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Volume 25 - Issue 06 :: Mar. 15-28, 2008
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
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THE STATES/WEST BENGAL

Fall from grace

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

After reigning supreme for 22 years in the Darjeeling hills, Subash Ghising finds himself alienated from the movement he created.

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP............DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

When Bimal Gurung (right) broke away from the GNLF last October and relaunched the demand for Gorkhaland after forming a new party, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, he practically pulled the rug from under Subash Ghising's (left) feet.

SubasH Ghising’s days as the undisputed leader of West Bengal’s Darjeeling Hills are over. Ironically, the man who was catapulted into the political limelight by the movement for a separate Gorkhaland State in 1986 has been brought down by the revival of the same movement 22 years later. In many ways, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supremo fell victim to forces of his own creation. His nemesis came in the form of Bimal Gurung, once his trusted aide. Even after agreeing to resign as the administrator of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), a position occupied by him for the past 20 years, Ghising was unable to enter the hills.

When Gurung broke away from the GNLF last October (the GNLF claims he was expelled for anti-party activities) and re-launched the demand for Gorkhaland after forming a new party, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), he practically pulled the rug from under Ghising’s feet. He called the GNLF’s demand for a new autonomous Gorkha Hill Council, Darjeeling, with greater powers under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, “a betrayal of the promise made to the hills people” by Ghising in 1986, and declared that nothing short of Gorkhaland would end his agitation. What followed in the subsequent months was a trial of strength by way of garnering public support, which went overwhelmingly in favour of the GJM.

As intermittent violence between the two warring parties and bandhs and counter-bandhs paralysed life in the hills, bringing back memories of the violent Gorkhaland movement of 1986, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in West Bengal was in a quandary. The spectre of Gorkhaland, which seemed to have receded into the distance with the granting of constitutional status to a de facto autonomy enjoyed by the DGHC under the existing statute, was suddenly back, and Ghising no longer seemed to possess the magic wand.

Sixth Schedule

Hoping to check the unrest early, the State government and the Left parties put pressure on the Centre for a speedy passage of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill. The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on November 3, 2007, but got deferred as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raised an objection on a procedural ground. As an amendment Bill has to be passed by a two-thirds majority of Lok Sabha members present and voting and not less than half the total strength of the House, the BJP’s opposition forced the Bill to be referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs led by senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj.

However, by the time the next session of Parliament arrived, it was perhaps already too late. The Committee, in its 45-page report submitted to the two Houses of Parliament on February 28, recommended that the Centre make a fresh assessment before going ahead with the legislation for conferring Sixth Schedule status on Darjeeling Hills.

It observed that had the Bill been passed soon after the Union Cabinet approved the creation of an autonomous Gorkha Hill Council, the situation would have been different as Ghising was then the “undisputed leader” of the hills. But now, with the hill population fiercely divided over the issue, and the majority against it, the Committee cautioned the government to take into account the ground realities before proceeding with the Bill.

“During the last two years, much water has flowed down and the non-holding of elections has added fuel to the fire,” the report stated.

With the tribal population of the hills at less than 32 per cent, the GJM’s main reason for its opposition to the Sixth Schedule Amendment was that it would divide the hill community on ethnic lines. Apart from that, the party felt that granting of Sixth Schedule status would obfuscate the main demand for a separate Gorkhaland. Even the Congress Member of Parliament from Darjeeling, Dawa Narbula, had been urging the Centre not to go ahead with the Bill as the majority of the people of the hills were against it.

The Committee report also expressed concern that granting Sixth Schedule status to Darjeeling hills may set a precedent for according a similar status to tribal areas in other States such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa.

Meanwhile, Ghising, who went to New Delhi to plead with the Centre on behalf of the Sixth Schedule Amendment, returned to West Bengal on February 18 to face arguably the greatest humiliation in his political career. Supporters of the GJM laid siege to all the entry points to the hills, forcing him to stop on the outskirts of Siliguri, at the foothills in north Bengal. Ghising’s inability to enter the hills further highlighted the writing on the wall.

Binay Tamang, press and publicity secretary of the GJM, stated, “He is now scared because he knows that he has lost the support of the masses.”

With Ghising holed up in the plains and the GNLF rendered leaderless in the hills, the GJM intensified its agitation programme, calling for an indefinite bandh from February 20, demanding Ghising’s immediate ouster as Administrator of the DGHC and a separate Gorkhaland State. Three days earlier, 29 GJM supporters had started an indefinite hunger strike.

Members of the Gorkha Janamukti Nari Morcha, the women’s wing of the GJM, threatened to commit self-immolation if the State government did not remove Ghising and scrap the Sixth Schedule.

As the situation started going out of control, with several GJM supporters falling ill in the course of their “fast-unto-death” programme, it was up to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to play the mediator. At his written invitation, Gurung and several other leaders of his party came to Kolkata on February 27 for talks. On February 29, Ghising accepted the State government’s condition that he should tender his resignation by March 10.

With the Sixth Schedule Bill on the back burner and the assurance of Ghising’s resignation, it was a double victory for the GJM. Gurung returned to the hills the following day to a hero’s welcome. As news of Ghising’s imminent departure reached the hills, both the hunger strike and the bandh were called off, and GJM supporters brought out a mock funeral procession of Ghising. “There is jubilation all around. Everybody is celebrating the old man’s departure,” a prominent businessman of Darjeeling town told Frontline.

Losing support

For 22 years, since Ghising first gave out a call for a separate Gorkhaland, precipitating a violent and bloody agitation in the hills, he and the GNLF were the main representative voice of the hill people. However, since 1988, when the DGHC was established, until 2005, when it was wound up with the GNLF demanding a fresh Gorkha Hill Council, there was growing disenchantment among the people of the region, both with the Council and Ghising. With the last Hill Council elections in 1999, the GNLF began to find itself getting increasingly alienated from the masses. But despite the growing anti-incumbency factor, the lack of an alternative leader enabled Ghising to remain in power.

With little development work to show on the ground, rumours of financial corruption and mismanagement in the air, and Ghising becoming increasingly reclusive and inaccessible, the restless and resentful public now found a much-wanted alternative in Gurung. In just six months, Ghising found himself alienated from the movement of his own creation. If the youth of the 1980s provided the backbone of the GNLF’s agitation, the youth of the present day stand firmly behind Gurung and the GJM.

Towards the end of 2007, the GJM’s student wing, the Gorkha Jana Vidyarthi Morcha, won two consecutive college elections in the Darjeeling Government College and the Kurseong College. Victory in the Darjeeling Government College union elections came as little surprise as the college is situated in Gurung’s political constituency, but the Kurseong College has traditionally been a GNLF stronghold. The GJM’s victory there was yet another indication that the youth of the hills had shifted their allegiance.

With the news of Ghising stepping down as administrator of the DGHC, former councillors and senior leaders of the GNLF also started resigning from their positions to enter into the welcoming folds of the GJM.

“There is a mass exodus from our party to the GJM, particularly in the rural areas. Our position is getting weaker by the day,” a still-loyal GNLF source told Frontline. Even retired Gorkha soldiers of the Indian Army, who once stood firmly behind Ghising, have deserted him to be a part of the Bharatiya Gorkha Bhutpurba Sainik Morcha, an organisation set up by the GJM. These men, numbering over 300, travelled to New Delhi to take part in a rally on March 5, demanding Gorkhaland.

One person who unwittingly played catalyst to the fresh spate of political turmoil and has largely been forgotten in the rapid developments in the past few months is Prashant Tamang, last year’s winner of the immensely popular reality television show, Indian Idol. Ghising perhaps made a miscalculation when he chose to ignore Tamang, a singer, who captured the imagination of the hill community when he won the television competition.

Before the celebrations in the hills following Tamang’s victory had subsided, a derogatory remark involving the hill community made against him by a radio jockey of a Delhi-based private FM channel in September last year set aflame the collective injured sentiment of the hills and brought to fore the incipient resentments. Gurung was quick to take up the cause of Tamang and give it political overtones and thereby immediately establish himself as a representative of the hill people. Soon after, on October 7, Gurung announced the formation of the GJM, inviting the united support of people cutting across party lines.

A desperate bid

In what many observers call a desperate bid, the GNLF, on March 2, also passed a resolution to revive the separate Gorkhaland State demand, “taking into account the aspirations of the hill people”. The resolution was adopted by the three GNLF branch committees in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. “We never turned our back on Gorkhaland, but we knew it was impractical to demand it now as the West Bengal government would never allow Darjeeling Hills to break away from the State. That is why we demanded Sixth Schedule status, as it would give us more autonomy and provide the first step towards our ultimate ambition, that is, Gorkhaland,” said Ajay Edwards, convener of the GNLF youth wing. The GNLF’s fresh call for Gorkhaland leaves the hills with a unique political situation of two conflicting parties having the same agenda.

As normalcy returned to the hills after four months of unrest, it would be imprudent to think that the crisis has blown over. By getting rid of Ghising, the State government has only bought itself some time. Gurung has made it clear that he will stop at nothing short of Gorkhaland. With Ghising still out of the hills (as of March 5) and Gurung refusing him entry until he has sent his resignation letter, the GJM chief’s domination of the hills is complete.

Bhattacharjee has realised this, and in a public address at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions’ (CITU) ninth state conference in Siliguri, he said, “The situation in the Darjeeling hills is still fluid. We have succeeded in dealing with the immediate crisis to an extent, but the situation demands more attention. We want peace in the Darjeeling hills and so the process of dialogue with all sides has to continue.” •



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