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Differences over Gorkha Hill Council

By Marcus Dam

KOLKATA: The hastily-convened meeting between the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and the West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in New Delhi on Thursday reflects the heightening concerns of both governments over the future of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Autonomous Council. Its Chairman, Subhash Ghising, demands that the present council needs to be replaced with "an alternative council" with greater powers. Concealed in the demand is a veiled threat to revive the movement for a Gorkhaland state — one that had thrown the region into a period of political turbulence till it was called off with the setting up of the Council 16 years ago.

What has prompted the sudden turn of events is the contentious issue of holding elections to the Council whose term expires on March 25. The West Bengal Government has announced its intentions to appoint an administrator for running the DGHAC once the term ends and till the electoral arrangements are completed. This puts paid to Mr. Ghising's hopes of continuing to be in the saddle, even beyond the expiration date of the Council, till his demands for additional powers to it are met to his satisfaction.

Mr. Bhattacharjee and Mr. Ghising have been at odds on the subject. Their differences were in evidence at last week's tripartite talks convened by the Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, in New Delhi that ended inconclusively. Mr. Ghising's contention that the polls cannot be held unless there is an upgrading of the council was an argument Mr. Bhattacharjee has persistently refused to buy.

Flagrant violation

Not holding elections, Mr. Bhattacharjee has reiterated, does not augur well for the democratic process that had been set in place in the hills after the two-year-long violent agitation for statehood.

Also, it is a flagrant violation of the DGHC Act which came into existence following a memorandum of settlement signed in the presence of the then Union Home Minister, Buta Singh, by the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, and Mr. Ghising calling off a movement that had crippled the local economy and cost several lives. Talks on the revision of powers of the Council could go on but not at the cost of subverting the election process in a region where the polls have already been deferred by a year, the Chief Minister maintained.

The raking up of the statehood demand is seen as a ploy by Mr. Ghising to push back indefinitely an election whose outcome could well go against him considering the steady erosion in support base and growing threat to his hegemony, his political opponents argue.

This is open to debate but what is not is that any talk of Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills has always been loaded with significant emotive appeal and is one that has dominated both public discourse and the rhetoric of leaders of political parties whose agendas it determines.

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