The Centre’s abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories have not only plunged India’s northernmost region into uncertainty, its reverberations are felt elsewhere too. The tremors are being felt a thousand miles away in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal, where a new demand for turning the area into a Union territory is raised by Gorkhaland agitators, including pro-Mamata groups among them.
Raju Bist, BJP MP for Darjeeling, has tweeted about a letter written to him by Union home minister Amit Shah, wherein Shah has mentioned the word ‘Gorkhaland’, thus reigniting the issue. Bist wrote to Shah in July, voicing concern over the security of Gorkhas in Delhi, as they were left out of the purview of the Delhi Police’s special cell to counter racism, especially against people from the Northeast. According to Bist, Shah replied that concerns over the people of Ladakh and ‘Gorkhaland’ were being looked into. This drew immediate protests from the ruling Trinamool. Goutam Deb, a former minister and senior leader based in north Bengal, questions the use of ‘Gorkhaland’ by Shah. “Why did he use it? There is no place called Gorkhaland in the entire area. It seems after dividing J&K, the BJP is planning to bifurcate Bengal.”
Bist was prompt in pointing out that the very institution formed by the Mamata Banerjee government to administer the Darjeeling hills is called Gorkhaland Territorial Authority (GTA). When Jyoti Basu gave limited autonomy to the Darjeeling hills after facing the first wave of the Gorkhaland movement led by Subhas Ghishing in the 1980s, the tripartite agreement signed by the Centre, West Bengal and Ghising named the institution Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.
However, soon after Shah’s momentous announcement in Parliament regarding J&K, factions of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) started voicing the demand for a Union territory. GJM leader Bimal Gurung congratulated the Centre, hoping it would consider the demand of the Darjeeling hills people. Roshan Giri, Gurung’s close aide, said that creation of a Union territory would solve the problems of Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars. While it is true that BJP’s Bist was elected from Darjeeling with support from Gurung’s GJM faction, even the pro-Mamata faction of GJM is voicing the UT demand. Binay Tamang, the GTA chairman close to Mamata, asked in a statement why the Centre couldn’t take a decision on Darjeeling similar to J&K.
These rumblings in the hills have put parties—both the TMC and the Opposition—in the plains in a quandary. So far, Mamata has not reacted to it, knowing that a further division of a Partition-scarred Bengal would become a highly emotive issue that might impact the all-important state assembly polls in 2021. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, while celebrating the decisions on Kashmir, was cautious in his reactions to developments in north Bengal. “We have never said we want Gorkhaland. We want a permanent political solution to the problem of the hills,” he said.
With Mamata maintaining a stoic silence, TMC leaders are hesitant to speak. A top TMC leader says the party was following instructions from Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist hired by Mamata. “The party is now ruled by a triumvirate of Mamata, her nephew Abhishek and Prashant Kishor,” he says in half-jest. “It is likely that Mamata or her party leaders are not voicing their concerns about Darjeeling on the advice of Kishor,” says the TMC insider.
Actually, even as the Left and the Congress focus on street-level protests on the Centre’s Kashmir decision, its possible fall-out in Bengal has put Mamata and her party in a bind. Bypolls in three assembly seats (Kharagpur, Karimpur and Kaliaganj) will be held in November-December, and the Congress and the Left have already resolved to fight them unitedly. Ostensibly, their fight is against the BJP and the TMC, but they also want to see if Mamata’s silence on Kashmir can help them win back Bengal’s Muslims.
However, for all their hopes for a UT status, the people of Darjeeling are sceptical about the BJP’s political will. Suraj Sharma, assistant director of tourism in GTA, says from Darjeeling: “If BJP leaders are sincere they could raise the Darjeeling issue in Parliament and submit a joint memorandum to the PM and President. By writing to Amit Shah or issuing a statement locally is lip service. Is there any sincere political will to give UT to Darjeeling? I doubt it.”
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta