For three days that she toured North Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that she wasn’t there to “speak about politics” and assured that “overall development of Darjeeling hills was her government’s top priority”. Urging for “peace in hills”, Mamata assured that funds will keep flowing to the region for various schemes.
However, with the cry of Gorkhaland once again echoing in the hills, political turmoil seems virtually inevitable.
One of the last things Mamata said before returning to the plains was that the ruling Trinamool Congress wouldn’t tolerate any attempt to foment trouble in the hills. The reference was to the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s (GJM) call for a bandh on September 28. While Mamata has claimed that her government has given Rs 4,000 crore to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), Gurung has consistently maintained that this was not the case. “Let her furnish the details of the funds by September 27,” he said, adding that failing which the bandh will be called.
The funds to GTA, explained senior leaders of the party, were key to Gurung’s own plans in Darjeeling. After an election where the GJM fared relatively poorly and a series of setbacks, including GTA chairman Pradeep Pradhan, joining the TMC, Gurung has relaunched the Gorkhaland stir. In a parallel move, a plea has been filed in the Supreme Court, challenging the West Bengal government’s refusal to transfer administrative power and various subjects to the GTA, in spite of a tripartite agreement, including the state and the union governments, in 2011.
“In both cases, the money or the lack of it, given to the GTA is the key. Essentially, the issue of Gorkhaland revolves not just around the idea of a community’s identity, but the sense of disenfranchisement due to lack of development. Many felt that the GTA would end the need for a separate state. But Gurung has consistently alleged that Mamata has continuously interfered in the workings of the GTA, hampering its autonomy,” explained a senior leader.
In the plea in the Supreme Court, petitioner and GTA member Binay Tamang, claimed that the petition was necessary due to “unreasonable, arbitrary and illegal actions and omissions on the part of the respondent state government of West Bengal” and added that it was “impinging upon the fundamental rights of the Gorkha people living in the hill areas of the district of Darjeeling”. It challenged the state government’s refusal to transfer administrative power and various subjects to it, in spite of a tripartite agreement.
While the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plea, Mamata-led Trinamool Congress has responded in Darjeeling by continuing to do what their strategy in the hills has been over the past five years – combining development while simultaneously individually empowering the different communities that make up the Gurung’s base through the creation of development boards.
A GJM source had earlier said that Gurung was annoyed at Mamata for announcing a development board for the Gurungs. “She has already formed development boards for 10 tribal groups in Darjeeling including Lepchas, Bhutias, Tamangs. Now she has announced to set up Gurung development board after the Pujas. This is aimed at creating further division,” the GJM source said.
Mamata has already suggested that the demands for separate boards raised by the Bhujel and Newar communities, and other hill minorities such as Muslims and Bengalis, were being considered by the government.
“Right now the TMC is looking towards the municipal elections in the hills,” said a senior TMC leader while adding, “If elections were to take place right now, Gurung would be wiped out. He knows it and that is why he is trying so hard to revive the Gorkhaland issue. The statehood issue is the only issue that has taken precedence over development in the past.”
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