Political Players for Gorkhaland: Their Potentials, Problems and Prospects

Writes: Animesh Rai*

Once again after the fascinating 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Darjeeling hills have started to witness intriguing contentions between the different political parties. As the state Legislative Assembly election is drawing closer new parties with new principles are emerging while the old and dominant ones are engaged in finding new affiliations to fulfill their long pending objectives. Day in day out, large number of people are seen changing their party associations. These political dynamics signify the growth of new aspirations and approaches within the regional polity. Various parties have come forward with multiple means to achieve more or less a common grounded objective of - development and statehood. Their activism and promises have indeed enthralled the entire hills with political warmth in the cold climes of winter and of course, with a hope for better spring and summers.

This write up is an attempt to highlight some of the basic approaches adopted by the four active political parties in pursuit of development and statehood demand. It also briefly touches upon their strength, shortcomings and mobilisation strategies and concisely concludes with the condition of polity at hand.
Political Players for Gorkhaland
Political Players for Gorkhaland
At present the political parties that are working vigorously for the upcoming elections are the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and Jan Andolan Party (JAP). Each political group, their perspectives, pros and cons has been dealt in an orderly manner.

The GJMM under Shri Bimal Gurung is the dominant party in the hills. It emerged in 2007 and revived the Gorkhaland movement and continues to advocate the formation of a separate state for the Indian Nepalis within the Indian Union. It has a very strong support base mostly in the tea garden belts which represents more than seventy percent of the total population of the district. In order to achieve its goal the party has been vehemently supporting the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

Both in 2009 and 2014 the GJMM backed the BJP candidates in the Lok Sabha elections and in both the cases made them victorious with a huge margin of votes. Although the first attempt was futile as the BJP could not form the government. The second trial is expected to be fruitful with BJP in power at the centre. Quite confident with this great hope and trust, the present GJMM supremo at times roars in public meetings "The ball is in our court and it is near the goalpost…we are about to score a goal" meaning that they are very close in achieving Gorkhaland. Moreover, the benevolent words of the present Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi during the 2014 election campaign at Siliguri declared "The dreams of Gorkhas are my dreams" has consequently given a lot of consolation to the Gorkhas across the country for the fulfillment of their century old dream of a separate state.

The party believes that BJP is sympathetic towards the Gorkhas and has high hopes that BJP which had earlier carved out three new states during their NDA I regime will also eventually create Gorkhaland. GJMM is mobilising its support base through pad yatras, the door to door foot campaign organised in different wards of the district. They have also taken up the issues of granting Schedule Tribe status to ten hill communities and regularization of more than five thousand casual workers working under the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). There are possibilities that they may enter into alliance with Congress and Communist party to fight against TMC in the forthcoming polls.

The unfortunate situation for the party is its failure to convince the BJP of West Bengal, to garner their support for the cause of Gorkhaland. The state BJP is only in favour of development and political stability in the hills but completely against the partition of Bengal for Gorkhaland. Secondly, the murder case allegation of the late Madan Tamang, the leader of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) on the main leaders of the GJMM has given them a bad name and fame. The critics point at these inhumane and barbaric character of the leaders and decline from supporting them. The murder case file has not been closed down but the investigation is still going on. Lastly, the BJP does not have a majority in the Upper House of the Parliament to pass the bill in favor of Gorkhaland. Probably the reason for GJMM to ally with Congress and Communists is to gain their support in the Upper House that is if and when the BJP introduces and passes the bill from the Lower House. Unfortunately, the issue of Gorkhaland has not even been raised by the BJP in the parliament till date.

The TMC is the dominant party in West Bengal and the head of the party, the present Chief Minister (CM) of West Bengal Shri Mamta Banerjee has gained popularity for being one of the most efficient CM in the nation. The party does not support the cause of Gorkhaland but emphasize on development and peace in the hills. In the former years TMC and GJMM shared a good relationship but it started to deteriorate on the matters relating to the transfer of various allocated departments from the state to the GTA. Infact, GTA an autonomous but an unconstitutional body was conferred to GJMM by the TMC government in the presence of the central government officials in 2012. Once their relationship degenerated TMC shifted their focus of development from economy towards ethnicity by using an alternative model, establishment of tribal development boards in the GTA arena. TMC believes that through such boards every marginal and tribal group of hills would develop on equal lines. The party seeks to mobilise supporters by forming such development boards. It is also to be noted that the present CM has visited Darjeeling district for the maximum number of time as compared to the former state CMs. She says she loves Darjeeling and her people and will soon turn it into Switzerland but she can never think about the separation of Darjeeling district from Bengal.

GJMM is the most vocal adversary of TMC. The party is disliked for segregating the sense of collective Gorkha community by dividing the group into several sub-groups, all in the name of development boards. Opponents also believe that TMC is trying to suppress the Gorkhaland movement by disintegrating the Gorkha community. The concept of development board formation is also seen as a tool of disrupting the traditional cultural homogeneity of the region.

GNLF under the late Subash Ghising came into existence in the mid 1980's and it was the first party to demand Gorkhaland in a legitimate and vocal manner by provoking Article 3A of the Indian Constitution. The party saw the plight of Indian Nepalis or Gorkhas in the Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950 and demanded its abrogation. After his demise in 2015, his son Shri Mann Ghishing has been made the new party president. GNLF is empowering its support base by reviving its old demand of Sixth Schedule for Darjeeling which was slumped down after the party's failure to remain in power since 2008. This special statute of autonomy was particularly designed for the tribal areas of North East (NE) India and both the state and centre were in favour of bestowing this plan for the region. Drawing from the experience of NE states, it became evident to the leaders that most of the present day states of that region were earlier placed under Sixth Schedule before they became a state. Almost all the backward and scheduled areas of the colonial administration have been made states in the post-independent India. So far, Darjeeling is the only remaining historical backward area that has not been converted into a state. So, for GNLF the foundation stone for Gorkhaland is to bring the region under the Sixth Schedule first and concomitantly, follow the political footprints of NE states. The party had aligned with TMC in the 2014 MP elections and may club with them in this year's state elections as well.

However, the opposition groups argue that for an area to be brought under Sixth Schedule it has to have more than fifty to sixty percent of the tribal population which in case of Darjeeling district does not fulfill the required criteria. The opponents also asserts that if Sixth Schedule is granted then the region will be declared a tribal area, majority of population which comprise of non-tribal groups would be debarred from many socio-cultural, politico and economic engagements and tbenefits. It is directly seen as a device to divide the regional society.

JAP was recently formed in January 2016 by a group of erudite personals. The party is headed by Dr. Harka Bahadur Chettri, the former GJMM spokesperson. He parted ways with Morcha in September 2015 when he turned down the party chief's order to resign from the post of the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA). He resigned from the party but continued to remain as an independent MLA from Kalimpong. He also shares a very close relationship with the CM. The party has well known experts drawn from the pool of academia, lawyers and activists from pressure groups. The first point in their manifesto is development of the region and an attainment of a separate statehood. Although a separate statehood is also their demand, they do not stress on using the concept - Gorkhaland. They believe that Gorkhas are not the only ones inhabiting in Darjeeling district and Dooars but the region has also been a home for many other ethnic minority tribes and communities since ages. They go for integrative approach of accommodating every group of the region. They have an impression that the direct use of pro-ethnic terms like Gorkhaland would exclude the members of other communities. Moreover, the concept Gorkha has direct connections with the small hill district in western part of Nepal and with the conquerors and founders of the kingdom of Nepal. The use of the term may provide more space for political criticism and opposition rather than favour and support when the issue is placed at the national level. Therefore, they apparently hold that using the ethnic term Gorkha at present may not be very appealing in the sight of the opponents and the government, particularly while placing the issue of a separate state which calls for ethos of greater national interest and integration. Prof. Mahendra P. Lama, the Founding Vice Chancellor of Sikkim University and currently the Chairman of JAP had earlier asserted that the name of the state can be easily amended later once the state is achieved, what is really required at the present hour is the understanding and strategy of placing the demand in the right place, right Ministry and active lobbying with the government. They call for politics of rationality over the politics of emotionalism.

JAP aspires to have a corruption free administration and believe in maintaining a healthy relationship with both the state and central governments. They prefer to put forward the issue of statehood through rational and robust discussions and deliberations. They are mobilising support with the demand for land rights in tea gardens and cinchona plantation areas along with the implementation of Minimum Wage Act and creation of Kalimpong districts and other sub-divisions in Mirik and Bijanbari. They may form an alliance with the TMC in the upcoming elections.

Since the members of the new political group do not use the term "Gorkhaland" and believes in maintaining a healthy relationship with the state government they are looked down by their rivals as brokers of the state and referred as "Mir Zafars - the traitors." These politicians are seen as opportunists and agents of West Bengal government by their opposition forces and their party is seen as a sub-TMC party. The GJMM chief has strongly claimed that this party will not last for more than a month or two. Their antagonists have also circulated posters spreading the message to be aware of the motives of the JAP leaders.

Now emphasizing on the probable alliance pattern for the upcoming elections the two hill parties GNLF and JAP have the possibilities of aligning with TMC while GJMM is seeking for collaborations with Congress and Communists. The TMC still has a strong hold in Bengal and the political observers are of the estimation that the party will stay in power in the next term as well despite the challenge posed by Congress and the Communists collectively. In the process what may possibly happen is TMC may become more powerful in the state and GJMM may lose out the support from BJP for supporting its major rivals in the state elections. The last possibility of statehood may be missed out and the dream of Gorkhaland may fade away.

Observing the goals alone, all of these parties want development and GJMM, GNLF and JAP are fighting for a separate statehood as well. In considering their strength and contributions towards the political development of the region, the GNLF started the statehood movement, GJMM revived the movement and now has an added benefit of both mass support and as an affiliate of BJP. On the other hand JAP is a new political entrant only in the terms of its recent formation but has members who are old and matured in terms of political experience with a sound wisdom on legal system and national policy making.

Lastly, reconsidering the GJMM chief's holla of sporti-fing their political success like a ball about to be striked off for scoring the final goal in the football match, many supporting spectators sees that ball is yet to be defended and dribbled properly before the final shot is made and for this skillful players are a must. The region surely has well trained and specialized players, ready to play in their respective positions in the soccer field but currently they are all busy playing for different teams. If the resources of these diverse players can be capitalized into one common team then it will positively fortify the Gorkhaland movement for all better reasons. The immediate need of the hour is forming one composite team from the region. Elections here can be seen as a major league where the victory of the team is possible solely through consensus and companionship.

The GJMM supremo has aptly said, at present the ball is in their hands, they are close to the goalpost but the goal has not been scored yet. However, with the concrete passionate team upholding the virtues of fraternity and morality, the football match would have been played in a more robust and organised way. The players would have in a very sporting spirit, fended, tackled, passed on and off and finally kicked the ball right inside the goalpost. The ever cheering supportive spectators would have rejoiced and remembered this beautiful game and its players till the very end.

*The author is a Research Scholar at Sikkim University

Via TheDC

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