Gorkhaland: it's Mamata vs GJM

The resurgence of unrest and violence in Darjeeling has more to do with politics than with the issue of language that seems to have been the immediate trigger. West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress government’s announcement last month that Bengali would be made mandatory in all schools in the state from Class I met with strong resentment and opposition in the hill areas where Nepali is the language of most people. It was unwise of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to take the decision without consultation with the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) which is the semi-autonomous authority of the area. The government later clarified, after protests erupted, that the decision would not be applicable to Darjeeling. But that did not quieten the situation, and other contentious issues have come to the fore. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) of Bimal Gurung, which controls the GTA, has revived the separate Gorkhaland demand and sought legislative protection for Nepali language. It has called for an indefinite shutdown which started this week. The army was called out and there have been violent incidents.

While linguistic grievances have been part of the Gorkha politics in the hills, the present situation has its roots in the politics of both the Trinamool Congress and the GJM and the distrust between them. Mamata Banerjee had always wanted to extend her party’s influence to the Darjeeling hills. The Trinamool made a breakthrough last month when it won the municipal election in Mirik, a subdivisional town, for the first time in many years, and won some seats elsewhere. The government also created a new district, set up a number of development boards for communities like Lepchas, and promised more. A Cabinet meeting was held in Darjeeling last week. The GJM has taken all this as threats, as its total supremacy in the hills has been challenged. The 45-member GTA where GJM controls all seats is going to the polls later this year. The GJM does not want the Trinamool threat to grow stronger and knows that aggression and confrontation are the best methods to defend its turf. The language issue came handy.

There is a subtext of BJP politics also in the situation. The GJM is an ally of the BJP and is a part of the NDA. The BJP has major plans and strategies for West Bengal but Mamata Banerjee would not brook any challenge to her in the state. The BJP’s position on the revived Gorkhaland demand is not clear. A continuation of the protests and violence in any case is not good for the hills which depend on tourism for sustenance.

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