10/06/2017 9:01 AM IST | Updated 10/06/2017 9:19 AM IST

Behind The Unrest In Darjeeling Lurks A Three-Way Political Contest

Clever politics? Only time will tell.

AFP/Getty Images
Indian travellers wait for government-provided buses following clashes between police and protesters supporting the Gorkha People's Liberation Front (GJMM) in Darjeeling on June 9, 2017.

Darjeeling witnessed violent protests by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha on June 8 as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee held her first cabinet meeting in the hills. Apparently, the protests were about the West Bengal government's recent rule making Bengali language compulsory in schools all over the state. But Banerjee had in fact clarified earlier that Bengali would be optional for students in the hills.

Why then, did the protesters clash with the police? Why did they set fire to police jeeps, injure police personnel leading the government to call in the Army to handle matters?

The timing of the protests was most significant: it took place when the CM and the top brass of the administration, including the chief secretary, home secretary and the state director-general of police, were present in Darjeeling. It was a direct challenge for the Bengal government as Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung said on news channel cameras, "If she is the CM, I am also an elected member. What I say will prevail here."

The protests did not come as a complete surprise to many. Darjeeling was waiting to erupt after elections in four municipalities – Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik – were held on May 14. And Mirik municipality had been won by the Trinamool Congress.

Consider this: In 2011, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong municipalities had been won by GJM uncontested. Mirik too was won by GJM after elections in five out of its nine wards (the other wards had been won by them uncontested).

The fact that elections had been held in all four municipalities this year, and TMC had won Mirik indicated that the supreme, unchallenged authority of GJM in the hills no longer exists.

Mamata Banerjee has been carefully planning various steps to challenge Gurung's supremacy in the area. The state government has formed several boards to allow communities such as Lepchas, Tamangs, Bhutias, Sherpas, Mangars to have a greater say in development matters of the area. She also announced Kalimpong would be a separate district.

Very recently, Mamata had announced that she is sending a special audit team to scrutinize how funds were used in the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) of which Gurung is the chief executive. She said at a public meeting that steps would be taken if it is found that funds were siphoned off in the last five years. GTA administers development in the hills independently with state government funds.

The GTA's tenure will end in July, but sources say it is still not certain whether fresh elections will be held to elect a new body. According to sources, the GJM on the other hand, might want to come out of GTA because the main question before the party now is a question of survival, and only a violent stir will be able to give it a shot in the arm.

What is the BJP's role in all this, since the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat was won by BJP's SS Ahluwalia in 2014 (defeating TMC's Baichung Bhutia)?

BJP hardly has presence in Darjeeling as an organisation. The party had won the seat with GJM support. Therefore, the fight between GJM and the TMC in the hills is actually a fight between the BJP and the TMC. It is also about the tussle between the two parties spreading across large parts of north Bengal beyond Darjeeling.

Six out of the seven districts of north Bengal (barring Malda) – Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Uttar Dinajpur and Dakshin Dinajpur – has seen a massive increase in support for the BJP between 2014 and 2016. In Darjeeling, this support has come due to the party's alliance with the GJM.

For Mamata Banerjee, this increasing power of the BJP – in the Terai and Dooars region covering 42 seats of these six districts – is a major threat to her party. And she has been playing her cards carefully keeping that in mind.

The GJM's renewed demand for Gorkhaland and violent protests may actually benefit the TMC, as the latter is against the formation of a separate state. Mamata Banerjee hopes that GJM's Gorkhaland demand will not only present the latter in poor light among some, but also cast a negative shadow on the BJP because of their alliance with Gurung's party.

Gorkhaland has been a long-standing demand for the GJM. The proposed area of Gorkhaland demanded by the party includes not just Darjeeling, but several parts of the plains region: covering 396 mouzas which includes parts of Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, and some other parts of north Bengal plains.

But a sizeable population in this region are against Gorkhaland. This includes many living in the plains – chiefly the Bengalis. Mamata Banerjee hopes this will make her subsequently win the support of the section of people who are now favouring the BJP in Darjeeling and beyond – in the Terai and Dooars region. And votes in 2019 may get divided on this basis.

Clever politics? Only time will tell.

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