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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Over the hills and far away

Gorkhaland promise still hanging, the GJM founder’s crossing over to Trinamool carries enough punch to make BJP worry.

Written by Santanu Chowdhury | Kolkata |
Updated: March 11, 2021 12:26:01 pm
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung with 17 councillors during press conference at Lalit Great Eastern hotel in Kolkata in November 2020 (Express photo)

In an election marked by people deserting her, he is among Mamata Banerjee’s most prized new entrants — with his entry, by far, the most dramatic.

In October last year, after three years on the run, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) founder and president Bimal Gurung had surfaced in Kolkata’s Gorkha Bhavan to announce that he was leaving the BJP for the ruling Trinamool. The news had immediately reverberated up and down the hills, all the way to Delhi. The BJP, which had won seven of the eight parliamentary seats in north Bengal in 2019, was suddenly staring at the prospect of the Trinamool bagging the 10 Assembly seats in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri districts where the GJM holds command.

Besides this, there are seats in North Dinajpur, Alipurduar and Cooch Behar where the move may have repercussions.

Gurung had surfaced in Kolkata’s Gorkha Bhavan last year to announce that he was leaving the BJP for the ruling Trinamool. (Photo: Partha Paul)

In the alliance with the GJM, the Trinamool has allotted the party three Assembly seats, Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, which it has won the last two times.

The GJM was formed in 2007 on the demand for a Gorkhaland. Gurung, now 56, was the chairperson of the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), that governs Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas, when he went missing in 2017. His disappearance followed charges against him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with a grenade attack on the Kalimpong Police Station and an explosion in Darjeeling’s Chowk Bazaar area, during a 104-day shutdown called by him in the hills demanding separate statehood.

Since its formation, the support of the GJM has been crucial for any party hoping to win in the hill areas. It formed an alliance with the BJP in 2009, helping senior party leader Jaswant Singh to the Lok Sabha. In 2011, the GJM won the Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong Assembly seats while helping an Independent, Wilson Champamari, win Kalchini in the Dooars region.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool tried to gain the GJM’s support for its Darjeeling candidate Bhaichung Bhutia. However, Gurung supported the BJP’s S S Ahluwalia, helping him win, hoping that the NDA at the Centre would in turn finally address the party’s demands.

In the 2016 Assembly elections, the GJM again showed its political might, retaining Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. However, there were defections within the front — believed to have been engineered by the Trinamool, aided by the violent 2017 agitation — leading to the creation of another faction. While Gurung continued to support the BJP, the faction headed by Binoy Tamang pledged allegiance to the Trinamool.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Gurung faction prevailed, helping the BJP’s Raju Bista win from Darjeeling.

However, by shutting him out on the Gorkhaland demand, the BJP perhaps left few options for Gurung. The last such snub came in September last year, after Bista, under pressure from GJM leaders, raised the Gorkhaland matter in Parliament. The Union Home Ministry subsequently invited the West Bengal government, GTA and GJM for a tripartite meeting to “discuss issues related to Gorkhaland”, but, to the shock of the GJM, revised the agenda from “issues related to Gorkhaland” to “issues related to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration”. Dilip Ghosh, Bengal BJP chief, was quoted as saying party does not believe in a separate Gorkhaland.

The BJP government has also failed to keep its election promise of ST status for Gorkhas. In the 2019 manifesto, in line with its earlier manifestos, the BJP said, “We will recognise the 11 left out Indian Gorkha sub-tribes as Scheduled Tribes. We are also committed to implementing reservation in the Legislative Assembly of Sikkim for Limboo and Tamang tribes. We are committed to working towards finding a permanent political solution to the issue of Darjeeling Hills, Siliguri Terai and Dooars region.”

In his first rally after 2017 on his return to the Darjeeling hills, Gurung accused the BJP of “deceiving the Gorkhas” for years over separate statehood demand.

As Gurung comes to the Trinamool, Tamang is reportedly not pleased, with the development reducing his clout.

For, the GJM split notwithstanding, Gurung remains the undisputed leader of the hills, who is seen as having stood up to the might of successive governments for a separate Gorkhaland. A former Gorkha Volunteers Corps member, he was associated with Gorkha National Liberation Front and close to its legendary leader Subhash Ghising before he turned against his mentor to launch the “second agitation” for a Gorkhaland state in 2007.

As for the 70-odd cases against Gurung, the Mamata government has started withdrawing them.

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