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Mamata Banerjee Pushes to Break Into Darjeeling Hills, The Last Frontier

Sumit Pande | CNN-News18

Updated: June 13, 2017, 8:16 PM IST
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Mamata Banerjee Pushes to Break Into Darjeeling Hills, The Last Frontier
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (L) and GJM chief Bimal Gurung (R). (Photo: Reuters/ Getty Images)
New Delhi: The results to local body polls had underscored Trinamool Congress’ domination of the state politics. Opposition had been decimated. Especially encouraging had been the tidings from the northern part of the state, the Darjeeling Hills.

At 12.58pm, 17th of May this year, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted from her official handle: the hills are smiling.

TMC had not only opened its account in Darjeeling Civic polls. But most importantly, it had won a clear majority in the adjoining civic body Mirik relegating Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha (GJM) to second position in latter’s stronghold.

“When Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011, she faced two challenges on law and order front- Darjeeling hills and Jangalmahal. She settled Jangalmahal a long time back during her first term. However, Darjeeling has mostly been out of bounds for the TMC despite repeated attempts,” says a senior political journalist from the state.

The poll outcome was an indication that the TMC leader had taken one decisive step towards breaching the last frontier since her ascension to power in the state politics. This after unsuccessful yet repeated efforts over the last many years to find a toehold in the northern-most sub-division of the Jalpaiguri district which has been stoically unresponsive to the regional satrap.

In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Mamata Banerjee fielded footballer Bhaichung Bhutia from Darjeeling. For Bhutia, the local lad, politics proved to be an entirely different ball game. GJM supported BJP candidate SS Ahluwalia won by close to 2 lakh votes.

In fact, GJM which controls the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) has tactically over the years leveraged its stakes at the center vis-à-vis the state government by supporting a national party in the Lok Sabha polls. In 2009 general elections, it supported former Defence Minister and BJP leader Jaswant Singh.

The GTA was formed in 2012 after a tripartite agreement was signed between the state and union government and GJM which had been agitating for a separate hill state. The agreement led to the passage of a bill by the West Bengal Assembly delegating administrative and financial powers to the council. The state government, however, retained legislative powers with itself.

Despite the agreement GJM has never really shelved its demand for the separate hill state - raking it up intermittently. On this occasion GJM is up in arms against state government’s new three language policy which makes studying Bangla compulsory in schools - even for Nepali speaking students which come under the GTA. Almost ten days after the Civic Poll results, GTA chief Bimal Gurung shot off a letter to the WB CM seeking exemption.

With state government not relenting, GJM called for a week-long strike. Mamata took the challenge head on by holding a cabinet meet last week in Darjeeling and announced construction of a new secretariat building to be named after Tenzing Norgay.

Of the five candidates she announced for the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls, one Shanta Chhetri is from Kurseong.

On another front, the hill vs plains debate also creates an uncomfortable situation for the BJP attempting to expand its political footprint in the state. GJM has been an old and a trusted ally of the BJP. Any polarisation on the issue squeezes BJP’s space to manoeuvre.

After GJM supporters clashed with police as protests erupted, the WB CM quite understandably lost no time in asking Centre to deploy army to control the situation.
First Published: June 13, 2017, 7:50 PM IST
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