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9 Jun 2017

Survival bid versus rule of law - Bimal gurung's last-ditch effort

Devadeep Purohit, TT, June 8: Bimal Gurung and his party are making a last-ditch effort to restore the hegemony that has been showing signs of strain ever since chief minister Mamata Banerjee made it a point to visit the hills frequently.
The visits did bring about a change, especially for those entrusted with the task of establishing the rule of law, and peace in the hills was an indisputable accomplishment of Mamata in her first innings in power.
Two possible missteps, especially the controversy over the Bengali language that the chief minister has tried to defuse by issuing a clarification earlier this week, have gifted Gurung an opportunity to stage a comeback bid.
Officials are hoping that with Mamata deciding to stay back in Darjeeling till the return of normality and the army being called in, the situation on the ground will improve from tomorrow.
"After all the hard work of the last few years, the challenge is to keep the Morcha (Gurung's party) at bay for the next few months," said a police officer with years of experience in the hills, suggesting that Gurung will be on the lookout for another chance to make his presence felt as elections to the authority that runs the hills are scheduled in a couple of months.
An official today retold an anecdote to illustrate how the situation had changed in the hills.
As a young district magistrate in Darjeeling during the erstwhile Left regime, he had been gheraoed by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in his office at Kutchery compound on Lebong Cart Road for 12 hours. The agitators had threatened to keep him confined for several more hours. Exasperated with the situation, he had called up his bosses in Writers' Buildings seeking clearance to go by the rulebook.
He was told to hang on and "survive" the agitation without using any force.
Gherao of senior state government officials for 16 to 20 hours and hunger strikes had become common in Darjeeling in the last couple of years of the Left regime as the Morcha raised the pitch for Gorkhaland.
The Morcha supporters would put up barricades on the roads leading to the office of the DM every now and then to prevent them from going to work. "We would get out of the car and walk to our office. We were not allowed to confront law violators as we didn't have the clearance," recounted the then DM.
Today, although Morcha supporters had pushed the police on the back foot several times during the day and their leaders threatened to scale up the scope of the protest, the state administration stood firm, something that was missing in the heyday of the Morcha. The state government also made up its mind fast on calling the army.
"The chief minister's biggest success since coming to power has been establishing the rule of law in the hills. The earlier regime had left the hills to the Morcha.... No senior minister or officer would visit the hills. It was as if Siliguri was the end of Bengal," recounted an IAS officer, who had worked as a DM in the hills.
The state government officials who were posted in the hills would urge the political masters to visit Darjeeling, but their requests would fall on deaf ears. Left without a choice, the only recourse of the district officials were the governors - first Gopal Krishna Gandhi and then M.K. Narayanan - who would visit the hills regularly.
"I remember requesting the governors to come more frequently and take part in functions and accept the guard of honour.... Those were the only occasions to establish rule of law and we kept trying. But no one in Writers' seemed to be interested," recounted an IAS officer who was posted in the hills.
Mamata, however, didn't require any invitation. She would visit the hills without any pretext. Sources in the Darjeeling district administration said she has visited the hills at least 60 times since coming to power in 2011. Morcha sources admitted that one of the major reasons of her falling out with the hill party in January 2013 was her regular tours.
The result of the recently held civic polls - in which Trinamul bagged the Mirik civic body besides making its presence felt in three other boards - confirmed that the visits had paid political dividends. She could win acceptance in the hills for a party from the plains.
Several residents of the hill town expressed their dismay over today's violence, indirectly confirming that they too wanted the hills to keep smiling (" Pahar haschhe - the hills are smiling" - has been a refrain of Mamata) and remain free of the old culture of strikes lasting 72 hours or 96 hours.
If Trinamul is gaining politically in the hills and the state administration is under control, why did Darjeeling witness the scenes that it did today?
"There are mistakes this government could have avoided.... I am afraid that the effect of a lot of good work done by the chief minister in the last few years was recently nullified to some extent by two mistakes that could have been avoided," said a senior IAS officer who had worked in Darjeeling.
The first, according to him, was a deplorable comment by tourism minister Indranil Sen, ahead of the civic polls, that Morcha leaders should be packed in "32 steel trunks of 6ft length". Several critics of the Morcha, he said, ended up voting for the Morcha as they were incensed by Sen's comment.
The second, he said, was "more serious". Mamata announced that Bengali would have to be among the three languages taught in schools across the state.
"While you are trying to win over an ethnic group, there is no point saying things against them.... Then, you are trying to thrust Bengali on a non-Bengali speaking population," said a senior IAS officer.
Mamata did mellow her stand on the language on Monday in Mirik, saying Bengali would be an optional subject in the hills and in pockets of the Dooars and the Terai.
But Gurung and his team had picked up the issue by then.

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