"Gorkhaland is an idea whose time has come," Sushma Swaraj, then the deputy leader of the Opposition in the lower house of the Parliament, said in 2009. "Left aghast" by a meeting with people from the Darjeeling Hills, who complained to her of being derided as "Nepalis" in spite of serving the Indian Army for years, she had rallied behind the demand for a separate statehood, using every argument in the book to justify their cause.
Less than a decade later, her party colleague Dilip Ghosh, in charge of the BJP in West Bengal, seems to be forced to eat her tall words.
"Our alliance with the [Gorkha Janmukti] Morcha is only for electoral purposes," he was quoted as saying, as life in the hills remained effectively paralysed by a fresh bout of rebellion. "Their demands and political lines are different from ours. We do not support their demand for separate statehood," Ghosh added.
His statement is typical of the forked tongue with which the BJP appears to be speaking of late.
Before Gorkhaland flared up, the nation was driven to distraction by the ruling party's equivocation on the beef ban. When a modification to an existing law prevented the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter—thus reinforcing a ban on consuming beef for all practical purposes—several states in the Northeast rose up against the injunction. Within hours, the BJP, desperately seeking a foothold in the region, retracted. It promised to exempt the communities in the Northeast from its diktat, though its position is still ambiguous, as evident from the recent expulsion of a member who organised a "beef party" in Meghalaya to celebrate the Modi government's third anniversary in power.
With regard to Gorkhaland too, the BJP has been sitting on a fence, although with the escalating crisis in Bengal, it is finding it harder to maintain a fine balance with each passing day. Already there's a dissonance between its state unit and the powers that be at the Centre on the issue of dividing the state. And as facts stand, the blame for such a hot mess squarely lies with one entity: the BJP alone.
The GJM, which came into being in 2007, has supported the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for nearly a decade now. It rallied for the BJP to get "a toehold" in the state, as Firstpost puts it, helping Jaswant Singh win from Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009. Since then, GJM's relationship with the BJP has remained unbroken, though it hasn't progressively improved. Thanks to the GJM, the current MP from Darjeeling, SS Ahluwalia, is a BJP member as well. In Assam, too, the GJM has campaigned for the BJP in the recent assembly elections. In return, the Morcha seems to have got relatively slim pickings.
Perhaps the alarm bells should have rung for the GJM when the BJP failed to mention Gorkhaland in its manifesto for the 2014 general elections, which gave it an outstanding victory over the Opposition.
Just a year before, the Morcha had revived its demand for Gorkhaland when the state Telangana was created out of Andhra Pradesh in 2013. To flatly ignore any mention of Gorkhaland, involving one of its crucial allies in the East, seemed like an act of political bravado for the BJP. After the GJM put pressure on the BJP to amend this omission, a cryptic concession was made under duress: the BJP said it would "sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long pending demands of the Gorkhas, the Adivasis and other people of Darjeeling district and the Dooars region".
Be that as it may, having consistently given the BJP an electoral base in Bengal, and now beyond, in the Northeast, the GJM is not unreasonably expecting the favour to be returned. But the BJP is entangled in a trap of its own making.
In theory, the BJP has always favoured the formation of small states. In 2009, Sushma Swaraj mentioned the creation of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand to bolster her argument for Gorkhaland. She refused to call the demand for new states secessionist, while also overlooking the fact that the states she had cited as examples were all created after the legislatures of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had consented to have these divisions of territory made. Bengal, in contrast, has been steadfastly opposed to the idea of dividing itself.
The resistance to the idea of Gorkhaland is perhaps the only common ground between the erstwhile Left Front government, which ruled West Bengal for over 30 years, and the current TMC administration under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Initially sympathetic to their demands of autonomy, Banerjee conceded a degree of independence to the Morcha by allowing the formation of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) when she came to power in 2011. But the semi-autonomous body was soon revealed to be a ruse—or at least, that's what GJM leader Bimal Gurung claimed—with only a handful of the promised units functioning under it after 5 years.
Recently, Banerjee also ordered a probe into the use of funds, to the tune of several hundred crores, given to the GTA by the state government. If the enquiry had made Gurung sit up, her decision, announced a few days later, to make Bengali compulsory across schools in Bengal gave him the perfect excuse to revive the movement against the Bengal government. Pride in Nepali language and their culture has always been the cornerstone of the Gorkha agitation, especially against the dominance of Bengali-speaking communities in the hills.
Although TMC ministers hurriedly clarified the order, exempting the hills from its ambit, the damage was already done. The spark ignited by Banerjee's flippant project of linguistic supremacy turned into a full-fledged conflagration, leading to violent clashes between the police and the protestors.
As the state BJP unit struggles to make an impact against the ruling TMC, it can only flounder in the face of this dilemma. Supporting the demand for Gorkhaland, in accordance with the party's leaders at the Centre, will mean a severe erosion of support base among its potential electorate in the plains. Already, in spite of the BJP's valiant mobilisation on the ground, TMC has begun regaining its rural vote, which seemed to have defected to the right for a while. To support the division of Bengal under these circumstances would mean political suicide for the BJP in the state.
In the Centre, too, the BJP, which is the party in power, is in as much of a soup. The situation in Darjeeling already mirrors the one in Jammu & Kashmir—curfews, clashes with security forces, Internet shutdown and an angry people, willing to defy the establishment at risk to life and limb. With much of the Northeast and the valley in such turmoil, the government doesn't need another liability on its hand.
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