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How Didi’s divisive politics set Darjeeling’s hills on fire

Pratim Ranjan Bose Kolkata | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 27, 2017

Mamata has been attempting to steamroll any political Opposition

Two years ago, all the workers of Kusumbing tea estate in Darjeeling joined West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress. This was significant, as parties from the plains have been losing ground in the hills of Darjeeling ever since Subhash Ghising’s violent campaign for a Gorkhaland State in the 1980s.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also heads the Trinamool, immediately promoted the Kusumbing union leader, JB Tamang, as the chief of the party’s trade union wing in the hills.

Over the last fortnight, the union has been reduced to a mere signboard, with workers joining the daily protests led by Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The GJM has been joined by over a dozen other hill-based parties and organisations, all of whom have only one demand: statehood.

While the Trinamool had made a dramatic entry to the hill politics a few years ago, they are losing it even more dramatically.

The party’s hill-based allies — Ghising’s GNLF and Harka Bahadur Chhetri’s Jan Andolan Party — have buried their differences with Gurung and joined the hill alliance. Defections of party councillors have also been reported from the Trinamool-controlled Mirik municipality. Trinamool won the municipality in May.

Dramatic turn

The sentiment for statehood, that has been simmering for more than a century and forced the creation of Darjeeling Hill Council in 1988, and the relatively powerful Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2012, has gripped the hills once again.

What is unusual is the way the movement has fomented this time. In the last five years, the GJM hadn’t launched any violent campaign in the hills. Until last month, they were accepting of the Trinamool’s political foray into the hills.

All this went up in smoke in a flash when on June 8, police stopped GJM demonstrators from approaching the Chief Minister, who was busy in a Cabinet meeting. For the first time in 44 years, the Cabinet was meeting at the Governor’s summer residence, in Darjeeling.

The protesters were opposing a State decision for a compulsory Bengali language paper in schools. The decision was later rolled back, but a political fire had engulfed Darjeeling by then. Banerjee’s stand to take protestors head on, leading to reported killings in police firing, added fuel to the fire.

Who is to blame?

Trinamool spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien has said the GJM is scared of losing ground to the Trinamool, and is trying to make a comeback through the statehood demand.

In contrast, GJM spokesperson Roshan Giri summed up their side of the argument in a sentence: “She (Mamata Banerjee) wants to control everything. Kuchh bhi nehi chhorega (will leave nothing untouched).”

Giri is not far from the truth. Over the last three years, Banerjee’s government has created 15 boards along caste or community lines in the hills. Each was granted ₹5 crore. The aim was to divide the hill polity and create a support base for the Trinamool.

The red carpet was laid out to cadre from other parties. The party won the Mirik municipality riding on this formula. The hill-based Jan Andolan Party, which allied with the Trinamool during the 2016 Assembly elections, also accused Banerjee of poaching its cadres.

The formula is not new. Trinamool came to power in 2011 in coalition with Congress. The party had an absolute majority of 184 in the 294-member Assembly. And yet, it began poaching MLAs from other parties, including the Congress.

Nearly 11 MLAs had crossed the floor, and a majority of them informally, meaning everyone knew they changed allegiance but they enjoyed MLA status, says veteran political analyst Debasish Bhattacharya. These MLAs were even nominated by the Trinamool in the 2016 elections.

In 2016, the Trinamool won 211 seats. Reports suggest that at least eight Congress MLAs (out of 44) and one Left legislator (out of 32) have joined the Trinamool.

More interesting is the case of the Domkal municipality that went to polls in May 2017. Of 21 seats, the Trinamool won 18. And yet, they poached two of three Opposition councillors within hours of the results.

What next?

The flashpoint in Darjeeling was surely triggered by overtly dominating politics. It is a different matter that the hills have but three Assembly seats. The crucial fact may be that GJM is a BJP ally.

From political perspective, Darjeeling is on the boil because it has a strong Opposition. And this fire is unlikely to douse easily. The sentiment for Gorkhaland is centuries old and, no hill politician can oppose it. Banerjee’s politics is facing its first adversary in the hills.

Published on June 27, 2017
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