The return of agitation in the Darjeeling hills and the communal violence in Basirhat, North 24 Parganas, pose a serious challenge for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Her credentials as a leader and administrator are on test as mobs defy the government’s writ in the state.
The Darjeeling hills have been restive ever since the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland resurfaced in early June. The state government’s failure to engage local political outfits spearheading the protests in a dialogue has resulted in the collapse of civic life in the region. Fresh violence erupted late last week and three persons have been killed, allegedly in police firing, since Friday; government properties, including a station in the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, were set on fire. The CM’s call for talks, which came too late, has been rejected by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and Gorkha National Liberation Front— both outfits are willing to negotiate only with the Centre.
In these circumstances, even though she continues to blame the BJP and its government at the Centre for fuelling the crisis, Banerjee may need to request Central intervention. The shutdown in Darjeeling has also cut off Sikkim from the rest of India: Chief Minister Pawan Chamling has accused Banerjee of being insensitive to the predicament of the Sikkimese. In Basirhat, delay on the part of the police to act, and interference by the local political leadership after an offensive post appeared on social media, contributed to the flaring of violence. A tentative peace now prevails after the government enforced a curfew and sent in additional troops.
The state government has announced a judicial probe into the riots, but Banerjee must also reflect on and address the allegation that her government is playing vote bank politics amid the tumult. The message must go down to the local administration, and to the people, that the government will be fair, firm and impartial in enforcing the law.
The onus is on the chief minister to restore order in both Darjeeling and Basirhat. Her complaint that the Centre is “non-cooperative” sounds like an abdication of responsibility. Nor can she evade the need for visible action by blaming the BJP. Of course, the BJP must be careful too — it has invited accusations of stoking communal unrest in order to mobilise support in a region in which it has ambitions to grow and spread. But the bottom line is clear: Law and order is the responsibility of the state government.
Voters of West Bengal gave Banerjee the mandate to run the government and to bring about the promised poriborton from the state of stasis under the Left Front government. Change — political and economic — is possible only if there is social peace.