On February 13, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee laid the foundation stone for a ‘Gorkha Welfare Centre’ in Delhi in the presence of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leaders. The centre is meant for people coming to the Capital from North Bengal hills, specifically Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.
It was another in a line of development boards launched by the Mamata government to “meet the cultural and economic needs” of minority groups in the North Bengal hills, in what is seen as a concerted bid by the ruling Trinamool Congress to wrest the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat from the BJP (one of the party’s only two Lok Sabha seats in the state).
Through the promise of development, the TMC has also meant to gain a foothold in the hills while quietening the separate statehood demand of the region. During a visit last month to Darjeeling, Mamata said, “Our government will work for a permanent solution for the region — one that would help secure the political identity of the Gorkhas and facilitate the creation of a better Darjeeling.”
At the inauguration of the Gorkha Welfare Centre in Delhi, no BJP leader was present, though the GJM has been an ally of the BJP for 10 years, and played a key role in its win the last two times from Darjeeling.
The state government first floated the ‘Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board’ (2013) followed by the ‘Tamang Development Board’ (2014) and ‘Bhutia Development Board’ (2015). Soon almost all sub-Gorkha groups sought boards of their own, also allowing the TMC to play into the divisions within them. By the end of 2017, there were 15 development and cultural boards. While these were all based on specific groups, in August 2018, the state government formed one solely based on geography — creating the ‘West Bengal Terai, Dooars, Siliguri Development and Cultural Board (Gorkha community)’.
The TMC has also managed to split the GJM — one faction led by former party chief Bimal Gurung and the other by the current Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) Chairman, Binay Tamang. While granting Rs 500 crore to the GTA has got the Mamata government Tamang’s loyalty, by keeping the various boards under the Tribal Welfare and Backward Class Welfare Departments and not the GTA, the CM has ensured a toehold of her own in the region. Last year, the state government announced Rs 96 crore for the boards. Mamata has also promised to renew the GTA accord after the Lok Sabha elections.
Meanwhile, the BJP has been losing ground, with anger growing over the Centre not fulfilling promises made to the region, including tribal status for 11 hill communities.
Expressing support for an alliance with the TMC for the Lok Sabha polls, Tamang told The Indian Express, “We have not seen a state government undertake such a large number of development projects for us before.”
GJM leaders and members of development boards were present at the TMC’s rally of Opposition parties on January 19. They also made their presence felt at Mamata’s dharna against the Central government in Kolkata over CBI action against the Kolkata police chief.
BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha accused the TMC government of trying to win over the hill people by spending money. “However, this will not ensure real development. This will only ensure buying of votes,” he said.