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Mamata’s ‘Divide and Rule’ and Gorkhaland Promise: Fate of Darjeeling Seat Hangs in Balance

File photo of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

File photo of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

A charge often thrown at Mamata Banerjee is her alleged ‘divide and rule’ policy with the numerous development boards. In doing so, she also exposed the caste fault lines that exist in the Gorkha community

After winning the Darjeeling seat in 2009, former cabinet minister Jaswant Singh had said that he was “no outsider”. A decade later, the same issues of belonging and identity dominate the polls as the seat witnesses a battle like no other.

The Darjeeling seat was the first that the BJP ever won in Bengal with the support of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) - a political party from the hills whose entire existence is based on the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. In 2014, SS Ahluwalia, who had informed Singh earlier that the GJM had proposed the latter’s name, contested the seat and won.

The BJP’s dominance on the issue largely stems from the fact that the party had in 2009 promised to “sympathetically consider the longstanding demands of the Gorkhas”. The governments in Kolkata, first the Left Front and then the Trinamool Congress, have so far refused such demands.

But much has changed since the GJM-led 104-day agitation for Gorkhaland in 2017, which left 13 dead. The hills simmer with anger at Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee for her “violent crackdown” and at Ahluwalia (who has since been fielded from Burdwan-Durgapur) for his “absence” during the agitation.

The GJM split—a move that the BJP alleges was engineered by Mamata—and a faction, led by Gurung’s former aide Binay Tamang, has supported the TMC and fielded former GJM legislator Amar Singh Rai. The BJP, supported by Gurung’s faction, has fielded Raju Bista, a Gorkha from Manipur. Bista, just like Singh had reiterated a decade ago, has said that he is “no outsider”.

While it is a matter of prestige for the BJP, with its plans to win over 20 seats in Bengal to retain the seat, the elections on April 18 also offer an opportunity to Mamata Banerjee that no party from the plains has had in decades.

Friends Turned Foes, Foes Turned Friends

Banerjee refused to blink during the shutdown. Instead, she pinned the blame on the union government for supporting “anti-national forces”. The Centre was eventually forced to deploy paramilitary forces. The turning point were two bomb blasts in August in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, which killed one civic volunteer and injured two others. A lookout notice was issued against Gurung and his associates under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, forcing him to abscond.

With Gurung absent, the infighting in the party was out in the open. “Binay Tamang and Anil Thapa were kicked out after they said there was a partial withdrawal of the shutdown,” said a GJM leader. Tamang dubbed the move ‘unconstitutional’ and solidified his hold over the party. Banerjee, meanwhile, continued her policy of announcing different welfare measures for the hills with Tamang now at the head of the board of administrators responsible for development work at Darjeeling.

‘Divide and Rule’

A charge often thrown at Banerjee is her alleged ‘divide and rule’ policy with the numerous development boards that she has created, for nearly each and every community in the hills. This, GJM’s Gurung faction claims, is a bid to divide the Gorkha unity.

In doing so, Banerjee also exposed the caste fault lines that exist in the Gorkha community, especially after the creation of three separate development boards for the Kamis, Damais and Sarkis (numbering nearly 80,000 as per the 2001 census).

“The political parties allege that Banerjee has been using ‘divide and rule’ to break down the Gorkha identity. Maybe that is true. But she didn’t create the divide, it already existed,” said Bijay, who belongs to the Kami community and lives in Kalimpong. (https://www.news18.com/news/politics/the-tale-of-two-darjeelings-beyond-scenic-hills-and-tea-gardens-a-simmering-demand-for-gorkhaland-2093051.html)

The Gorkha Factor

Both Bista and Rai have primarily skirted away from uttering the word ‘Gorkhaland’ in their campaigns. The BJP manifesto doesn’t overtly mention Gorkhaland, but Gurung (who is still in hiding) told PTI, “We have sent a memorandum to the BJP, demanding Gorkhaland. They (BJP) have assured us they will look into it.” Earlier this month, Mamata too changed tact, assuring Gorkhas that their issues of identity would be taken care of, while speaking at an election rally at Naxalbari in Siliguri.

“I want to promise that the identity of Gorkhas would be taken care of…but you should realise that the BJP had said that if you voted for them, they would give you Gorkhaland. However, after taking votes from you, they went to Delhi and did nothing for you,” she said, listing out developmental works her government has carried out in the state and portraying an image of unity.

BJP leaders argued that the promise by Banerjee, who has remained steadfast in her stand that “Darjeeling is an integral part of Bengal”, was prompted by the possibility of the “major victory” of Gurung campaigning for Bista in Darjeeling.