After six years, Darjeeling has a massive Snowfall, bringing in cheers among the travel agents and the hoteliers in this hillstation, known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’!
Last time such a big snowfall was in the month of January, 2008. After that there were scanty snows only in the vicinity of Tiger Hill and Sandakphu. The Mall, Cart Road, Chowk Bazar, North Point or Lebong remained out of touch from any natural reward, for many years.
From 2007-2011, and before that during the period after mid-eighties, it was a different Darjeeling altogether. Not many tourists were coming to the strife torn region. The city which has a brief peak tourist season, from April to mid-June, was left was forlorn.
The legendary Oxford Book Shop, Habib Malik’s curio shop, the Amigos, the landmark Capital Theatre, all used to close their shutters by the evening. The permanent agitation podium at Chowkbazar and the silent statue of poet Bhanu Bhakt were the two constant witnesses of the heavy presence of the police force, marching in their heavy boots, during those years!
There were regular Bandhs, agitations, firings, arsons, arrests and silent marches. All these had become the regular feature of this picture postcard town.
But this year the mood is different.
After the signing of Gorkhaland Administrative Tribunal in July 2011, next tourist season in Darjeeling saw the arrival of tourists to an ascended number. In 2013, the Honeymooners and School Students Groups arrived in a peaceful milieu. The newly acquired bonhomie between Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and Trinamool Congress saw the spirit of rapport between the Nepalis and the Bengalis of Darjeeling and the mainland Bengal.
Darjeeling had always remained a major summer destination for the Bengalis. Cultural teams, young expeditioners, nostalgic couples arrived in hordes in Darjeeling, after so many years.
Mamata Didi had by then publicly expressed her dream wish to turn Darjeeling into east’s Switzerland!
This year, the mood is no doubt rampant.
The peak tourist season, starts in Darjeeling in mid-April. But this year all the hotels are already booked!
Darjeeling Politics Thereafter
Dates for forthcoming Lok Sabha Elections have been declared on March 5. West Bengal will have a five face election, from April 17 to May 12.
The election tempo has caught up the Hills, like other parts of India. But this time, it’s different in Darjeeling.
After the Union Government’s nod for the formation of Telangana, Darjeeling politics has started revolving again .around the demand of a separate’Gorkhaland’ State.
Obviously the Hill people were not happy with the performance of ‘Gorkha Territorial Administration’ (GTA) and the ‘Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’ (GJM). Bimal Gurung, the GJM supremo is already feeling the heat.
The last massive unrest in the Hills was after the Shibsu firing incident in February 2011.
In the West Bengal Assembly Election held in April 2011, GJM managed to capture three crucial Assembly seats, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. GJM supported independent candidate Wilson Champramari, won from Kalchini Assembly constituency, out of the hills, in Dooars region.
But after the tripartite pact of June 2011, the political scenario in the Hills has also changed a lot.
The GTA has some sort of administrative, executive and financial powers under the tutelage of the Government of West Bengal, but it has no Legislative power. Also the Police and the bureaucrats are under the control of West Bengal Government.
Hundreds of GJM cadres are still in the Jails, arrested on various charges committed during the agitation. There are lingering disputes on the inclusion of some areas from the Terai and Dooars areas into the hill territory that Trinamool is fighting tooth and nail.
An Emotive Issue
To be frank, for the West Bengal Government and the mainland Bengalis, being empathetic the Sentiments involved with the issue is not easy. The legacy of the colonialism that created the hiatus between the communities still exists.
Nepalis and other tribals in the Hills are still seen as the labourer class, in the mainstream perception. The nineties and the post Millennium years have seen a massive renaissance among the hill people. There were fervent quest among them for their roots, languages, scripts, icons and cultural ancestry over these years.
The Bengalis, who traditionally have much romantic feelings about their Darjeeling sojourns and was a predominant class under the British, have seen massive exodus after violence started in the mid-eighties and continued thereafter. Many Bengali families, who were prominent in the social and educational lives of the Hills, felt marginalised, even attacked violently.
Many institutions which were started and nurtured by them have seen massive Gorkha inclusion, business and social life were halted day after day, year after year, through agitations. It was not a happening place either.
Many Bengali families sold their homes and properties, many left their occupations for other pastures.
Of course the economy of Darjeeling is still depended to a large extent on the massive tourist inflow from Bengal.
But on the other side, the West Bengal Government is also aware that the Hills contribute a lot to its exchequer based on two T’s, Tea and Tourism. Leaving Darjeeling and adjacent areas to drift away will not only deprive it from its only Hill destination but also from a major economic chunk, to an already financially burdened State.
Territorial Autonomy and After
GJM leaders, after the initial bonhomie became much aware of the limitations of GTA. A common complaint was that the West Bengal Government was not interested to allow it perform independently. Initially, the GTA was administrated through junior rank officers, who were not entitled to interact with the higher echelons of State’s Government machinery.
The Calcutta High Court verdict of last April, for appointing the Principal Secretary, for GTA, addressed the issue properly.
Right from the very beginning GTA was running almost on Ad Hoc basis! GTA could not take major decisions independently.
Many of its Panchayat or Block level Staff come under the District Administration, with is obviously under the State Government.
In budgetary allocations, GTA practically has no final say.
The release of the arrested GJM or GTA functionaries still continues to be an unsettled issue.
After the defeat of the Maoist in Nepal’s last election, the Maoists have alleged India of conspiracy. Obviously Darjeeling and its adjacent tea estates were always close to the Communists. The CPI (M) Politburo Member Ratanlal Brahmin was a major Communist ideologue and leader in the Hills. Ganeshlal Subba with Ratanlal Brahmin founded the seeds of Communism in the Hills, during the days of undivided Communist Party. They also ignited the dreams and aspirations of the Hill people and the toiling mass.
The Naxalbari movement started in the District of Darjeeling. Naxalbari and Phansidewa were the ground zero of the movement in the late sixties and seventies.
Presently, Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) is the second largest political outfit after Gorkha Janmukti Morch (GJM), in the hills.
The intelligence agencies are assuming that the separate movement in the Hills may rise again and turn violent at any context, backed by the Maoists of Nepal and their sympathizers in India.
So conciliating GJM and keep things under the reign of West Bengal Government is the best bet in the present situation.
Enter Baichung Bhutia
Baichung Bhutia is the national sports hero, a craze in the hills, but he is not from Darjeeling.
He is from Sikkim and after retirement form national football, he has somehow devoted his time and energy to the development of football in Sikkim.
Though in his first Press Meet in Darjeeling, Bhutia tried to create a rapport with GJM, calling the party’s President Bimal Gurung as ‘Daju’ (elder brother). He said, “I personally want the GJM to support me. I share a good relation with ‘Bimal Daju’ and want to fight the election jointly”.
Bhutia was candid and earnest: “There has been no development in the hills. But thanks to the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, there is now peace in Darjeeling. There is lot of potential in Darjeeling, be it tourism or the tea gardens. I would like to work honestly for the development of Darjeeling.”
But the ground reality is quite different.
GJM had supported the TMC in recently held Rajya Sabha elections. But the Lok Sabha Election is entirely a different ball game.
Even, while deciding the name of its Darjeeling Candidate, Mamata and his party simply ignored GJM, eventually insulting Bimal Gurung, himself.
The Darjeeling Dilemma
GJM has seen that by supporting an outsider like BJP’s Jaswant Singh had not helped them much.
The BJP along with Jaswant Singh has 137 M.Ps in the Lok Sabha. While contesting that very seat, its Election Manifesto had an insertion “long pending demands of Gorkha, Adivasi and other people of Darjeeling district and Dooars” will be taken due care.
But all these years, Jaswant Singh has done very little for Darjeeling.
Dawa Lama, a Rajya Sabha Member from Darjeeling, within his limited capacity, attempted to introduce a Private Member Bill for the formation of a separate State of Gorkhaland comprising Darjeeling district and Dooars region where Nepali speaking population were in majority.
Even CPM’s Ananda Pathak, despite protests from his own party Comrades in the Lok Sabha had placed the Bill for Granting Regional Autonomy for Darjeeling and its contiguous region.
Jaswant Singh was not present in Darjeeling, most of the times. Even when the GJM leaders went to Delhi, he took them to meet different Ministers or Politicians, without much tangible effect.
Even at some time, Singh was named as a “missing person” in a police diary lodged at the Kalimpong police station!
There was a saying, Jaswant Singh was a Tourist in Darjeeling and in Delhi he was a Tourist Guide!
Congress has not much say presently, in Darjeeling politics. In the 2009 LS Polls, BJP’s Jaswant Singh got 51.5% of the polled votes due to GJM backing. Incidentally
The well-known Congress candidate, Dawa Narbula, who had won the Darjeeling seat in 2004 election, got just 19.4% of the votes and finishing third behind the Left Front Candidate Jibesh Sarkar!
GJM MLA from Kalimpong Harka Bahadur Chetri was more emphatic. He believes that who supported Baichung’s candidature “did not brief Madam properly”.
Apart from not being local, the relation between Sikkim and Darjeeling is not that cordial.
Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist (CPRM), which has a large following in the adjacent Tea Gardens, clearly said: “Under no circumstance we will support the candidate of a party that is against the formation of a Gorkha State. It’s the age-old aspiration of the hill people here.”
The All India Gorkha League (AIGL) General Secretary Pratap Khati is more vocal against TMC’s decision: “Picking Bhutia ultimately shows that TMC does not have any able leader to represent the party in the hills. Choosing a famous player just with affinity to the Nepali community is a disgraceful act!”
The GJM supremo Bimal Gurung said that would be in Delhi soon with top Party leaders to measure the possibilities.
Tough Fight Ahead
The party inner circle strongly believes that BJP in the most likelihood will come to power in the Centre next. So despite its dilemma and unimpressive performance of Jaswant Singh, if GJM supports a possible BJP candidate, it stands to gain.
At the same time, maintaining workable good relation with Trinamool Congress is also important for the sake of smooth running of GJM and its administrative activities, at the present situation.
But its main problems are its grassroots supporters and organisational leaders who are dead against Trinamool’s Candidature.
Even last time, Madan Tamang was against the outsider Jaswant Singh’s Candidature. Tamang is no more and his son has joined TMC, but the Hill sentiment is always prime behind the selection of a candidate.
Also GJM’s support would be a decisive factor not only in the Darjeeling seat, but also in the Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar Lok Sabha seats, which also have sizeable Nepali speaking population.
That’s why GJM now wants to do some hard bargain and get the best possible deal, both from the BJP and the Trinamool Congress.
Still Hope for Baichung
Baichung is an outsider and never been a part of Gorkhaland sentiment, but he can’t be ticked out easily.
Being specially selected by the Trinamool Supremo, and a highly popular footballer, Baichumg is sure to get some major support from the voters of Bengali dominated Siliguri, Chopra, Phansidewa and Matigara-Naxalbari, Assembly segments of the Darjeeling Parliamentary Constituency.
The Darjeeling Lok Sabha has 14 Lakh voters. Among them only around 6 lakh voters are from the three hill subdivisions.
Since 2011, TMC has some made some indisputable inroads into the Nepali population of Darjeeling and Terai Tea Gardens. In Darjeeling itself, its cadres have come face to face with GJM supporters, on several occasions, and seen as a growing force. Trinamool leaders from the Hills, Sharda Subba, Manoj Dewan, Gopal Chhetri, N.B. Khawash, and Binny Sharma’s name were even presented for candidature, but none of them has the pan region popularity and winability at this moment.
Among the Tamangs in Darjeeling and adjacent areas, Trinamool has been able to build a support base fast. Deceased GJM stalwart Madan Tamang’s son Sanjog Tamang has joined Trinamool in August last year.
The Tamangs as a community has around 2.2 lakh population in the hills and another 2 lakh in the Dooars. It makes the community roughly 30 per cent of the 14 lakh voters in the Lok Sabha’s seven Assembly segments.
Baichung’s declared opposition, till date, the former Vice Chancellor of Sikkim Central University and a former senior faculty member of JNU, Mahendra Lama is contesting as an Independent candidate from Darjeeling. He is highly respected in the Hills, specially by sections of the educated urban voters in the region. Lama is incidentally supported by the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League that has some support base in the Hills. So, Lama is reducing the GJM vote share without much doubt.
Mamata led Party, thus, still holds a chance to win in the hills.
Also, outsider Candidates in Darjeeling is not a new phenomenon too. In the Past also A.K. Basu, from 1952 to 1957, Dr. Maitryee Bose, from 1967 to 1971, Indrajit Khullar from 1989 to 1991 and 1991 to 1996 and Jaswant Singh, 2209 to 2014, represented Darjeeling Parliamentary Seat.
On the whole, the political battle in Darjeeling is going to be spectacular and intertwined one, in the days to come.
By Deep Basu
Image Source: Darleeing Govt. Official Web Site, Baichung Bhutia