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The ethnic cauldron

Will strong regional aspirations play a bigger role in the battle in the northern region of West Bengal than mainstream parties are willing to admit, asks MARCUS DAM

— Photo: Ajay Sha

GJM supporters block a road in Darjeeling during a bandh in January.

Strong ethnic passions and sub-nationalistic aspirations promise to make the electoral battle in the Darjeeling hills and the plains of Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts in north Bengal an extremely intriguing one.

Three political forces, with varying spheres of influence in the region, have one common agenda: a separate State. Added to this is a fourth grouping that is demanding greater autonomy.

Of these, the one that is most in the public eye is the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM). The party, which became the principal political force in the Darjeeling hills shortly after its formation in October 2007, will be contesting an Assembly election for the first time.

The GJM's campaign revolves around a single demand: the creation of a Gorkhaland State carved out of Darjeeling district and contiguous areas in the Dooars region of Jalpaiguri district. For the party, the election is an opportunity to extend its sphere of influence to the Dooars, which has a substantial Gorkha population. Recently, it was prevented by the Jalpaiguri district administration from staging a ‘padayatra' in the tribal-dominated region because of apprehensions that it may heighten ethnic tensions.

The GJM has put up a candidate for the Kalchini seat in the Dooars and will be supporting the Trinamool Congress-Congress combine in other seats where Gorkhas have a presence. It has also fielded candidates in all the three seats in the hills — Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong.

With the exception of those pockets in the Dooars where the Gorkhas are pre-dominant, the largely tribal population is strongly opposed to the region, which envelops large swathes of tea plantations, being included in a Gorkhaland State. They also oppose the region being included in any new regional administrative body that may replace the now virtually defunct Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

To counter the GJM's move to extend its influence to the Dooars, the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP), which claims to enjoy support among various tribal communities, has galvanised itself into political activism. Hoping to wean away tribal support, which has hitherto been extended to mainstream parties, the ABAVP is putting up its own candidates for the first time. It is contesting five seats in Jalpaiguri district, one from Darjeeling and another from Uttar Dinajpur district.

The main thrust of its political programme is two-fold: oppose the GJM's demand that the Dooars be included in a Gorkhaland State or in a regional authority, and press for Sixth Schedule status for the Dooars.

The intricacies of the region's political mosaic do not end here. In the Darjeeling hills, the poll has come as a gilt-edged opportunity for Subhas Ghising's Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which has been in a political limbo ever since the GJM's ascendancy. The virtual driving out of Mr. Ghising from Darjeeling in July 2008, after he reigned supreme for more than two decades, rearranged the political equations in the hills.

For the first time, the GJM and the GNLF find themselves pitted against each other in a contest that assumes a personal dimension — one between GJM president Bimal Gurung and his one-time mentor Mr. Ghising.

Cooch Behar district is also seeing the entry of a new combatant in the Greater Cooch Behar Democratic Party (GCDP). Set up in August 2006, it is a votary of a separate State comprising the five districts of north Bengal and the undivided district of Goalpara in Assam. The GCDP has found an electoral ally in the Kamtapur Peoples' Party, which shares a similar view on the creation of a separate State.

Both parties have only a marginal presence in their respective districts. However, their leaders claim that regional aspirations will play a greater role in deciding the battle than the mainstream parties are willing to admit.

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