The Darjeeling unrest that we are seeing today is nothing short of a masterstroke by Mamata Banerjee.
Left parties are down and out in West Bengal and that leaves BJP as the only reliable opposition there. Over the past few years, BJP has gained in popularity and was slowly building up to become a formidable challenge in west Bengal. One of the things that helped BJP was their support to the Gorkhaland movement which demanded a separate state.
Demand for a new state for the mostly-Nepali speaking population of the northern hills region of Bengal has been there for quite sometime now but it gathered pace when Subhash Ghishing formed Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in 1986. With subsequent violence that followed in the region, then CM of West Bengal created the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988. The council was given some power and autonomy to rule the region without actually giving it a full statehood status. Its major work was to administer the hills of Darjeeling District and managed three sub-divisions Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.
Bimal Gurung was a member of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and a close aide to Subhash Ghishing. In 2004, DGHC elections were not held and in protest Bimal Gurung created the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). Their primary demand is to create a separate state of Gorkhaland which covers Darjeeling district and many areas from Dooars. They say that the primary langugae spoken in this region is Nepali and they have little to do in terms of culture of Bengal.
When Mamata Banerjee’s TMC came to power, they made a pact with Gurung and created the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) in 2012. GTA replaced the earlier DGHC and had even more power and say and now has three hill subdivisions Darjeeling, Kurseong and Mirik and some areas of Siliguri subdivision of Darjeeling district and the whole of Kalimpong district under its authority.
Till 2009 BJP had no presence in Bengal. But when BJP supported demand for the new Gorkhaland state in its election manifesto, they found a natural ally in GJM. Soon, BJP’s Jaswant Singh contested and won the prestigious Darjeeling seat. In 2014 elections, it got support of GJM again andd SS Ahluwalia won the Darjeeling seat. Gorkhaland then seemed to be the launchpad BJP needed to gain entry into Bengal. Mamata was worried about this.
2019 Elections are not too far off and Mamata wanted to make sure BJP’s growth is stopped in its tracks. In May 2017, Mamata Bannerjee said that Bengali would be made a compulsory language for all North Bengal students till Class 10. She knew quite well that this would be objected as the Northern Hills region people speak Nepali and have nothing to do with Bengali.
As expected, Bimal Gurung’s GJM opposed this and called for bandhs. Soon it all turned violent and Mamata had local police barging into houses of GJM leaders and arresting them. In subsequent protests, 3 supporters of GJM were killed in police firing. Now GJM has called for an indefinite bandh. Meanwhile, BJP led center has not been able to solve the crisis. GJM is now accusing it of going back on Gorkhaland promise and doing nothing.
BJP is now in a fix. Gorkhaland state technically is not possible. It just has four seats – Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Alipur Duar and Cooch Bihar out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal. This is just too small to agree to the demand for a statehood. Besides, West Bengal’s majority Bengali population is against the idea of breaking their state. If BJP speaks now in favour of Gorkhaland and supports Bimal Gurung, it will alienate Bengalis and this will shatter any dreams it has of gaining seats in West Bengal. However, if it now goes against Bimal Gurung, BJP will be accused of back tracking on a poll promise and will lose their small support base in the Gorkhaland area which would have helped it to achieve bigger goals in tthe future.
Summer being the peak season, tourists as well as local business has been affected. Mamata timed her move quite well because she knew the summer season will bring maximum attention to this region. How BJP now counters Mamata’s move and how soon Darjeeling returns back to normalcy will decide the future of BJP in West Bengal politics.