The unrest in Darjeeling has reminded some people of the Gorkhaland agitation that erupted against the CPI(M) government in Bengal in the 1980s. This led to a demand for a separate state and a call for greater development. Are we seeing a repeat of it? The short answer is “No”. The context and circumstances are very different.
The demand for a separate state in Darjeeling is just not viable. The area is so small it comprises one parliamentary seat and two assembly constituencies. If such parameters were accepted for forming new states, India would not have 29 states but 290. And it would be completely chaotic and ungovernable.
In the early 1980s, though, it was clear the CPI(M) was ignoring the hill districts of North Bengal and there was a genuine sense of neglect. This time, quite to the contrary, Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress are gaining popularity in the hills of North Bengal. Discredited and disgruntled elements are fighting a last-ditch battle by sabotaging the developmental process and causing disruption in peak tourist season.
It all began in May when Trinamool swept the municipal election in Mirik, winning six of the nine seats. This stunned the GJM, which has been running the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). Elections to the GTA are expected in the near future. The Mamata buzz is evident in Darjeeling and its neighbourhood and Trinamool is widely expected to do well in the GTA elections as well. Honestly, this is not about parties winning or losing, but about democracy flourishing in the north Bengal hills.
For Trinamool, this electoral success is a validation of hard work. Mamata Banerjee has personally overseen developmental projects in the region. Between May 2011, when she became Chief Minister, and June 2017, she has visited Darjeeling 17 times, easily a record for a head of government from Kolkata. As part of her initiative, Uttarkanya, the secretariat for North Bengal, has been opened. Local people no longer need to travel to Kolkata to interact with the state administration.
Much more has been done. The Kalimpong sub-division has been made into a district and Mirik upgraded to a sub-division. Fifteen separate development boards have been established for the Lepcha, Sherpa, Bhutia, Tamang and other communities. There is a new medical college being set up in Kurseong. Over 850,000 people have benefited from discounted medicines available at a wide network of fair price shops. Under the Khadya Suraksha Scheme, 1.4 million people in the Darjeeling area are receiving foodgrains at Rs. 2 per kg. Hundred per cent electrification, a long-standing demand in the hills of Bengal, has been achieved.
Contrast this with the GJM’s record. Since 2012, the GTA has received Rs. 900 crore from the state government and Rs. 600 crore from the central government. It has not submitted documents on how the money was spent. Recently, the Trinamool government has asked for a special audit of GTA funds. This has rattled the GJM, which believes its misdeeds are about to be exposed and its electoral future is in jeopardy.
That is why it has gone back on a key clause in the Memorandum of Agreement on the GTA signed in 2011 by the centre, the state government and the GJM. The clause reads: “The GJM agrees to ensure that peace and normalcy will be maintained in the region.” Today, the GJM is inciting violence.
The GJM is taking to the streets under false pretexts, by claiming the state government is imposing Bengali on the local people. This, even after the Chief Minister has made it very clear that Bengali in schools is optional for people in the hills, not at all compulsory.
In recent days, from students to office-goers to businesspeople, everybody has been affected by the GJM’s criminal actions. Darjeeling receives half a million domestic tourists and 50,000 foreign tourists a year. This summer, in holiday season, a tourism economy worth hundreds of crores has been crippled. From the ordinary roadside vendor and the tourist guide to the hotel owner and the tourist bus operator, thousands have been affected. All because the GJM is worried its corruption will be exposed and ordinary people want peace and development.
Mamata Banerjee is a fighter. She had camped in Darjeeling, roamed the streets to help ordinary people and gave them confidence that the administration will not let things go out of hand. As she so emotionally and eloquently put it, “Shops are closed and people have to suffer without any fault of theirs. Snatching someone’s livelihood is not politics but hooliganism. We will bring an end to it for the sake of peace in Darjeeling… I will give my blood, but will not allow anyone to conspire to push Darjeeling into danger.”
This is the hard reality of Darjeeling and of the betrayal of the residents of that beautiful part of Bengal and of India by the GJM. The Trinamool government will not allow the North Bengal hills to be hurt further. To quote Mamata Banerjee again: “Development work will continue and there should be an end to this deep-rooted conspiracy.” If there are misgivings, dialogue works best, within the framework of the Indian constitution. But before that violence has to stop. There can be no negotiations at gunpoint.
(Derek O’Brien is leader, parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party.)