As the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha enforced a 12-hour bandh in the three sub-divisions of Darjeeling district Wednesday, it is Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who seems to have suffered a political loss in to the hills.
Since her landslide victory in the Assembly elections this year, Mamata has been consistently working to bridge gaps and addressing chinks in her armour, most of all in North Bengal, which has consistently eluded her. Ahead of polls, when GJM spokesperson Harka Bahadur Chhetri form his Jan Andolan Party, TMC backed it in Kalimpong. Chhetri lost but helped TMC gain ground, prompting Mamata to declare Kalimpong a separate district, a long awaited demand of the people in the area.
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On Wednesday, however, even Kalimpong remained shut. GJM’s Kalimpong MLA Sarita Rai and other party cadre were detained by the police. “Because of the recent political developments Kalimpong was being considered a flashpoint. We were worried that things may turn violent in the district because of the prevailing tension between our cadre and that of the TMC. But it was very peaceful here,” said Rai who was released in the evening.
Last month, Mamata managed to woo GJM vice-president Pradeep Pradhan who, in an elaborate ceremony in Kurseong switched over to the TMC along with 6,000 supporters. The shutdown, however, was successful in Kurseong too.
“With the defections and the dip in GJM’s vote share in the polls, party chief Bimal Gurung has been visibly nervous. He has threatened to relaunch the movement for Gorkhaland. But today’s shutdown has reaffirmed that the GJM still has enough ground in the hills to swing things,” said a party insider.
Political observer Upendra said that it is TMC’s “high handedness” that has started turning the tide against the ruling party once again. “Yes. the TMC was gaining ground but they still did not have more than 10-15 per cent of the vote share. The real danger is from the GNLF, the original keeper of the Gorkhaland movement which has been getting close to the TMC over the past few years. The defectors are opportunists. But the GNLF cadres are different. They are in politics for their ideals and not for political opportunism. The fear in the hills was of a stand-off between the GNLF and the GJM as both fight for Gorkhaland,” said Upendra.
Despite having permission for holding a public meeting in Darjeeling, GNLF decided to cancel and reschedule it. “They are waiting and watching. For the time bring, they don’t want to get into a direct confrontation with the GJM,” said a GJM insider.
GJM MLA Amar Rai said that despite heavy police presence not a single shop opened in Darjeeling district. “Only three tea stalls remained open an that too at the request of the police. TMC workers went from shop to shop asking them to open but the owners refused to oblige. Three ministers were sent to monitor the strike in the Hills. This proves is that what is uppermost in the mind of people here is a separate Gorkhaland,” said Rai.
Upendra, meanwhile, said that the directives from the state government set people against them. “When Aroop Biswas issues statement saying that the TMC will ensure that the shutdown doesn’t happen, it immediately set hill people against the state. A felling of us versus them inevitably creeps in. Before today it was about a strike. But after today, the way the TMC has behaved, it has now become about whether people of the hills still want a separate Gorkhaland or not,” he said.