This is not for the first time that the political establishment in West Bengal has fallen short of coming to grips with the forces stirring up unrest in the Darjeeling hills where the quick-fix patches it had put in place are peeling off, only to reveal the suppurating sores that had never really healed. The hill-plain divide that transcends geography has been exacerbated by the posturing of the powers that be on both sides; never has there been an attempt at addressing, let alone reconciling, the idiomatic differences underlying the political vocabulary of the two regions.
Even at the most “normal” of times in the hills, the calmness is brittle, the demand for a break-away from West Bengal forming the core of local political discourse — so deeply embedded is it in the political imagination of a vast number of people that it simmers in the collective psyche. Lacing this recurring narrative is the overwhelming conviction — nurtured through the years — of being looked at askance, sometimes condescendingly, by the state authorities. It takes only a single miscalculation on the part of those in power in the “Bangal sarkar” (Bengal government) for this feeling of indignity to bob to the surface. This time it was the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who obliged.
If it was her design to win over the people of the hills by going to the region in person and declaring that her government’s move to make compulsory the study of Bengali as a language in West Bengal’s schools would not be applicable in the hills — in deference to the sentiments of the local people — she could not have played her cards more wrong.
The Himalayan blundering on her part was taken full advantage of — as is the case in every venture of political gamesmanship — by her adversaries in the hills who might have just got to start feeling, in a way as never before, that the ground beneath their feet was slipping away. For them, the chief minister’s gambit could not have come at a more opportune time; her Trinamool Congress was making its presence felt in the hills, having been elected to power in one of four hill municipalities and winning in wards elsewhere in the region in May’s civic polls. A window of opportunity had been flung open for Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), and he stepped right in, gleefully.
It would, indeed, be politically naive not to be able to see through Banerjee’s sudden volte face on the Bengali language issue, coming as it did only a few days after her remark in Kolkata that she saw no reason why it should not be applied in the hills when she herself has been able to pick up Nepali. It was not without political design. After all, elections to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) were only a few weeks away — which the Trinamool had its sights on — whereas the GJM, running the GTA since its formation five years ago, appeared to be running out of ideas.
Until, of course, Banerjee provided it with one, thus precipitating yet another spell of uncertainty in the hills. Darjeeling is back on the boil, swamped by a fresh wave of protests and processions which no shutdown by the local administration of the internet and local cable television outlets has been able to pre-empt, even as strident calls for Gorkhaland reverberate across the hills. The “smile” the chief minister had not too long ago claimed to have got back on the faces of its people, boasting of success where her predecessors in government, the Left Front, had failed, has given way to anger and resentment over what is being perceived by its people as the high-handedness of the security forces deployed to restore normality.
The cynic might argue that the state government has played into Gurung’s hands. Was this not what the GJM leader had been hoping for — a pretext to remind his detractors of who is in charge in the hills? The statehood issue comes handy whenever the chips are down. The emerging picture, though bleak, is not without precedent. The region is in shutdown mode, the “seasoners”, as tourists are locally referred to, have fled. The hill-plain dichotomy assumes chasmic proportions with trust in the chief minister, by now a frequent visitor to the region, disposed to taking brisk walks down its roads, having tumbled down the hill-sides.
What now? Clearly, any attempt to defuse a situation threatening to go out of hand needs to be accompanied by conciliatory positions on the part of the stakeholders with the Centre and the state government as well as the GJM going beyond simply scoring political points over each other. Such responses inevitably result in further disquiet and disaffection. It is imperative not to view matters through the prism of electoral compulsion and one-upmanship. With the GJM deciding to abandon the GTA — conceived in the first place as a mere panacea for the deep-rooted problems afflicting the troubled hills — and all the regional hill parties now announcing they will stay away from the coming polls to the body, one wonders whether it will go the way the previous autonomous set-up — the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council set up when the Left Front was in power — did. Namely, into a cul de sac.
Had not top GJM leaders pointed out at the inception of the GTA that it was only a “stepping stone” to a separate state? Or was the significance of the caveat lost on a state government celebrating the success of being able to finally put a lid on the boiling pot that was Gorkhaland. Neither can it shirk its responsibility of investing the GTA with the powers promised to make it a more viable administrative set-up and not undercutting its legitimacy as an autonomous body. As things stand, the Darjeeling hills seem to have arrived at yet another crossroads. The shadows cast by the clouds overhead keep lengthening, the rumblings of an approaching storm grow more menacing.