction he was leading, Tamang met Gurung on August 11, raising speculation whether the former would rejoin the latter. Asked to interpret this, Giri said Tamang had made a courtesy call on Gurung and nothing beyond that should be read into for now.
Asked what are likely to be his party’s political initiatives, given its new-found equation with Mamata and as the TMC’s alliance partner, Giri told Newsclick: “We are working on it. It will be some time before we firm it up.”
Harka Bahadur was reluctant to comment on Thapa’s party, as “off-hand remarks” were not “desirable. But, to me, one thing is clear – coalition politics is unproductive in the hills,” the senior politician observed.
Panchayat elections have not been held in the hills for many years. The GTA elections due in 2017 could not be held in the situation arising from Gurung’s 105-day violent agitation that year, and the state government slapped several cases on him. He was on the run thereafter.
It is clear Mamata has to negotiate a tricky path and prove her political and administrative acumen in sorting out persisting complications and meeting the challenges from the BJP. The hills may also see some realignments and new alliances.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. The views are personal.