By Ashis Biswas
KOLKATA: Disturbing lapses from normal procedural behaviour on the part of both the West Bengal Government and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in Darjeeling have led to a politically explosive situation in the strategic North Himalayan foothills. For the first time, a no-holds-barred battle between the GJM and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is under way, involving militant Gorkhas and the state administration. The decline in the level of administrative functioning and political discourse is a cause of major worry in political circles.
The deadlock over the indefinite ‘bandh’ called by the GJM and others to secure their separate statehood demand continues, with neither the Centre nor the State showing much inclination to address the issue. This has already resulted in huge financial losses to the region’s economy. Losses in the tourism sector have been estimated at Rs 150 crore so far and for the tea industry over Rs 200 crore and still counting.
Analysts are, however, more worried about the long term impact on the region’s security and inter-ethnic relations. Certain new features noticed during the present spell of unrest are causing grave concern to observers. Both the Trinamool Congress-led(TMC) State Government and the GJM are responsible for a major deterioration in the existing social relationships, where most ethnic groups feel tense and distrustful of each other.
During the last few days, except for state policemen behaving like by-standers, as GJM supporters organise rallies, there has been no semblance of any administration. Schools, government offices, tea plantations are all closed, most government/municipal offices/bungalows have been burnt down, with hotels and restaurants mostly going empty. Houses of individual officers and TMC political leaders have been attacked by mobs at night.
This time, abandoning past norms, Gorkha militants have even set fire to fire stations and fire engines, stopped outstation travellers who tried to reach Siliguri to return to their bases, and attacked private vehicles trying to reach Darjeeling/Sikkim from the plains, or heading for the plains.
Of late, the GJM leadership has taken to denying any responsibility for such vandalism, blaming ‘miscreants belonging to the TMC ‘In collusion with the state police.’
Such claims do not convince most people, who have seen GJM militants in action on the streets. No wonder the GJM”s allies in the struggle for a separate Gorkhaland, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Jan Andolan Party (JAP) have disassociated themselves from such tactics and held the GJM responsible for ‘letting things go out of control’. GNLF leaders insist that the agitation was not intended to be anti-Bengali. It was never so during the earlier GNLF agitations in the eighties and nineties, when there were no ethnic tensions and no tourist was ever harassed!
And for the first time, from participants in the anti-Gorkhaland rallies organised at Siliguri, Dooars, Jalpaiguri and other areas, provocative slogans against ‘Nepalis’ have been raised, of late. Vehicles heading for Sikkim and Darjeeling have been damaged and stopped. In some offices where Gorkhas work, mobs have attacked and ransacked the premises, although not on a significant scale.
But the fact is that such things never happened before. GJM leaders are quick to take note and blame TMC leaders in the plains of being the instigators. No TMC leader has issued a reaction.
Eye-witness accounts in the North Bengal media also blame the state police for its apparent misbehaviour with the first major rally organised by the GJM, on June 17. Clashes broke out between marchers, who were carrying the bodies of two persons allegedly killed in police firing and the policemen who tried to stop the march. After this the GJM hardened its stand and continued its indefinite bandh.
This was when the Patlebas house of GJM chief Bimal Gurung was also broken open and searched, angering the GJM leaders and their followers. Earlier the house built in honour of leading Nepali poet Bhanu Bhakt, a cultural centre, had also been shut down by officials, in a bid to prevent any gathering of Gorkha leaders there.
Such tactics, coming on top of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that Bengali would also be taught in the hills optionally, did not go down well with many local people as tensions rose.
Significantly, the GJM organised a bigger rally on June 18, but with the police not reacting and standing by, the procession ended without incident.
TMC leader and Minister Gautam Deb maintains that the GJM was bent on creating a major disruption ever since Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had ordered a special audit on the expenditures incurred by the GJM-run autonomous Territorial Administration(GTA) during the last five years. Locals were familiar with the funds diversion, mismanagement and corruption within the GTA. With fresh polls coming up, the audit would have been embarrassing for the GJM against a background of the growth in TMC votes in the hills.
Siliguri Mayor and former CPI(M) Minister Ashok Bhattacharya poses a counter. ‘West Bengal Government should itself face a special audit first, to ascertain how much money has changed hands among officials and ministers during the Sarada chit fund and Narada sting scams. It should not accuse others of corruption.’
Bhattacharya also confirms some of the other allegations made by the GJM against the State Government. Funds allotted to the GJM were never made available in time leading to major delays in local development work. Bhattacharya alleges that the Siliguri Municipality faces the same problem!
‘ The TMC is determined to stifle all opposition from the Bay of Bengal to the hills. This it does by financially strangling all non-TMC civic bodies and institutions. The Chief Minister has tried to do the same with the GJM. Other opposition parties are not surprised. According to the GTA agreement, the state should have handed over the power to run the schools, hospitals, road building, rural power projects and 13 other areas of administration to the GJM. It did not do so. The GTA found it hard to work. Worse, it delayed financial help and clearance on proposals and projects,’ he says.
However, Kolkata lost no time and spent money massively, in setting up 15 new autonomous boards for smaller ethnic groups in the hills, without any consultation with the GTA! ‘Can this be valid, legally?’ wonders Bhattacharya.
Left leaders point out that after the GNLF signed a tripartite agreement with West Bengal and the Centre in the eighties, there was no Gorkha agitation for over two decades. All involved parties stuck to their commitments and followed agreed rules.
‘ But the TMC has a different take from other major parties when it comes to dealing with the opposition, not bound by existing political norms and conventions. Simply put, it is grab and gobble up all, using money and muscle power’ said a Left Front leader. (IPA Service)