The Bengal Conundrum: How Mamata's absolutism affected the Gorkhaland issue
An exclusive excerpt from Sambit Pal's book that attempts to explain the reasons behind the recent surge in support for the BJP in West Bengal.
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In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP pulled off an unbelievable feat in Bengal — taking their tally of seats from 2 to 18 and vote share of 17 to 40 per cent in just four years. What were the reasons behind such a surge in support for the saffron party in the eastern Indian state?
In The Bengal Conundrum, senior journalist Sambit Pal attempts to explain why a state that was the citadel of Left politics for decades has turned Right in less than 10 years. Documenting the contemporary political history of Bengal, both through written and exclusive first-hand accounts, the author answers how Mamata Banerjee’s politics and governance over the past few years set a fertile ground for the combined force of the BJP and the RSS to construct a compelling political narrative in Bengal.
We present an exclusive excerpt from the chapter titled Mamata’s Absolutism and Governance.
The Bengal Conundrum | Rs 799 | Hardback | Bloomsbury
In the summer of 2017, not many in hot and humid Kolkata had anticipated that political unrest was brewing in one of the finest tea-producing regions of Bengal, the Queen of Hills, Darjeeling. Yes, there had been signs of trouble for over a month, but no one could foresee that the lush green hills of Bengal would be engulfed in violence so soon after witnessing disturbing scenes in 2010 over the murder of a popular local Gorkha leader Madan Tamang; in 2011 over the killing of three GJM (or Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, the principal political outfit in Darjeeling demanding a separate state) activists; and in 2013 after Telangana was accorded with separate statehood over the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland carved out of Bengal. The same demand resurfaced in a new avatar and the agitators found an alibi to rouse the sentiment of the hill residents.
In June 2017, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit, along with her cabinet, acted as the trigger for all hell to break loose in Darjeeling. For the first time in the last 45 years, a chief minister had brought her entire cabinet, about 30 odd ministers, home secretary and chief secretary, to the hills. She was about to hold the cabinet meeting at Raj Bhavan, the summer retreat for the titular head of state, the Governor. Mamata wanted to show her might in front of an ongoing agitation against her government by the GJM led by its chief, Bimal Gurung. Outside, a few hundred metres away from Raj Bhavan, thousands were gathering in front of Bhanu Bhavan, an administrative building, and chanting slogans against the chief minister. Anger in the hills was rising.
Journalists who had gone to cover the cabinet meeting got a glimpse of the simmering anger a day before the cabinet meeting. Mamata Banerjee was out on her morning walk. She was headed towards the zoo, passing by GJM’s Singmari office, when a cavalcade crossed her. A furious Mamata openly chided the then director (security) of West Bengal Police, Sanjoy Mukherjee, the man in charge of her security and the protection of the VIPs in the state, for the ‘security breach’. Not only was this incident irksome for her, but it was made worse by who was breaching her security. It was none other than GJM and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA, the semi-autonomous administrative body of Darjeeling) chief Bimal Gurung and his supporters; his cavalcade had passed by her and many wondered how the police could let Bimal’s car on the road where the chief minister was taking a walk.
Just after the security breach, Mamata was seen exchanging pleasantries with tourists and residents in her inimitable style, which might have fooled a few into believing that things were under control. However, just one kilometre away, Gurung was organizing a protest rally against her. The battle lines between Mamata and Gurung had been drawn a few months ago when the TMC won the Mirik Municipality elections in the hills defeating Gurung’s GJM. He did not like the way the TMC was gaining ground in his fiefdom. Gurung, who had once considered Mamata as close as their ‘Ma’ (mother), now dubbed her as their ‘enemy’. Once a trusted ally of Mamata, Gurung was now gunning to take her head-on. The bonhomie between Mamata Banerjee and Bimal Gurung had long been over.
The next day, 8 June 2017, security was tightened, but while the cabinet meeting was in progress, thousands of protestors gathered outside Bhanu Bhavan chanting slogans against the Bengal government and the chief minister. Soon, the protest took a violent turn as supporters of Bimal Gurung tried to storm the police barricades. The protesters clashed with the police, hurling bricks and crude bombs at them. They even attacked the police with bows and arrows. The police had to fire tear gas shells and resort to lathi charge to disperse the rioting crowd. Tourists and other visitors became unsuspecting casualties of the violence, and many took shelter in the nearby Darjeeling Mall. Shops in the mall also started downing their shutters. A few hundred metres away from Raj Bhavan, the protestors vandalized at least 12 vehicles and torched a government bus. Mamata Banerjee and her entire cabinet were confined in Raj Bhavan.
The First Challenge For Mamata
This violent uprising in Darjeeling, aimed directly at the state government, was the first major political challenge that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had faced since assuming power six years ago. The violence was a direct fallout of the face-off between Mamata and the chief of GJM, Bimal Gurung. The agitation broke out on the day of the cabinet meeting, amidst a call of indefinite strike in the hills. The skirmish flared up, killing three GJM activists and an Indian Reserve Battalion commandant, Kiran Tamang, a week later.
The violence in Darjeeling was nothing new. If one looks back, it can be seen that the GJM, launched in October 2007, is the largest party in Darjeeling, which has been demanding the creation of Gorkhaland—a separate state for the area’s majority Nepali-speaking Gorkha community. They have been fuelling a 100-year-old demand for a separate state on ethnic lines. In the 1980s too, Darjeeling was bloodied by a violent agitation with the same demand. In 1986, the Gorkhas, under the leadership of a retired Indian Army soldier, Subash Ghisingh, had settled for an autonomous council that promised a degree of self-rule for the hill region. Similarly, another prolonged protest led by Ghisingh’s close aide Bimal Gurung was doused with the creation of the GTA in 2012. The clashes in the summer of 2017 reminded one of those earlier violent days.
There was a hope that as chief minister, Mamata Banerjee would tackle the Gorkhaland situation. It was believed that Mamata had matured politically over the years. Gone were the days when the fiery lady would take impulsive decisions without considering their longterm consequences. No doubt she had tried to temper herself after sitting on the chair of the chief minister, but what had perhaps not changed was her core style of functioning. After coming to power in 2011, on one hand she took the agitating outfits on board to resolve the crises in different regions of the state, while on the other she wanted to wrest political control over these areas when the situation cooled down. There is no denying that increasing activities of the mainstream political parties does help in dissipating existing tensions between the administration and separatist or insurgent groups. They act as a moderating factor while the native outfits always take an extreme stand. But here, it seemed that Mamata had hurried to capture the political space in those regions.
Mamata behaved like a mature politician when she resolved the Junglemahal Maoist crisis and the Gorkhaland agitation post 2011. Since she came to power, she has taken the aggrieved parties on board and that has given her dividends. In Darjeeling too, during the initial years of her tenure, she developed an understanding with Bimal Gurung. ‘Mamata was accepted by Gurung and others in the hills because she was representing the anti-Left sentiment. People of the hills found an ally in her, who opposed the Left and empathized with their agitation against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government,’ says Soumen Nag, a researcher and author based in Siliguri.
After assuming power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee met Bimal Gurung and the GJM leaders for an official dialogue between the West Bengal government and the GJM. Despite GJM’s alliance with the BJP, she did not hesitate to offer them room for negotiations to address the demand for Gorkhaland. Her only condition was that Darjeeling could not be annexed out of Bengal. After all, Darjeeling was a proud possession of the state despite its distinct geographic and demographic difference with the rest of the state. Mamata Banerjee has often told the people, ‘Darjeeling is not out of Bengal. It is a part of Bengal and it is the heart of Bengal. The state is not getting divided. Darjeeling is dear to me.’
Unlike previous chief ministers like Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Mamata Banerjee tried hard to bridge the gap between the hills and the plains with her frequent visits and announcements of development projects in Darjeeling. She made it a point to visit the hills at least once every three months. ‘I have visited Darjeeling more than 50 times in the last four years. I think nobody else [no other CM] has visited Darjeeling so many times. My Darjeeling is smiling,’ she told a gathering in August 2015.
Whenever she visited Darjeeling, while riding up the hills, she stopped at almost all the hamlets as the people would line up on both sides of the road and greet her with traditional khada. ‘Mamata Banerjee enjoyed the personal rapport she had built with the local residents of Darjeeling and liked the fact that she was accepted by those who once demanded Gorkhaland,’ says Vikram Rai, a professor of communication in Darjeeling. However, there were rumours that Bimal Gurung and his supporters would arrange these people at each junction to welcome the chief minister. In July 2011, she initiated the tripartite meeting with the central government led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), her government and the GJM. The result was the creation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) in 2012. On 19 July 2011, the historic tripartite agreement was signed amid much fanfare in the presence of Mamata, Bimal Gurung and the then union home minister, P. Chidambaram. On the day of the accord-signing, local residents were seen dancing in traditional Gorkha attire, blowing bugles and beating drums. ‘The GTA arrangement gave Bimal Gurung a breathing space after a long agitation. He had something to show his supporters,’ says Nag.