POLITICS

Making Kalimpong A Separate District Is Part Of Mamata Banerjee's Plan To Gain Political Stronghold In Darjeeling

Carefully planned strategies now could even make TMC win the seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

18/02/2017 8:43 AM IST | Updated 18/02/2017 9:16 AM IST
DIPTENDU DUTTA via Getty Images
Indian paramilitary forces patrol during a strike demanding a new Indian state at Kalimpong town, some 75 km, from Siliguri, on September 28, 2016.

Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress may have won 184 seats in the 2011 Assembly elections and 211 seats in 2016 in its second term in West Bengal. But getting support for the party in north Bengal has not been easy. Banerjee has been carefully planning strategies for years in order to get a strong foothold over north Bengal, and her announcement of Kalimpong as the state's 21st district is a move in that direction.

The Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat has seven Assembly constituencies – Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong (in the hills), Matigara-Naxalbari, Phansidewa, Siliguri and Chopra (in the plains). In 2016 Assembly elections, the Trinamool Congress won only the Chopra seat out of these seven. All the three hills seats – Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong - were won by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), while Matigara-Naxalbari and Phansidewa were won by the Congress and Siliguri by the CPM.

This is clearly an indication that carefully planned strategies now could even make Trinamool Congress win the seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. That is exactly what Banerjee has been carefully planning.

However, interestingly, the Trinamool Congress was runner up in all the six seats it had lost. Also, in 2016, the Trinamool Congress had succeeded in narrowing its margin with its closest competitors since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when BJP's SS Ahluwalia (who was backed by the GJM) won the seat beating Trinamool's Baichung Bhutia.

This is clearly an indication that carefully planned strategies now could even make Trinamool Congress win the seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. That is exactly what Banerjee has been carefully planning.

People in Kalimpong feel that forming a separate district will bring in more funds and jobs, and give tourism, agriculture and horticulture a boost. The state government has also been forming development boards over the past few years in the hills to allow different minority communities such as Lepchas, Tamangs, Bhutias, Sherpas, Mangars to have a greater say in development matters of the area.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung speaks during a press conference after meeting with chief minister Mamta Banerjee at Writers building on June 28, 2012 in Kolkata.

GJM leader Bimal Gurung – who is also the chief executive of the Gorkha Territorial Administration – has resisted such a move, because the Trinamool Congress seems to be getting a lot of support from these communities as a result. Gurung has said the state was using a divide-and-rule policy and that the people in the hills had a collective identity on which their demand for a separate Gorkhaland was based. But Gurung himself has also announced formation of similar boards for different communities from the GTA.

Darjeeling has witnessed violent statehood demands since 1986 under the leadership of Subhas Ghisingh and then under GJM's Bimal Gurung. Some see the forming of the development boards, and now Kalimpong district as a direct challenge Banerjee is posing to the GJM's demand for a separate state, Gorkhaland.

Darjeeling has witnessed violent statehood demands since 1986 under the leadership of Subhas Ghisingh and then under GJM's Bimal Gurung.

Seeing Banerjee work out the careful strategy of capturing Darjeeling politically, the CPM is opposing the formation of Kalimpong as a separate district. CPM state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra wondered "how a single Assembly constituency being separated into a district that still has no infrastructure will benefit people. Trinamool Congress is trying to expand its political power through this division. This has also led to demands for more districts from among different groups in north Bengal, and all this is actually causing division among people."

A key player in this politics has been Harka Bahadur Chhetri, who used to be an important leader of the GJM. Chhetri was GJM MLA in 2011 from Kalimpong Assembly constituency, but quit the GJM and contested the Kalimpong Assembly seat – against GJM – in 2016 as an independent candidate backed by the Trinamool Congress. Chhetri – since he was once a part of the GJM and wields considerable power in the area – contesting the elections has helped the ruling party in Bengal reduce its vote margin and take on the all-powerful GJM in the hills, even though the seat could not be won by the former.

DIPTENDU DUTTA via Getty Images
An ethnic Lepcha toddler holds a flag while waiting for the arrival of India's West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for an event honouring the birthday of Nepali Poet Bhanu Bhakta in Kalimpong on July 13, 2012.

Banerjee is also using other arsenals in further pressuring the GJM and Bimal Gurung. If one of these tools has been formation of the Kalimpong district, another step has been the plan to organise municipal polls in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik.

This is scheduled in a few months' time. There has been no municipal election in these areas for many years now, because the former Left Front as ruling party or as a government had hardly posed any real challenge to the GJM in the hills. Now Mamata Banerjee wants to challenge the GJM through these local bodies' elections.

Gurung, also the chief executive of the Gorkha Territorial Administration, which administers development in the hills independently with state government funds, also faces elections in the GTA later this year. Banerjee wants to use this opportunity too, to test how much more control she has gained in the area through the different administrative moves she has taken to fulfil demands of different groups of people in the hills.

Moreover, Bimal Gurung is an accused in the murder of Madan Tamang, leader of All India Gorkha League. Tamang was hacked to death in 2010. Gurung, his wife Asha, and several others of the GJM are accused in the case. This, sources say, is yet another powerful tool in the hands of the ruling party to wield greater control in Darjeeling.

More On This Topic