Darjeeling crisis: How Gorkhaland promise has come back to haunt Mamata Banerjee
Understanding the crisis in North Bengal.
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Tensions escalated to unprecedented levels in the northern hill region of West Bengal last week and the epicentre of the fracas was Darjeeling, the Queen of Hills.Massive protests took place in the presence of the first-ever Cabinet meeting held in Darjeeling in four decades and at the helm of the affairs was chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself.
In fact, she found herself and her Cabinet trapped in the Himalayan region, with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters torching vehicles and disrupting normal life.
Attempts were made to pacify Gorkha protestors by holding the Cabinet meeting in the hills so as to make them feel important. But the gamble seemed to boomerang.Mamata Banerjee had stormed to power with the GJM's support in 2011 and swept the state elections.
As part of keeping the promises, she formed a Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) to keep the people of the hills happy and avoid any revolt.
The GTA has been operational since 2012 as well as loaded with funds at regular intervals.
The camaraderie between the TMC and the GJM resulted in the signing of an agreement upon which chief minister Mamata Banerjee agreed to keep the provision for the creation of an independent state of Gorkhaland should the need arise.
Even thought the flare-up is a recent one, the issue in Darjeeling has been a long-standing one. Photo: PTI
But it was in the 2014 elections that the BJP garnered support in the Lok Sabha polls and its leader SS Ahluwalia became a Member of Parliament from Darjeeling with GJM support.
Since then, the relations between TMC and GJM have soured and in 2016 they reached the tensions reached the pinnacle with both parties speaking against each other and Mamata losing support in the hills.
She finally played the famous Divide and Rule and formed a new district and municipalities too in the form of Kalimpong district and Kalimpong municipality, which was won by the TMC in the first-ever elections of the civic body.
However, that just added fuel to the fire and the much talked about first-ever Cabinet Meeting in the hills turned out to be a face-off between the entire state machinery and the GJM protestors.
While protesters took to the streets and became increasingly violent, CM Mamata Banerjee was forced to call in the Army when local law enforcement officials almost failed to keep the situation under control, despite the use of lathis and tear gas shells.
Even thought the flare-up is a recent one, the issue in Darjeeling has been a long-standing one.
The most recent protests took place over TMC’s decision to make Bengali a compulsory language in all schools in the state.
Protesters took the streets waving black flags and burning effigies of Mamata Banerjee, claiming that the decision threatened the cultural significance of the local language, Gorkha Nepali.GJM founder president Bimal Gurung claimed that the TMC government had made a number of promises to the residents of North Bengal when it came to power in 2011 but none of them were remotely near completion.
The reasons behind the agitation for Gorkhaland are twofold – the lack of development and the need for preservation of the Gorkha identity as well as the movement.
The first reason has wide-reaching implications in terms of not only infrastructural development but also employment opportunities as most locals earn their living by working in tea estates.
When the British left India in 1947, there were approximately 180 tea estates of which just around 100 remain today.
Today, a total of 18 of those tea gardens are locked, which has resulted in the loss of livelihood of approximately 30,000 workers in North Bengal.
Most people in Darjeeling live below the poverty line with wages often far below the minimum requirement of Rs 100.
This combined with the fact there are no proper hospitals in the area is something that GTA leader Bimal Gurung has taken full advantage of.
Among the many promises the TMC government had made to the people of North Bengal, the most important was the setting up of an electrical susbstation in Kurseong, a university in Darjeeling and the construction of an ITI in the area. Not a single promise has seen the light of day.
The question of cultural identity has its roots in the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1950, which ambiguated the citizenship of Indian Gorkhas and led to the loss of their Indian identity, thus making their citizenship a reciprocal one.
The current fight for Gorkhaland is a struggle to reclaim this lost identity.
With emotions already running high, Mamata Banerjee's decision to send a six-member team to audit the accounts of the local GTA government has not been met with kindly counterclaims by GTA leaders, who have highlighted the corruption charges which the CM herself is facing.
And now, with the protestors turning on the heat in the hills with an indefinite strike, it is of course a wait-and-watch match riding on who blinks first.