Kolkata: Several ethnic groups, which spearheaded agitations for creation of separate states in North Bengal over the past few decades, have now rejected a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP's controversial demand for an Union territory (UT) comprising all districts of the region, calling it an "unrealistic" and "vindictive" move.
John Barla, the saffron party MP from Alipurduar, recently sparked a political debate in the state when he called for bifurcation of Bengal, drawing sharp retort from the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and other parties.
Barla, during an interaction with the party's North Bengal leaders, also said he would take the matter up in Parliament during the upcoming Monsoon session. His views were endorsed by BJP MP from Alipurduar Jayanta Roy and some other leaders.
The state unit of the BJP, however, distanced itself from the demand and said "it was not the official stand of the party and more of a personal opinion of Barla".
Ironically, Barla's demand did not find resonance among the prominent identity-based groups in the region – the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), Greater Cooch Behar People's Association (GCPA) and those backing the Kamtapur movement.
They said it was an attempt to create unrest ahead of the next Lok Sabha polls in 2024.
Barla, who had earlier led an agitation for an autonomous tribal area in the region, said North Bengal has long been neglected and its separation from the TMC-led state could be the only way to usher in development.
"There have been movements here in the past for a separate Kamtapuri, a greater Cooch Behar and Gorkhaland. That prompted me to raise this demand... And to be honest, North Bengal region has faced neglected for a long time. It should be made into a separate Union territory," the BJP MP, who has stayed firm on his stance, said.
The tribal leader from Terai-Dooars also said he and other leaders from the region would be meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah on this issue.
His remarks have kicked off a political storm in the state, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the ruling TMC vehemently opposing it.
"We are opposed to any division of Bengal. We will never allow any such thing," she said.
The TMC, which had used the sub-nationalism card to trounce the BJP in the March-April Assembly polls, was quick to brand the saffron party as an "anti-Bengali" organisation which wants to divide the state to avenge its defeat.
North Bengal, with its eight districts including picturesque Darjeeling, is both economically important for West Bengal as it houses the money-minting tea, timber and tourism industries.
The place is strategically important for the country for its Siliguri corridor, commonly known as 'chicken neck', as it connects the mainland with the North Eastern states.
The region, which shares border with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, has witnessed several violent statehood movements since the early eighties by various ethnic groups such as Gorkhas, Rajbanshis, Koch and Kamatapuri communities.
GJM general secretary Roshan Giri, rejecting Barla's stance, said, "What purpose would a Union Territory or a separate state comprising all North Bengal districts serve? We wanted a separate state of Gorkhaland. We have been fighting for it since the 1980s. We don't trust the BJP; they have fooled us since 2009."
The demand for Gorkhaland was first made in the 1980s, with the Subhas Ghisingh-led GNLF launching a violent agitation in 1986, which dragged on for 43 days, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.
The movement led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988. After the TMC took over the reins in Bengal in 2011, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) was formed with GJM supremo Bimal Gurung as its chief.
But peace was short-lived in the region as Gurung rekindled the agitation in support of Gorkhaland in 2013, and engineered a 104-day-long strike in 2017, accusing the TMC government of trying to "wipe out" Gorkha identity.
Giri, who belongs to the Gurung faction of the GJM, claimed that the BJP was making "false promises" and his outfit, which joined hands with the TMC just ahead of the Assembly polls after years of rivalry, now, has full faith in Banerjee as she has promised a permanent political solution.
Echoing him, Bangshi Badan Barman of GCPA said a separate UT was not the same as the demand for an independent state for Rajbanshis, who make for the largest chunk of Scheduled Caste population in the state.
"The Cooch Behar princely kingdom was merged with India after Independence with a promise of a C-category state. But that promise was not fulfilled, and part of the Cooch Behar kingdom was divided between Assam and West Bengal. So carving out north Bengal as a state or UT won't be of much help," he told PTI.
Barman also questioned the timing of Barla's proposal and sought to know why the BJP leadership did not raise the matter during the Assembly polls.
The leaders of the Kamatapuri movement in North Bengal, which also led to the formation of militant outfit Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), feels the demand is "unrealistic" and an attempt "to settle scores after Assembly polls drubbing".
"It is not only diversionary but also unrealistic. The needs of people in North Bengal vary from district to district. We will not back this call for a UT status. We want a separate state for Kamatpuris. The TMC government has carried out various developmental projects in the region since 2011. Even then, there is a lot that is left to be done," said Nikhil Roy, president of the Kamtapur Peoples' Party (United).
Once dreaded for its aggression, the Kamatapuri movement, which sought a separate state consisting of parts of North Bengal and a few districts of Assam, is just a pale shadow of its former avatar as several of its top leaders are either behind bars or have returned to the mainstream under the TMC regime. Even the GCPA and GJM, too, are in disarray over factional feuds and have lost their past influence.
Barla's remarks, although, failed to evoke any response among the separatist leaders, it led to churning in the BJP's rank and file in the region. Several leaders openly spoke against it and have expressed their desire to leave the party.
The party's Alipurduar district president, Ganga Prasad Sharma, switched over to the TMC on Monday.
Slamming the saffron camp, TMC leader and minister of state for North Bengal development Sabina Yeasmin said: "The BJP cannot digest the humiliating defeat it faced in the last Assembly polls. It is now trying to break Bengal. But the people of this state and the TMC will never allow their sinister plans to succeed."
Sensing that the UT narrative would harm the party's support base in the state, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh clarified that no such plan was in the offing.
"Barla's comment is not the official stand of the party. The BJP has no such plans," he said.
Among leaders of other parties, Congress MP Pradip Bhattacharya pointed out that "such a proposition would only divide the masses and never become a reality" as the proposal has to be first passed in the assembly.
Political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty said both TMC and the BJP have adopted "double standards" over separate statehood demands in the region.
"This time, the BJP is at the receiving end, and the UT demand by John Barla will harm the party both politically and electorally," he said.
North Bengal, which sends eights MPs to Lok Sabha, had voted hands down for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as the party bagged seven seats. The TMC, however, was able to recover much of its lost ground in the Assembly polls held earlier in the year.