'Playing with fire': Gorkhaland politics makes a comeback in West Bengal, ahead of state polls

TMC, CPI(M), Congress accused BJP at the Centre of fuelling the 'separatist' movement

Union Home Minister Amit Shah and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee Union Home Minister Amit Shah and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

On Wednesday, a delegation of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) met Union Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy and demanded the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland comprising Darjeeling and adjoining areas in West Bengal. The GJM team came to the national capital to participate in a tripartite meeting convened by the MHA to discuss "issues related to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA)", according to reports. Going by official statements, no representative of the West Bengal government attended the meeting. GJM (Bimal Gurung faction, aligned with the BJP) working president Lopsang Lama said the outfit has submitted a memorandum demanding that Gorkhaland be carved out of West Bengal.

Non-BJP parties in the state came down heavily on the BJP government at the Centre for "fuelling speculation" over demands for a separate Gorkhaland ahead of assembly polls, and said it was "playing with fire" to serve vested political interests. The BJP, however, dubbed the allegations as "baseless" and said the central government just wants a "permanent solution" to the political crisis.

A short history of Gorkhaland agitation

The demand for Gorkhaland has been a long-standing one, fuelled by the Nepali-speaking population in Kalimpong, Darjeeling and other hilly areas who are linguistically quite different from the rest of the West Bengal state. Post-independence, in 1977, the state government in West Bengal had given in to pressure and supported the creation of an autonomous district council. But the demand for separate statehood never died off. Violent riots in the 80s, with Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) head Subhas Ghising at the forefront, resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand people. 

In 2007, there were further protests headed by GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, again for full statehood. He was at least partially mollified by new Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement of a local administration body Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), which would be headed by Gurung. But the demands never really died down. Darjeeling again witnessed violent agitations over a separate state, the latest being in June 2017, when the hills saw a 104-day-long strike over the issue.

The strike also led to a split in the GJM, with Binay Tamang, once deputy to the supremo Bimal Gurung, taking over the reins of the party and expelling the boss. Since then, the GJM faction led by Gurung had aligned with the BJP, and the other camp, headed by Tamang, joined hands with the ruling TMC in the state. Anit Thapa, a loyalist of Tamang, is currently the chairman of the GTA board of administrators.

The BJP, who has always pushed for a resolution to the political dispute, had electorally joined hands with GJM for victories in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, and has since cultivated alliances with the Gurung faction and GNLF. 

Political fight over the meeting

Slamming the Union government's move, the TMC dispensation in the state asked the Central leaders to come clean on whether they want a "division of the state". "Every time we approach an election, the BJP raises the Gorkhaland issue to create disturbance in the hills. This is yet another move. The BJP should come clean on whether they want a division of the state... They should stop beating around the bush," Gautam Deb, the state tourism minister and senior TMC leader from north Bengal, said.

In April, the TMC had seen red after the mention of Gorkhaland by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in a letter to Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, who had sought protection for Gorkhas in the national capital. Shah, while replying to Bista's letter, said his concern over the people of 'Gorkhaland and Ladakh area' is being looked at. "Why did he use the word Gorkhaland? There is no place called Gorkhaland in the entire area. It seems after dividing Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP is planning to bifurcate Bengal. But, as long the TMC is here, nobody can break the state," Deb had then said.

The Mamata Banerjee-led party also claimed that it was a just another attempt by the BJP to create "confusion", as Amit Shah skipped Wednesday's meeting. "Had it been a serious meeting, the Union home minister would have attended it instead of sending MoS home. This only reflects that the BJP is trying to create confusion ahead of polls. Gorkhaland will never happen, as our Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already said," senior TMC leader Sougato Roy said.

The opposition Congress and the CPI(M), too, echoed the TMC and said the saffron camp was trying to fuel a separatist movement.

"The BJP is playing with fire to serve its political interest. Earlier, the TMC did the same thing to come to power. We feel that there should be autonomy as per constitutional provisions. But in no way, Bengal should be divided," CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said.

The BJP, however, said the allegations levelled against it were bereft of truth. "We want a permanent political solution to this crisis, which has been going on for several decades. Neither the erstwhile Left Front government nor the present TMC government is interested in a political solution. They want the problem to linger as it furthers their political agenda," BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said.

-Inputs from PTI

📣 The Week is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@TheWeekmagazine) and stay updated with the latest headlines