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West Bengal Polls: In the Hills, Compulsions Dictate Local Outfits’ Decisions

A senior CPI(M) said that Bimal Gurung was fighting for his relevance to hill politics in the ongoing elections in the state.
West Bengal Polls: In the Hills, Compulsions Dictate Local Outfits’ Decisions

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

Kolkata, April 14: Political outfits in the Darjeeling Hills – which include three Assembly constituencies of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong – appear to be acting under the compulsions even as that tantamounts to not asserting their political identity.

The situation has come about due to the faction-ridden outfits becoming weaker by the day. They seem to be left with no other option but to seek refuge under the banner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress. And surprisingly, on the issue of supporting the Kalimpong TMC chief, Rajya Sabha member Shanta Chhetri, without inhibition, “the authority” of poll consultant Prashant Kishore’s I-PAC has also thrown a spanner into the works.

The only exceptions to the trend are the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress – partners of the Sanjukta Morcha – which are on their own and are carrying on with electioneering under their respective flags and highlighting economic issues that affect the people. In several interactions that Newsclick has had with several politicians, they seemed to come to the same conclusions and are indicating that a combination of related factors have made the situation in the hills intriguing.

The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which spearheaded the Gorkhaland agitation in the mid-1980s under the leadership of late Subhash Ghisingh was forced by circumstances to be away from the 2016 assembly elections. This time it is in the fray, but only indirectly. Its current chief Mann Ghising, the son of the GNLF founder, wanted to contest two of the three seats but the BJP prevailed upon him to extend support to it. However, it did make a concession in the sense it has accepted GNLF leader Neeraj Zimba as a candidate, but stipulated that it had to fight on the BJP symbol. The organisation has fallen in line.

The Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM), headquartered in Darjeeling, which was formed in 1996 by members who were originally with the CPI (M), has ultimately chosen not to try its electoral fortunes this time too. Significantly, however, it is offering support to the BJP.

The oldest party in the hills is the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, which is now split into three. One faction has decided to support the BJP. The other two factions have put up candidates to contest against each other.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), founded on October 7, 2007 by Bimal Gurung – a trusted aide of Late Ghisingh for a long time – has been split into two factions for nearly four years. The first is led by Gurung and the other by Benoy Tamang-Anit Thapa. The latter is much talked about for his utterances and actions while Gurung is now looked at as a ‘turncoat’. Having supported the BJP in the three Lok Sabha elections since 2009, he says the BJP has been fooling the Gorkhas all these years on their demand for a separate Gorkhaland. He has, therefore, decided to side “with Mamata Banerjee and her TMC” as he has faith in the CM, who has assured of work towards the goal of a “permament political solution” (PPS). The abbreviation is much in use in this election season.

Both the Gurung and Tamang-Thapa factions have put up candidates against each other. However, Shanta Chhetri told Newsclick from Kalimgpong that the TMC would support the Gurung faction's candidates on the I-PAC's advice. Asked if the local TMC units’ decision has been approved by Mamata Banerjee, she said : “We have followed I-PAC’s advice”.

After Gurung went into hiding following the June 2017 clashes and strike in Darjeeling which caused loss of lives, widespread damage to property and halted economic activity, the TMC started backing the Tamang-Thapa faction. But, slowly after Gurung resurfaced over three years ago in Kolkata in October 2020, the government's attitude began to change. The TMC government’s gestures included going slow on the cases filed against Gurung, some of which were under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The government's pleader in Darjeeling, Pranay Rai, confirmed to Newsclick that a fair number of cases against Gurung had been withdrawn. Rai, however, clarified that “the murder charge had not been withdrawn”.

The local TMC units’ backing to the Gurung faction candidates at the instance of I-PAC marks progress since the gradual change in the stance of Mamata’s party towards the firebrand leader after he resurfaced. The TMC’s new-found preference for Gurung has, however, has taken the Tamang-Thapa faction by surprise. Tamang suggested to Newsclick that people had taken note of the peace and stability witnessed in the hills for well over three years and that they would not like to lose this. “This makes us optimistic about our electoral battle,” he added.

Interestingly, PPS is being cited as much by the pro-BJP outfits as by the local TMC leaders and Gurung. Asked how a hardcore Marxist outfit like CPRM is backing the BJP in the Assembly elections, the party’s secretary and spokesperson Gobind Chhetri told Newsclick from Darjeeling: “We have taken note of the BJP’s offer in its sankalp patra to seriously try to find a PPS. Gorkhas want their cultural identity protected and nurtured; their pride in their culture respected. We feel bad when people ask us in New Delhi and other places whether we are from Nepal. We have a history dating back many decades. We will wait till 2024 for the BJP to fulfil its sankalp patra provision. If not, we will be free to decide our next course of action. Because of the prolonged strike, unrest and loss of lives in firing by the state police, people have become disenchanted with Gurung”, Chhetri opined.

GNLF general secretary Mahendra Chhetri too referred to the offer of a PPS in the BJP's manifesto while explaining the organisation’s pro-BJP stand. Clarifying on the outfit's concept of a PPS, Chhetri said they were for a solution under articles 244 (2) and 275 (1) of the Constitution.

Article 244 (2) can facilitate creation of autonomous councils with provision for greater political autonomy and decentralised governance in certain tribal areas through elected representatives. But autonomous councils do not have jurisdiction over law and order. Under Articles 275 (1), grants will be additional to normal central assistance. Such schemes that have welfare of Scheduled Tribes and raising the level of administration of the scheduled areas as objectives, will be funded from the grant. The schemes should create opportunities for income and employment.At least 30% of benefits should be meant for women.

But the GJM faction led by Gurung is for a PPS under Article 244 (A) of the Constitution, which allows for the creation of an autonomous state within a state for predetermined tribal areas. More autonomous powers are admissible under Article 244 (A) and the most important among them is control over law and order. In recent weeks, GJM general secretary Roshan Giri has gone on record voicing this suggestion.

Senior CPI (M) leader Saman Pathak, a former Rajya Sabha member, suggested that Gurung will try his best to prove his relevance to hill politics in the elections. For the BJP, the task is to retain a hold it could establish in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by bagging seven out of eight seats in north West Bengal, despite ‘Sitalkuchi’.

The loss of lives in 2017 due to police firing, is widely believed to have cost the TMC heavily ; in that it could not win a single Lok Sabha seat. Therefore, with Gurung’s help, the TMC is trying to recoup the ground it lost in the region. Much, of course, will depend on the results.

Both the BJP and the TMC will have to take effective steps to fulfil the longstanding demand for according Scheduled Tribes status to 11 tribes – Bhujel, Gurung, Mangar, Newar, Jogi, Khas, Rai, Sunuwar, Thami, Yakka (Dewan) and Dhimal.

According to Pathak, campaining by the CPI (M) and Congress candidates was progressing according to schedule and people were taking note of the fact that unlike the BJP and TMC, which were resorting to mudslinging, the Morcha has been highlighting economic issues that have a bearing on the daily lives of the common people, particularly the poor and the backward.

Interestingly, it appears the citizenship legislations are not generating any heat in these elections. To the 15 lakh-odd Gorkhas and the large number of tribes, the two issues – protection of Gorkha identity and pride through a PPS and ST status for the 11 tribes – seem more important. Given the context, a statement to Newsclick by Darjeeling’s BJP Lok Sabha member Raju Bista adds clarity.

“There is a perception that Indian Gorkhas are somehow worried about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019... However, the fact is that the Indian Gorkhas have been most supportive of both the CAA and the National Register of Citizens. This is because time and again Indian Gorkhas have been labelled as outsiders by many ... As for NRC, Gorkhas have been demanding it since our region is full of Rohingyas and illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh ...” said Bista.

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