Just as the demand for a separate Gorkhaland, allegedly with tacit support of the BJP, was making a comeback, Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress came up with a queen’s gambit, freezing the statehood demand.
Barely two weeks after a powerful faction of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) renewed its demand for a separate Gorkhaland state comprising West Bengal’s Darjeeling hills at a meeting convened by the Centre, its leader Bimal Gurung allied with the TMC, severing ties with the BJP-led NDA.
The development comes against the backdrop of attempts by the BJP to rake up the demand for the Gorkhaland again ahead of 2021-assembly elections.
A GJM delegation led by its working president Lopsang Yolmo Lama raised the demand on October 7 at a tripartite meeting convened by the home ministry to discuss “issues related to Gorkhaland Territorial Administration GTA)”. Incidentally, the home ministry, in its initial communiqué, mentioned the meeting would discuss “the issues related to Gorkhaland”. However, under pressure, it later modified the agenda to “issues related to GTA”.
The state government did not take part in the meeting chaired by Union Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy as the ruling TMC dubbed it as an attempt to divide the state. “The BJP is trying to divide the state ahead of next year’s assembly elections. We will stop this conspiracy at any cost,” remarked Goutam Deb, a senior minister in Mamata Banerjee’s government.
Other non-BJP political parties too criticised the Centre’s move saying it was an attempt to fuel the statehood demand to serve vested political interest of the BJP, an allegation the saffron party vehemently denied. The BJP maintained that it was trying to bring about a “permanent solution” to the political problem.
The BJP had allied with the Gurung faction of the GJM and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, promising in its Sankalp Patra, “We are committed to work towards finding a permanent political solution to the issue of Darjeeling Hills, Siliguri Terai and Dooars region.”
Earlier in September, the BJP’s Darjeeling MP Raju Bista also raised the Gorkhaland issue in the Lok Sabha urging the Centre to expedite the process of finding a “permanent political solution to the long pending demand of the people of Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars region.”
“I urged the parliament to take cognisance of the fact that the demand for Gorkhaland state is a long-pending demand of the people from Darjeeling Hills, Terai, and Dooars,” Bista told reporters after making the statement in the Parliament.
Amidst the efforts to revive the Gorkhaland demand, the Trinamool Congress think-tanks led by poll-strategist Prashant Kishor was reportedly holding clandestine meetings with the fugitive GJM chief Gurung in Jharkhand, where he was staying for the past two months. He was earlier, reportedly, hiding in New Delhi.
Gurung and his about 5000 supporters had gone underground in 2017 after violence erupted iun Darjeeling hills over the demand for a separate state. Gurung was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and several sections of the Indian Penal Code on varied charges, including murder.
On October 22, Gurung suddenly surfaced in Kolkata, and announced his party’s decision to snap ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Not stopping at that, he heaped praises on Chief Minister Banerjee, saying his party would back her in the assembly elections. “While I was sitting back for the past three years, I saw Mamata Banerjee fulfilling whatever commitments she had made to the people. We will stand with her and TMC in the assembly elections. She is an idol and we want to see her again as chief minister.”
The announcement has two immediate fallouts. Firstly, an alliance with the TMC means the GJM will keep its core demand on the backburner, at least as of now.
Gurung, though insists that Gorkhaland is still on his party’s agenda, not many are willing to buy his claim given the TMC’s known opposition to the statehood demand.
“His (Gurung’s) shaking hands with the TMC will dilute the statehood demand. How can he do that after all he had gone underground for the Gorkhaland cause,” said Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist (CPRM) spokesperson Govind Chettri.
The TMC also reiterated that there was no question of supporting a separate Gorkhaland demand, though it welcomed the alliance. “We have dismissed the demand long back. Gurung felt cheated by the BJP and so he has decided to join us. We welcome him. We will fight the BJP together,” said the TMC MP Saugata Roy.
Earlier in 2017, when the Gurung was spearheading Gorkhaland agitation, Banerjee had doused the fire by winning over the support of a section of the GJM leaders, including Binay Tamang, number two in the party. The Tamang faction called off the 105-day-long general strike despite opposition from Gurung, who had gone underground.
The firebrand Gurung, however, remained the most popular leader in Darjeeling hills. It was his support that helped the BJP retain the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in 2019, though the Tamang-faction of the GJM backed the TMC.
Gurung is said to be capable of influencing results in at least 15 assembly seats spread across Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts where there is a sizable Nepali population. In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP took lead in all these assembly segments.
Gurung’s switch over to the TMC can now upset the BJP’s poll prospects in these seats.
The only hitch for the TMC is now to ensure that the Tamang faction of the GJM gets along with Gurung’s organisation as the latter’s supporters are making preparations for their leaders return to the hills.
With over 150 cases pending against him, it’s unlikely that Gurung would immediately get into a leadership tussle with the other faction, said a TMC leader from Darjeeling district.