By Ashis Biswas
Among major opposition parties in West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite its poor representation in the state legislature, seems to be in a stronger position than the Congress or the Left front.
Even the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) was forced to take note of the state-wide demonstrations carried out by the BJP last week in protest against the physical attack of state President Dilip Ghosh and his colleagues in Darjeeling in broad daylight. They were publicly punched, kicked and chased by suspected Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) activists currently led by their new leader Binay Tamang. The one-sided assault occurred in broad daylight on a Darjeeling street.
The backdrop to the fresh spell of violence in the hills needs some explaining.
Tamang, who has virtually sidelined his former leader Bimal Gurung, known for his extremist ways, has been installed as the new head of the revived Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) by the state government. This follows a split within the GJM with its former leader, the absconding Gurung losing most of his support base to Tamang. Both Tamang and Gurung have publicly sworn that they will not stop short of achieving their long standing demand for a separate Gorkhaland state, comprising the hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. However, with neither the state government nor the Centre really responding to the indefinite bandh called by the GJM, the party imploded after calling off their programme after 104 days.
Their all-out agitation was marred by many acts of arson, explosions targeting government offices, ambush attacks on the police and at least 9 deaths. Apart from causing endless hardship to the common people, who lost their earnings and at times ran short of food, it was hard to claim even for the GJM spokesmen just what they had gained. ‘Never have so many people suffered for so long with so little to show for their sufferings,’ said a state BJP leader.
The financial losses suffered by the administration were estimated at around Rs 500 crore. The hills suffered a financial breakdown as their two major revenue earning sectors, tourism and tea production, were hit directly for the duration! The patience of the long-suffering Gorkhas and other communities gave out after 104 days, overruling Gurung’s call for still continuing the bandh.
Meanwhile, the state government issued arrest warrants against Gurung and his chief lieutenant Roshan Giri for their alleged encouragement of and involvement in the acts of arson. The administration pressed charges against the pair under provisions of the dreaded UAPA legislation, usually applied to offenders acting against national interests.
This forced both men to stay away in Delhi, Sikkim, and in areas bordering Nepal for the last few weeks. They were also reduced to instructing GJM cadres through specially transmitted messages.
Tamang and his band of new GJM leaders directly attacked Gurung and Giri for their ‘desertion’ of the common people and enjoying the comforts of Delhi and Sikkim, even as the common people went without food and fuel at times.
Once the GJM bandh ended, the state BJP lost no time to capitalise on the apparent improvement in the situation and rushed to claim the credit. The GJM was understandably upset over the BJP’s lack of support for its agitation as well as Delhi’s continuing indifference to the demand for a separate state. Expecting this support, the GJM had always backed the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls, which enabled the larger party to win in 2014.
Even as the TMC rubbished the state BJP’s move as tactically opportunistic and warned that Ghosh ‘may not be welcome in the hills,’ the GJM split deepened. Gurung, desperate not to offend the ruling BJP at the Centre in his present status as an ‘outlaw’ on the run, as far as the state government was concerned, supported Ghosh’s visit.
But Tamang, closely aligned with the TMC, which had accorded him recognition as the new head of the GTA, criticised the BJP for staying away when the going was tough in the hills and trying to mislead the people. He wanted the BJP to indicate whether or not it supported the separate statehood demand.
Ghosh, on the other hand, openly stood by Gurung as the ‘only Gorkha leader in the region’ and accepted only the GJM faction led by him as the party representing local interests. This naturally did not endear him to the Tamang faction of the GM and its younger members proceeded to give Ghosh and his colleagues the hiding of their lives, forcing them to run over a mile before rushing into a local police station for help. They had earlier disrupted a meeting called in a hall by Ghosh.
The passive role of the state police was later questioned by most analysts. The police arrested two persons, but released them on bail almost immediately.
‘There is little doubt that the attack on the BJP had been meticulously orchestrated between the TMC and the GJM with the local police playing the role of a spectator,’ Ghosh said later. He was supported by Union minister Babul Supriyo and other leaders.
However, Ghosh’s call for a protest day all over West Bengal at short notice succeeded beyond all expectations. Supporters of the party demonstrated in impressive numbers at some 30 spots in the districts, including greater Kolkata areas, organising roadblocks, shouting slogans and burning the chief minister’s effigy. ”I have never seen so many BJP supporters come out on the streets at such short notice, at so many places in the state before,’ admitted a Congress leader.
Rattled, the TMC took out counter rallies the very next day, in greater Kolkata and elsewhere. ‘We must show who has the numbers in Bengal,’ said Partha Chatterjee, TMC minister and general secretary of the TMC.
Oddly enough the ruling TMC also organised roadblocks as a confused police force stood by apparently ‘protecting’ senior ministers and top leaders, who were disrupting traffic on a normal working day, while common people suffered prolonged traffic jams!
Curiously again, instead of targeting state BJP leaders over a state issue, the TMC ministers and activists burnt effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to score a political point.
But the message had gone home: the BJP has demonstrated that it currently enjoyed a definite measure of spontaneous support within the state and that its support base was expanding. ‘The TMC is rattled, and with good reason. The BJP programme proved effective. However, their growth may well occur at the expense of other opposition parties,’ said a CPI leader. (IPA Service)