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How Gorkha factions, new Mamata ally & BJP have kept cry for Gorkhaland out of the hills

Elections to 3 assembly seats in the Darjeeling hills — Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong — are to be held on 17 April.

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Darjeeling: Factions, foes-turned-friends and an opportunistic BJP have all combined to ensure a triangular election fight in the Darjeeling hills, where for the first time in decades, the politicking has pushed the perennial demand for a Gorkhaland to the periphery of the poll campaign.

At the heart of the campaign is Bimal Gurung, the fiery chief of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Bimal) whose demand for a separate statehood in the Darjeeling hills has in the past, resulted in shutdowns in the region, some lasting months.

Once the bete-noire of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Gurung is now the CM’s ally.

The TMC has left the three assembly seats in the Darjeeling hills — Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong — to the GJM (Bimal). The three seats vote on 17 April, along with the three assembly segments of Darjeeling district that are in the foothills — Siliguri, Phansidewa and Matigara-Naxalbari.

Gurung had headed the undivided GJM, which since 2011, has won all three assembly seats in the hills. But the GJM had in 2018 split into two factions.

Gurung’s switch to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has meant that the BJP will be without its chief ally. Gurung’s GJM has allied and helped the BJP win the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat since 2009. It also allied with the BJP for the 2019 assembly by-elections in the district.

The BJP is planning to capitalise on the bitter power struggle raging between Gurung and his former right hand man, Binoy Tamang, for dominance in the hills.

Tamang now heads the GJM (Binoy faction), which he formed in 2018, and is fighting the elections alone.

One aspect of campaigning here is that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has been flying to every corner of the state, has stayed away from Darjeeling hills.

Senior GJM leaders of both the factions claimed that the Gorkhas “do not like Didi”.

“After the violence in 2017, in which over a dozen Gorkhas were killed in a public-police clash, Didi became unpopular in the hills,” said a senior GJM leader who is with Bimal Gurung. “That is why no faction of GJM got her or any Trinamool leader to campaign in the hills.”

Tamang campaigning at Darjeeling’s Chowrasta | Photo: Madhuparna Das/ThePrint
Tamang campaigning at Darjeeling’s Chowrasta | Photo: Madhuparna Das/ThePrint

Gorkhaland disappears

In this triangular battle between the two GJM factions and the BJP, the Gorkhaland issue found no mention until the last date of campaigning Wednesday.

For Bimal Gurung, his campaign was primarily about revenge against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for not paying heed to his demand for a separate state.

The Binoy Tamang faction focused on the demand of “land-patta for all to insulate Gorkhas from the National Register of Citizens (NRC)” and “inclusion of Darjeeling in the North Eastern Council”.

The BJP campaigned on development and a permanent political solution for the Gorkhas that the party promised in its election manifesto in 2019.

Shah, addressing a public meeting in Darjeeling Tuesday, said that his party, if voted to power, would withdraw all political cases slapped against leaders of the Gorkhaland agitation. He also promised to ensure a permanent political solution to the Gorkha issues as the state and centre government will be in sync. However, BJP has never defined the nature of the permanent political solution. 

‘Gorkhaland shouldn’t crop up in assembly polls’

Stakeholders have told ThePrint that there are other pressing issues they are focusing on in these assembly elections.

“For separate statehood, the Centre has the most important role to play and there has to be a consensus between the state and the Centre,” Binoy Tamang, president of GJM (Binoy) said. “Our primary goal is to ensure land pattas to all Gorkhas and shield them from the NRC. And we demand inclusion in the North Eastern Council. We do not want to be called Nepalis; we are Indian Gorkhas.”

Keshav Raj Pokhrel, Tamang’s candidate in Darjeeling, said, “The Modi government did not grant Scheduled Tribe status to the 11 hill tribes. They lied to us.

“In 2019, the BJP promised a solution to Gorkhaland but where is the solution,” said the 35-year-old school teacher, who is an accused in the Gorkha leader Madan Tamang murder case. He is out on bail. 

Gurung, on his part, has also stressed on local issues. “Let us vote for regional aspiration, regionalism and regional issues,” he said at a public meeting in Darjeeling’s super market Wednesday. He added that he met Amit Shah around 26 times but did not get any help from the home minister for Darjeeling.

P.T. Ola, a senior advocate and Gurung’s candidate in Darjeeling, said, “The assembly election is not the right forum to raise the statehood issue. It is a central issue. We joined hands with the BJP to settle that but they ditched us. We suffered the most as all of us have more than 10 criminal cases against us.

“Bimal Gurung allied with Mamata as he wanted to come back to Darjeeling and work with the people,” he added. “There can be a difference of opinion but she is at least honest.”

Neeraj Zimba, a Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader and the BJP’s candidate in Darjeeling, said Shah was looking into the permanent solution promise.

“Gorkhaland is a chronic political issue. We know that the political solution will come once the BJP comes to power in the state,” Zimba said. “We have put pressure on the Centre and the home minister understands the Gorkha issue; he takes it very seriously.”

“The solution will come with a huge constitutional guarantee. We have said that we want a political solution and not an economic one,” he added. “The issue of granting ST status is also at its final deliberation stage.”


Also read: Who are Rajbanshis, caught in Shah-Mamata scrap & why they’re key for BJP in Assam, Bengal


The border seats

Darjeeling is an important segment for the BJP, not just for electoral purposes but also for its sensitive and strategic location.

Darjeeling is at the tri-junction of three international borders. A senior BJP leader said that the party, which has been holding the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat since 2009, cannot afford to lose it to regional players.

“Gurung has joined the TMC but his men have remained with us,” the senior BJP leader said. “We have to win there. It is a priority, not political but for internal security.”

The BJP has fielded Subha Pradhan from Kalimpong, B.P. Bajgain from Kurseong and Neeraj Zimba from Darjeeling.

Zimba is the sitting Darjeeling MLA and was once a senior GJM leader; Pradhan and Bajgain are old Gurung aides.

“Gurung broke away from BJP alone; all his men chose to stay with us. Gurung is a spent force now,” said the BJP leader requesting anonymity.

Tamang told ThePrint that his GJM faction did consider allying with the TMC. “We were in a broader alliance with the Trinamool Congress but Prashant Kishor made a deal with Gurung to divide BJP’s votes in the hills. It is his political strategy,” he said. “We made our point clear to Didi denying any political association with Gurung. We fielded our candidates in the three hill seats.”

Zimba also feels that Gorkha votes are “fragmented” this time. “Gorkhas are known to give a decisive mandate but this time it can be fractured,” he added. “Gorkhas, however, will never go with a party that is in alliance with Mamata Banerjee who organised a genocide of Gorkhas on the streets in 2017.”

The GJM’s Bimal and Binoy factions are fighting the elections as Independent candidates with new symbols according to the directions of the state high court. Both the factions had approached the court for the party’s ownership and the case is still pending. So, in the present situation, Darjeeling has seven Independent candidates, including two factions of the GJM, and two mainstream parties — BJP and CPI(M) — contesting the election.

Gurung’s gamble

Gurung has followed an unusual political pattern — he has allied with the BJP for general elections and with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress for assembly elections.

In 2011 and 2016, Gurung’s GJM supported Mamata Banerjee, but in 2017, he severed all political ties with Didi and joined hands with the BJP.

In 2019, BJP fought Lok Sabha elections with Gurung on its side and led in all six assembly segments in Darjeeling and Kalimpong district.

But in October 2020, Gurung, who remained absconding for almost three years since the Gorkhaland agitation of 2017, appeared in Kolkata and joined Trinamool surprising many.

During Gurung’s absence in the hills, Mamata Banerjee had transferred powers of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) — an autonomous body formed in 2011 — to Binoy Tamang, Gurung’s once trusted general. Over the past three years, Darjeeling did not witness any violence.

The Trinamool Congress, however, lost Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha elections and the 2019 by-elections tothe BJP-GNLF-GJM(Bimal) alliance. GNLF, that was founded by Subhas Ghising, is still with the BJP. Ghising was a fierce Gorkha leader who first raised the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.

According to veteran Gorkha leaders of undivided GJM, Gurung became ‘frustrated’ in the BJP and joined Trinamool, when he was approached by Mamata Banerjee’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor.

A senior advocate of Calcutta High Court, who earlier represented Gurung, said, “Gurung has at least 156 cases against him; he is wanted by Darjeeling district police on charges of murder, attempt to murder, rioting, sedition and arson. He is also charged under Unlawful Activity Prevention Act (UAPA).”

Banerjee promised to withdraw the cases against him after he joined Trinamool. “Around 53 cases including the UAPA case are still pending against him,” added one of Gurung’s counsels.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)


Also read: Caste was never a big issue in Bengal politics. This assembly election has changed that


 

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