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New drumbeats in the Darjeeling hills

Marcus Dam

Subash Ghising has let go of the reins of power after staying unchallenged in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council since its formation two decades ago.

— PHOTO: Sushanta Patronobish and AFP

Subash Ghising (left) and Bimal Gurung. Will the protégé beat the master at his own game?

The Darjeeling hills of West Bengal are bristling with nervous anticipation. A new era in local politics is being ushered in. Subash Ghising, who till recently boasted that he was the region’s “raja and not the subject,” has capitulated to the demands of his one-time protégé Bimal Gurung. Mr. Ghising has let go of the reins of power after reigning unchallenged in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) since its formation two decades ago.

The transition comes at a time when the rumblings of the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state, to be carved out of the hills and certain contiguous areas, reverberate louder than ever before. Mr. Gurung may have assumed the stewardship of the movement for statehood, but his wily mentor is not one to be shaken off easily.

Doing a somersault, a cornered Mr. Ghising has reverted to the Gorkhaland demand. He was the first to have raised it in the 1980s. Some years later, it catapulted his former associate-turned-principal adversary into the political spotlight.

By all appearances, the stage is set for the next round in the tussle between the two. Meanwhile, the threat of a fresh spell of unrest casts its shadow on the valleys. The likelihood of two parallel movements for statehood looms large.

The rhetoric has turned strident. Mr. Gurung, the president of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), borrowed from a popular superstition to describe Mr. Ghising, who leads the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), as “a cat that has come in the way of the agitation for statehood and who needs to be thrown out as we proceed.”

Mr. Ghising had said less than two months ago: “Gorkhaland is my monkey; it will dance the way I get it to.” Suddenly, it does not seem that way any longer.

Since he made those utterances, Mr. Ghising had quickly lost ground in the hills where he held sway for more than two decades. Worse, the satrap was forced into self-exile. His rivals have prevented his return to the hills since his arrival from New Delhi on February 18. He had gone there to lobby for Sixth Schedule status for the Darjeeling hills. “Now that he has resigned from the post of DGHC administrator, he is free to return — and can if the people allow him to,” says Mr. Gurung.

Mr. Gurung has asserted: “He has betrayed the Gorkhaland cause by settling for Sixth Schedule status for the region — an option that we have rejected outright. We are informing both the Centre and the State through resolutions that there can be no alternative to statehood.”

Put in perspective, the turn of events suggests the immense political potential of the ‘Gorkhaland’ issue. It has an overriding emotive appeal for the collective psyche of a large majority of the people of the region. The hills-plains divide had dominated local discourse even before the first stirrings of the statehood demand appeared. Twenty-three years on, its echoes are heard again.

The ethnic aspirations of the Gorkha (local Nepali) community, it is argued, found a reflection in the overwhelming outpouring of support, often bordering on the hysterical and cathartic, that sought to ensure that Prashant Tamang, the local contestant, emerged last year as “Indian Idol 3” in the popular reality TV show.

Fraternal sentiments coalesced. What began as an unprecedented canvassing of support for the crooner morphed into a political upsurge, engaging emotions and ethnic passions. These fed on the disaffection among people and their disenchantment with two decades of Mr. Ghising’s autocratic rule during which the development and democratic processes were waylaid.

Riding the crest of Mr. Tamang’s victory was Mr. Gurung and his new associates. Most of them had, like Mr. Gurung himself (though he claims to have independent antecedents), left the GNLF for the GJM. It did not take too long for the volunteers of the Prashant Fan Clubs, which were set up across the hills, to take on the mantle of GJM activism.

Even before the euphoria over the crowning of Indian Idol 3 had died down, the GJM was jockeying to centre-stage itself politically. Those who had only a few days earlier burst crackers to celebrate the Union Cabinet’s endorsement of the move to grant Sixth Schedule status to the Darjeeling hills — of which the principal architect was Mr. Ghising — were, by October, lending a more attentive ear to Mr. Gurung’s exhortations to revive the statehood movement.

The call for the revival of the Gorkhaland demand laid the battle-lines in sharper detail. Resentment over the GNLF leader’s style of functioning since he became Chairman of the DGHC in August 1988 snowballed over the nearly three years he remained as its head following the expiry of its tenure as an elected body in March 2005 after a year’s extension. The non-GNLF parties, denied a DGHC election in which they believed they could challenge Mr. Ghising’s hegemony, grew increasingly vociferous as the GNLF chief played the Sixth Schedule card and dangled before the West Bengal government the threat of a fresh Gorkhaland stir in order for him to hang on to power.

Keen to avoid a throwback to the strife-torn mid-1980s when the Gorkhaland movement led by Mr. Ghising had led to political unrest, violence and deaths, the Government of West Bengal opted for the path of diplomacy and dialogue rather than confrontation.

It agreed with the demand for Sixth Schedule status and to put in place a council with greater autonomous powers to replace the DGHC. But a delay in seeing the two amendment Bills on the subject through Parliament during its winter session last year gave a new twist to the course of events.

The committee referring the Bills back to the Union Home Ministry recommending a reassessment of the ground realities, a few days into the Budget session, came as a blessing in disguise for the State Government. It provided Kolkata some space to negotiate with Mr. Gurung, while assuring him that Mr. Ghising would resign as DGHC administrator — which was the principal demand of the GJM. Mr. Ghising put in his papers on March 10.

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has done his bit to defuse, at least for now, the tensions in the hills.

Now it is time to see whether the protégé will beat the master at his own game. Or will there be a final twist in the tale?

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