Darjeeling is looking forward to the deluge of tourists that will set the cash registers ringing in the hotels, eateries, and other establishments a few weeks from now when the ‘tourist season’ begins. But the prospect of the economic upturn is not bringing smiles to the faces of the residents of the hills; the last tourist season was a washout because of the 104-day shutdown imposed by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) to press for a separate state of Gorkhaland from June till late September last year.
The statehood movement last year was brutally crushed by the state government. More than 10 people were killed in police firing (though Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee denies that her police killed the agitators), hundreds were jailed and tortured, many houses set afire, and people were dispossessed and displaced while cases ranging from murders, arms smuggling, and fake currency rackets were slapped on the leaders of the movement. GJM leaders, including its chief, Bimal Gurung, and his close aides, were forced to go into hiding. Banerjee succeeded in engineering a split in the GJM and foisted Binay Tamang, once a trusted lieutenant of Gurung’s, as head of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), which looks after the development of the hills.
An uneasy peace settled in the hills after the shutdown ended, and though the people of Darjeeling still have no love lost for Banerjee, it is the BJP which is also being blamed for the statehood movement coming to an ignoble end. Darjeeling had voted robustly for S S Ahluwalia, who is now a junior minister, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections after the BJP announced it would “favourably consider” the Gorkhaland demand. It was with the BJP’s tacit support that the GJM intensified the statehood movement in June last year. Gurung and other Morcha leaders reportedly received assurances from some central BJP leaders, including Ahluwalia, of support and protection.
“But we were abandoned by the BJP. It went back on its support for our statehood demand. We feel totally betrayed since we had sent a BJP leader to Parliament in 2014 and expected BJP to support us. Not one senior BJP leader came out in our support,” complained a senior Morcha leader who did not want to be named.
Nothing exemplifies the BJP’s U-turn on the Gorkhaland issue better than the continued absence of Ahluwalia from the hills. Ahluwalia remained away from his constituency even when it was in distress and utter despair. “He has lost all moral right to represent us. He was not here when we needed him the most. He offered us no support and protection from the rampaging Bengal police. Not once did he utter a word against the police brutalities that we suffered,” said Anita Gurung, a senior teacher at one of Darjeeling’s most reputed schools.
The BJP’s discomfiture is understandable. After Banerjee raised the pitch and said she would not allow any division of Bengal, the BJP could not have afforded to be seen supporting Gorkhaland as that would have turned public opinion in the rest of Bengal against the party. “Darjeeling is just one of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in this state. It makes no sense to sabotage our prospects in the rest of the state for the sake of just one seat,” said a senior BJP leader in charge of organisational matters.
“But there is something called political morality also. If the BJP was not serious about its support for Gorkhaland, it should never have offered us false assurances just to win the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat. If Mamata Banerjee has been brutal with us, BJP has stabbed us behind our backs. At least Mamata Banerjee has the honesty to openly do what she says. She does not speak in two voices,” said school teacher Anita Gurung.
The perceived ‘betrayal’ by the BJP has made it a pariah in the hills. The antipathy towards the BJP got accentuated when the Supreme Court turned down Gurung’s plea seeking protection from arrest by Bengal police on Friday. Gurung is now in hiding and the Bengal police have slapped 53 cases ranging from attempted murder to arson and arms smuggling on him. The people in the hills feel that while the Bengal government was properly represented by a battery of lawyers (including Congress’ Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who is now being rewarded by Banerjee with a Rajya Sabha seat from Bengal), the BJP did not care to defend Gurung and left him at the mercy of junior lawyers.
“Had the BJP also fielded some senior lawyers to argue Gurung’s case, the Supreme Court would not have turned down his plea. The Bengal government is being vindictive and Mamata Banerjee wants to punish Gurung for defying her. The BJP has let down Gurung and the people of the hills,” said Susmit Pradhan, a lawyer.
People of Darjeeling fear that Gurung, who still enjoys widespread support, will be arrested soon. If that happens, whatever little support the BJP still has will be lost forever. “We feel orphaned. No one supports Binay Tamang since he is a stooge of Mamata Banerjee,”said Pradhan.
Banerjee has been trying to woo the hill people, but without much success. Her frequent visits to Darjeeling and repeated overtures – the latest, a business summit in the hills that ended with questionable claims of having attracted investments worth Rs 1,500 crore – have not really cut much ice with the hill people and made her acceptable to them. But they have no one to turn to after being abandoned by the BJP. And that is why all their anger is now directed towards the BJP.
Self-Goal In Sikkim
Across the hills, in Sikkim, the BJP seems to have scored a self-goal too. The Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), headed by Pawan Kumar Chamling, has been ruling the state uninterruptedly since 1994. But though the SDF is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), the state unit of the BJP in Sikkim has upped the ante against Chamling. Senior BJP leaders from Delhi have backed their state unit’s campaign against Chamling.
Chamling had supported the Gorkhaland demand and got the Sikkim Legislative Assembly to pass a motion asking for the creation of a separate state. That sparked a war of words with Banerjee, who vindictively encouraged her party activists to choke supplies to Sikkim through NH 10 that passes through North Bengal. The unofficial blockade was so crippling that Chamling sought Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh's help to get the blockade lifted. It made no difference to Banerjee that while choking off supplies of essentials to landlocked Sikkim, army units posted along the Indo-Tibet border were also starved of supplies, and that too during the Doklam standoff. The Bengal government also resorted to a few other punitive measures against Sikkim that hurt its tourism sector, one of the major revenue earners for the Himalayan state.
The BJP’s growing aggressiveness in Sikkim towards its own alliance partner – the BJP is even supporting R N Chamling, Pawan Chamling’s brother, to create a split in the SDF – has pushed the Sikkim Chief Minister towards Banerjee. The two held a very cordial meeting in Siliguri on Friday (16 March) and resolved to sink all “past misunderstandings and differences and work together for development of Sikkim and the hill areas of Bengal”. Though Sikkim is a small state with one Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha seat, the successful meeting with Chamling comes as a shot in the arm for Banerjee, who is trying to cobble together an alliance of regional parties against the BJP. If the SDF withdraws from the NDA and the NEDA, thanks to the BJP’s unrelenting offensives against him, it will be a moral victory for the anti-BJP forces.
Thus, both in Sikkim and adjoining Darjeeling hills, the BJP stands to lose – due to its uncalled for belligerence in the former and its meek silence in the latter.
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