When Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad's leader John Barla (right) and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha president Bimal Gurung met at Mongpong in Kalimpong district on October 30.
WITH a section of the leadership of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP) of north Bengal burying the hatchet with its bitter rival the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the latter's demand to include parts of the Terai and the Doars along, of course, with the Darjeeling hills within the area under the jurisdiction of the proposed Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) may have gained strength, albeit marginally.
On October 30, certain influential local leaders of the ABAVP, including John Barla, president of the outfit's Doars unit, and top GJM leaders, headed by party supremo Bimal Gurung, jointly proposed the setting up of the Gorkhaland and Adivasi Territorial Administration (G&ATA), which will be replacing the proposed GTA. While the GJM is trying to project this development as a shot in the arm for its demand to include parts of the foothills within its jurisdiction, it seems unlikely that the majority of the tribal people in the region will be agreeable to joining hands with their bitter Gorkha rivals.
However, it may become a cause for concern for the State government, as an understanding with even a small section of the Adivasi population may provide the GJM with greater scope to exert political pressure and fuel further resentment among the tribal, non-tribal and non-Gorkha populations in the region.
Interestingly, just three months earlier, after the State government set up a committee headed by Justice (retd) Shyamal Sen to look into the GJM's demand to include 196 mouzas in the Doars and 199 mouzas in the Terai in the GTA, the ABAVP had made it clear that it would not concede “even an inch of land” and even threatened to go on an agitation.
The two parties have a history of frequent violent confrontations over the issue, and one of the main obstacles to the GJM's demand to include these areas in its proposed map of Gorkhaland has been the tribal outfit's fierce opposition to it. “As long as we were at loggerheads, it was convenient for the State government. But now that there is a unity of sorts, our movement has become stronger,” a GJM source told Frontline.
The top leadership of the ABAVP, however, has rejected the proposed tie-up. “This deal is illegal and was struck keeping the tribal people of the region in the dark. John Barla and those who were party to this did not have the authority to enter into an alliance. This is our land, and our stand remains the same: We will not give an inch of it to the GTA,” Birsa Tirkey, State president of the ABAVP, told Frontline.
West Bengal State secretary of the ABAVP, Tej Kuman Toppo, however, said that the tribal leaders of the Terai and the Doars were forced to take this step because of the apparent apathy of the earlier Left Front government and the present Trinamool Congress government to the plight of the tribal people in the region.
“When we met Mamata Banerjee to discuss the establishment of the Adivasi Territorial Administration under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, we did not receive any positive answer from her. Our people are poor and our resources limited; how long can we carry on the agitation? It was both for the benefit of the tribal people in the Terai and the Doars and for the cause of communal harmony that we decided to be a part of the proposed G&ATA,” Toppo told Frontline. He insisted that there had been no “rebellion” in the organisation and that if the people of the region did not want to be a part of the proposed set-up, the idea would be dropped. “We will have to convince the people of the advantages of being a part of the G&ATA,” he said.
The dissenting group within the tribal leadership, however, seems to have no answer to some of the inherent contradictions of the decision. First, Toppo envisages an arrangement whereby the GJM and the ABAVP, though parts of the same body, will function and independently of each other in their respective autonomous territories, the Terai and the Doars for the tribal people and the hills for the GJM.
“In the plains, there will be the ATA and in the hills, the GTA,” he told Frontline. However, such a development can only take place after the Shyamal Sen Committee has come up with its report.
While the GJM has made it clear that it will not budge from its demand, the majority of the 40-lakh strong tribal population in the region is unlikely to accept quietly a report going in favour of the GJM.
It is, after all, an issue over which the two sides have had violent clashes in the last three years. Moreover, it also suggests that two autonomous territories will exist within one autonomous body in the State.
Secondly, while the GJM seems determined, at least theoretically, not to deviate from its ultimate goal of Gorkhaland, even those leaders of the ABAVP who wish to be a part of the G&ATA rule out any possibility of seceding from the State. “Even if they demand Gorkhaland, we will never break away from the State of West Bengal,” said Toppo.
According to Asok Bhattacharya, former Left Front Minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s heavyweight in north Bengal, the development will ultimately prove a damp squib. “From what we know of the general sentiments of the tribal people, they will never want to go along with the GJM. In fact, those leaders who initiated this arrangement are already beginning to lose popular support,” he told Frontline.
What still remains unclear is the sudden change of heart of the dissenting tribal leaders. According to some political observers, lack of encouraging responses from the State government for their cause, coupled with loss of confidence after their failure at the Assembly elections, may have prompted this desperate move.
“In the last Assembly elections they lost everywhere they contested, whereas we not only won our seats in the hills, but were instrumental in the Trinamool Congress' victory in at least seven seats from the plains. They probably realised that it would be better for them if they threw in their lot with us,” senior GJM leader Harka Bahadur Chhetri told Frontline.
“GORKHA IDENTITY COMPROMISED”
Even in the Darjeeling hills there are many who are against the aforesaid arrangement. They feel such an alliance would compromise the hill people's struggle to establish their ethnic identity – the main pillar upon which the Gorkhaland movement stands.
Moreover, there is a fear that the Adivasi representation within the organisation may overshadow the Gorkhas. While there are only three constituencies in the hills, the Terai and the Doars, with its sizable Adivasi population, have more than double that. “This is our movement and the ABAVP is trying to ride piggyback on it,” a source in the hills pointed out.
The GJM's focus too seems to have shifted from the long-term prospect of Gorkhaland to the immediate thrust on development. “Gorkhaland is a protest of the people of the hills against the humiliation they suffered for years. The issue of identity is always related to the economy of the region. If economic development is taken care of, then a major problem is solved,” said Chhetri. With the signing of the tripartite agreement in July for the establishment of the GTA, the GJM had indicated a temporary pause in its programme of violent agitation.
Prospects of peace brightened further when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a large number of projects in the fields of health, education and infrastructure in the hills for the GTA to undertake with financial assistance from the Centre and the State.
But now a lot depends on the Shyamal Sen Committee's report, as the GJM had earlier indicated that the whole agreement would collapse if it was denied the areas it had demanded within the GTA.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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