Darjeeling/Kolkata: Ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, fresh political realignment is taking place in the hills of West Bengal. While Anit Thapa, chief of the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM), has become the first government-backed leader to be in complete control of hill politics, three prominent Gorkha leaders — Hamro Party’s Ajoy Edwards, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s (GJM) Bimal Gurung, and Binay Tamang — have joined forces to reignite the demand for Gorkhaland.
The three were seen sitting next to each other at the ‘Gorkha Swabhiman Sangharsh’ (fight for the pride of Gorkhas) protest at Darjeeling’s iconic Capitol Hill on 26 December. Tamang and Edwards had also taken part in a two-day summit organised by Gurung in New Delhi early December to discuss issues related to Darjeeling, primarily focusing on Gorkhaland.
In June last year, Thapa’s BGPM had won the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) polls and, in December, in a dramatic turn of events, he took over the Darjeeling Municipality with the backing of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal. He is now seen as a key face emerging in the North Bengal hills and his BGPM a significant player in Darjeeling politics.
Tamang, once Gurung’s man Friday, had walked away from the latter’s GJM and held talks with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee back in 2017, during the over 100 days of agitation in Darjeeling. The hilly region had simmered with violence over the revived demand for Gorkhaland. Tamang was one of the key leaders who brokered peace then. He later went on to become the GTA administrator.
In December 2021, Tamang officially joined the TMC in Kolkata to become the key face of the ruling party in Darjeeling. But, in 2023, this is no longer the scenario as Tamang has resigned from the TMC and joined his former political counterparts — Gurung and Edwards — to renew the ‘Gorkhaland’ movement in the hills.
Speaking to ThePrint, Tamang said the TMC isn’t interested in hill politics. “The TMC has neither any stronghold here nor is it interested. On 7 November, I wrote a letter to both the Chief Minister and senior TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee regarding the remedial measures needed in this region. I didn’t get any response. When I quit on 20 December, I got a call from Abhishek Banerjee’s office, saying Didi and Abhishek wanted to speak with me, but I said it was too late. I will work independently for the welfare of people,” he added.
Tamang said that Gurung, Edwards and he would be holding a meeting this month to form a committee to strategise their Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling. “We will hold the meeting in Sikkim or Assam and decide our next course and also constitute a national committee to keep this movement alive,” he said. This committee will also decide the political strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
However, political analyst Sourjya Bhowmick said the trio can’t have a massive impact as they don’t wield major power in the hills at present. According to Bhowmick, “There was a time when Gurung could bring the hills to a standstill, but not anymore. His hunger strike before the GTA poll hardly drew any attention. Similarly, Tamang is now without any political party and Edwards has been ousted from the civic body, so their hold on the people of Darjeeling isn’t as strong as it would have been back in 2017,” he said.
Also Read: Modi govt uses & dumps allies, looking to Didi for Gorkhaland solution, Bimal Gurung says
‘BJP should fulfil its promise to us’
Edwards has been holding a series of meetings with political parties at his residence to keep the Gorkhaland demand alive.
Talking to ThePrint, the Hamro Party leader said, “The BJP entered West Bengal by winning the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat 15 years ago. We have been electing BJP MPs ever since; 12 months before the next Lok Sabha election, we want a permanent political solution as promised in their manifesto. This movement is aimed at uniting the Gorkha community. If we want separation from Bengal, we must be united. At the end of this month, we will release a Darjeeling Declaration and demand what is rightfully ours.”
However, barely 10 months after winning the Darjeeling Municipality poll, its political debut, Edwards’ Hamro Party lost power to Thapa’s BGPM last month with six Hamro councillors joining the latter.
Asked about the political changes in Darjeeling over the past two weeks, Edwards said, “very sorry state of affairs here, public representatives are being sold over money. The Hamro Party will move the Supreme Court if the need arises. People here are anguished that their votes have been mocked. The Bengal government while backing Thapa should have realised that they are hurting the democracy here.”
But the Hamro Party isn’t the only one to suffer a setback. Hours after the change of guard in the civic body in December, Tamang had resigned from the TMC.
Terming Tamang’s resignation a ‘gimmick’, Thapa, said none of these developments will have any political impact in the hills. “After the GTA election victory, the public realised only we can work for Darjeeling and extended their support. Practical politics has been established now. But the three other leaders sitting on a protest want to destroy the peace here,” he pointed out.
However, Thapa, too, like the other leaders, wants a separate state of Gorkhaland even though its ally, the TMC, opposes the move. “At least Mamata Banerjee is honest, that she doesn’t want Darjeeling to be bifurcated. She isn’t showing false dreams like the BJP. This is a Central subject and for three decades the demand has been there. We can’t live in a dreamland any longer,” Thapa said.
‘BJP will find a permanent solution in 2023’
Talking to ThePrint, BJP MP Raju Bista claimed he was confident 2023 will be the year when the people of Darjeeling will get their long-awaited justice.
“Our party is committed to a permanent political solution for the region in both our National Manifesto 2019 and State Manifesto 2021. The Union Home Ministry has initiated dialogue and the first round of talks for the same have been concluded, the background work concerning the same is also being undertaken,” said Bista.
According to him, what’s happening in Darjeeling is an exposure of “the political hypocrisy” of the TMC, rather than a political realignment. “More and more hill politicians and people are becoming aware of the TMC’s ‘use and throw’ policy. The TMC wants the hills to remain divided, they want to meddle in hill politics, as was seen in Darjeeling Municipality recently, and disturb the peace in our region,” he pointed out.
According to political analyst Udayan Bandopadhyay the demand for Gorkhaland will continue and gather steam ahead of the 2024 polls. “This demand, however, has one main issue — who would be the leader? While the leaders are jointly demanding for a separate statehood, who will finally be the face of Gorkhaland? The other issue of safeguarding the Gorkha identity has been almost resolved by Mamata Banerjee by forming the GTA, the semi-autonomous body in Darjeeling,” he explained.
(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan)
Also Read: Why BJP, GNLF and TMC’s own ally GJM are boycotting Gorkhaland Territorial Administration polls