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1 Aug 2017

Darjeeling unrest: As strike fatigue sets in, regional rivalry may change the political landscape

Marcus Dam, First Post, July, 29 2017:  Even as a strike fatigue sets in, like the dense monsoon mist, on the hills of Darjeeling that also encompass adjoining Kalimpong district, a sub-text is emerging in the local political firmament which could impact the ongoing stir for a separate Gorkhaland state as the shutdown in the region shatters all previous records to enter its seventh successive week. 

Perceptible are unmistakable hints of a fresh jockeying for power by the major players among the disparate regional groupings. They have got together to spearhead the current movement as they come under increasing pressure to lay out a roadmap for the agitation and pave the way out of the growing political uncertainty in the region. No matter how bandh-hardened its residents are, there are signs of a growing restiveness in the air.

Meanwhile, both the Centre and the West Bengal government seem undecided on the best way to break the prevailing political gridlock. They appear to implicitly concur that it would be most prudent to wait and see what the next move of the agitation-sponsors is, and how the incipient sub-text plays out. Will the current agitation run out of steam as some of the earlier ones have? 

For both New Delhi and Kolkata, the big question is how much today’s votaries of Gorkhaland will be willing to concede if it comes to negotiations. Despite a public avowal by those leading the agitation, they will settle for nothing less than a discussion on the statehood demand in any future talks. Having taken the agitation as far and raised the level of expectations among their followers, any climb-down now could be politically suicidal for them.

But as the agitation lurches on, there are distinct indications that old animosities, hurriedly buried by the various constituents to set up the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee (GMCC), a panel formed to take the stir forward, are still very much alive and stirring beneath the surface. The leaders may have set aside their differences for the sake of the “cause” but what cannot be denied is the adversarial postures that have for so long defined their relations. The agendas of their respective groupings prior to the setting up of the GMCC are once again creeping to the fore.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) has been the principal regional political force in the hills, having replaced the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), of which it is essentially an off-shoot. While the latter has been in political limbo for the past few years, the ongoing agitation could not have come at a more opportune time for it to stage a comeback. This opportunity has been seized with eager hands, and as GNLF hopes, will provide it greater leverage in the political landscape. It had failed to achieve this in allying in the recent past with the ruling party in the state, the Trinamool Congress, which had its own separate designs. Then there is also the Jana Andolan Party (JAP), led by a former GJM MLA, and also known for cozying up with the Trinamool Congress in times gone by.

That the Trinamool Congress had aimed to gain a foothold in the hills riding piggy back on the GNLF and thrown a challenge to the GJM’s hegemony in the region, is, of course, another story. What is of immediate relevance is that their commonality in the renewed Gorkhaland movement notwithstanding, there is ample evidence of rumblings of discontent within both the GNLF and the JAP over some of the utterances of the GJM leadership. That leadership has, at least in asides if not outright condemnation, been accused of its penchant for taking “unilateral” decisions regarding the ongoing agitation, given the fact that it is by far the principal force behind the stir. This development provides the content for the emerging subtext.

In a singular move aimed at removing any misgivings over what is being perceived as its high-handedness, the GJM ceded to the GNLF the much sought-after political space to host its Martyrs’ Day rally in the heart of Darjeeling town on 27 July, something it was denied for the past nine years. The GJM also held rallies to mark the occasion, as has been customary. The event, that is of symbolic importance in the political calendar in the hills, is an annual tribute to the memory of those killed in police firing on that date in Kalimpong in 1986. That was a turning point in the 28-month long agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state led by the then GNLF supremo, Subash Ghisingh, and which claimed more than 1,200 lives.

Today, it is his son Maan Ghisingh who has taken over the reins of the party whose fortunes have never appeared better since the regional balance of power tilted decisively in favour of the GJM following its formation in 2007.

Despite this display of political magnanimity by the GJM towards the GNLF, which it had earlier accused of being sold out to the Trinamool Congress, questions are being asked by political observers. The questions are about whether there is anything more behind this apparent show of solidarity, now that the GNLF is a partner in the ongoing stir. It might indeed be naive not to assume that there were other political considerations governing the move. For after all, being the principal party sponsoring the agitation, the onus is largely on the GJM to take the agitation forward.

Any faltering would be promptly made political capital of by aspiring entities like the GNLF, or, for that matter, even the JAP. An added anxiety for the GJM is the Centre’s apparent reticence to take the initiative in resolving the present political stalemate surrounding the crisis, even though the BJP is its electoral alliance. Neither has it got any affirmation of support for the statehood demand. Needless to say, this is fodder for its adversary–turned–partners, if and when the present status quo goes awry.

By definition, any sub-text is legitimate only in the context of a larger narrative. In the region, the public discourse is one driven by the emotive potentials of what is perceived as bruised ethnic sentiments and thwarted aspirations, overarching which is the question of socio-cultural and political identity.

One does not have to look too far back for instances that speak to the narrative presently running its course in the hills. That public memory is short cannot always be taken for granted. Only last month, there was the incident at the Delhi Golf Club where a woman was asked to leave because of her attire that was likened to one worn by “maids”. Buried in the outrage that it evoked was the fact that she was also reportedly referred to as a “Nepali”. Inferring one's occupation through choice of dress is unquestioningly insulting, but associating a job description with an entire ethnic grouping is absolutely egregious. What has captured the collective imagination of those behind the ongoing agitation – those at the helm as well as their foot-soldiers and supporters – and why, need perhaps no further telling.

The writer is a senior Kolkata-based journalist who hails from Darjeeling.

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