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11 Jun 2017

Morcha tests govt resolve - Hill party says its one-point agenda is Gorkhaland, targets symbols of State in Darjeeling

Mamata Banerjee in Siliguri. Picture by Passang Yolmo
Vivek Chhetri, Avijit Sinha and Calcutta Bureau, TT, Darjeeling, June 10: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has announced an "indefinite" agitation that spares most day-to-day activities but seeks to challenge the writ of the state government, throwing down the gauntlet soon after Mamata Banerjee arrived in Calcutta this afternoon.
The Morcha protest programme, scheduled to begin from Monday, targets government offices and banks but with monthly and weekly relief windows. Education establishments, shops, hotels and health and transport services are expected to be kept out of its purview.
The immediate objective of the Morcha campaign appears to be to contest the perception that the proactive chief minister has succeeded in restoring normality to the hills after Thursday's flare-up and re-established the rule of law.
By exempting most segments that affect everyday life, the Morcha also wants to gauge the mood of the people, especially since complete shutdowns that bleed the tourism sector eventually end up hurting the local population. The Morcha will review the "indefinite agitation" after a month.
The chief minister did not react to the Morcha's announcement of the agitation but sources said she had got in touch with senior officials and Trinamul leaders after she reached Calcutta from Siliguri.
Before leaving Darjeeling last night, Mamata had entrusted the task of maintaining law and order with senior officers handpicked and summoned from across the state.
The sources said the chief minister felt that allowing government offices to stay shut in the hills was "not an option".
"She said the situation could be monitored for a day or two before intervening to ensure nothing stays forcibly shut," said a source.
"She has made it clear that the Darjeeling brand cannot be allowed to be destroyed.... She thinks that only a handful of people are behind the trouble, for their own interests."
In the absence of any fresh protests in the morning, life seemed to be returning to normal in the Queen of the Hills, with a trickle of tourists reaching Tiger Hill and some going to the zoo. The peak summer rush is in anyway expected to ebb soon with the onset of the monsoon.
"Peace has returned to the hills. Let the hills people be happy.... We will bring complete peace and normality," Mamata had told a news conference at Uttarkanya, the state secretariat in Siliguri, this afternoon before leaving for Calcutta.
She had arrived in Siliguri after prolonging her stay in Darjeeling to take charge of the situation during a Morcha bandh.
While Mamata was holding the news conference, Morcha leaders were heading to Malidhura, about 6km from Darjeeling town, where party chief Bimal Gurung held a meeting to discuss the course of what had begun as a protest against the state government's plan to introduce Bengali in schools. Mamata has clarified at least twice this week that the language would not be mandatory.
Today, the Morcha decided to scale up the protest and renewed its core demand for a Gorkhaland state and announced the agitation programme to keep the issue alive.
"Keeping in mind the popular sentiments that have engulfed the hills in recent times, we have decided to go ahead with the one-point agenda of Gorkhaland," said Roshan Giri, the Morcha general secretary, after the meeting.
"Our party president Bimal Gurung today wrote a letter to Union home minister Rajnath Singh, apprising him of the popular feeling in the hills and the high-handedness and atrocities of the state government. We have demanded that a state of Gorkhaland be created as early as possible as the GTA (the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, the autonomous body that runs the hills) has been a complete failure," Giri said, making it clear that it wants the BJP-led Centre to be kept in the loop.
The Morcha has decided to send a delegation to the Prime Minister and the Union home minister as early as possible.
The Morcha is trying to build a consensus platform for the statehood agitation and has decided to invite all the hill-based political parties to a meeting on Tuesday.
"There will be a mass movement. We are ready to face any situation. We have to respect the feelings of our people," said Giri.
Some government officials and police officers who had served in Darjeeling believe the real reason the Morcha is raising the pitch is a realisation that if the state government succeeds in ensuring normality, the biggest casualty will be "fear psychosis".
The Morcha derives its political as well as economic sustenance from its ability to enforce its will, whose potency has come under a strain with the chief minister making frequent trips to the hills.
"The Morcha has been controlling the hills for a decade. That control is generated through a fear psychosis," said a bureaucrat. "With the establishment of the rule of law, the fear would dissipate. Without that fear, the Morcha holds no sway."
Binny Sharma, Trinamul spokesperson in the hills, claimed the Morcha was trying to close government offices "fearing a special audit and an on-the-spot verification of the projects".
The Morcha had announced protest programmes between 2007 and 2012, too, but both the Left and the Trinamul governments had largely adopted a non-confrontationist posture.
Today, Mamata indicated that the time for patience was over.
"We have tried to compromise but there is a limit. We want to make it clear that we will not compromise with those who resort to violence and arson and use bombs and sticks. Besides, no one can stop me from going to the hills," the chief minister said.

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