Relegated to a supporting role, will the TMC catamaran sink or sail in Darjeeling?

Voters are holding their cards close to their chests, but the Gorkhaland question still remains.

ByAnuradha Sharma
Relegated to a supporting role, will the TMC catamaran sink or sail in Darjeeling?
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Mann ko kura man mai chha,” said Prem Kumari Lama, 62, in between selling lollipops to a toddler at her stall near Darjeeling’s Mirik Lake. “I’m holding my cards close to my chest.”

At no cost will Prem Kumari drop any hints as to who she will be voting for in the assembly election. “Nobody will tell you anything,” a bystander remarked. “It’s a small place and everyone knows everyone. There are so many parties and we know them [supporters] all. If one gets to know that we are supporting someone else, it will be really awkward.”

This secret “mann ko kura”, or inner thoughts, is set to make all the difference as the hills of Darjeeling gear up for a rather unusual election for three assembly seats on April 17. “It’s quite something,” said Munish Tamang, national working president of the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh and an academic at Delhi University. “Unpredictable, for the first time in the hills.”

LB Rai, the chairman of the Mirik municipality and district president (hill area) of the Trinamool Congress, agreed.

“In my entire career, I have not seen an election like this one,” he said, referring to the multi-party contest in the hills and the unpredictability of the outcome. “There was a time, not so long ago, when everything depended on the leader from the hill party and people voted on predictable lines. It was more like a single-party rule. First it was [Subhash] Ghisingh and then it was Bimal Gurung who decided everything for the people. Now, people have many choices and their votes can go either way.”

Ghisingh, the head of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, or GNLF, had spearheaded the violent movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the late 1980s. He was the chairman of the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council for 20 years from 1988. A dictatorial man, he’s now remembered for his iron-handed governance that allowed no criticism or dissent.

This culture of fear was inherited by his protégé, Bimal Gurung, who rebelled to form the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in 2007 and was the chairman of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration for five years from 2012. Neither Gurung nor Ghisingh allowed opposition parties to thrive, so much so that Gurung, having decimated the GNLF, banished Ghisingh from the hills for years, not even allowing him to return home to perform his wife’s last rites.

“Now, you can say there is democracy in the hills. People are free to choose,” said Rai, speaking to this reporter in between meetings with his councillors at the Mirik municipality office. “We made this possible. If it were not for us, the hills would still be reeling under the single-party culture.”

In Rai’s opinion, the rise of the TMC has contributed to the diversity of political parties in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.

LB Rai at the Mirik municipality office.

LB Rai at the Mirik municipality office.

Prem Kumari Lama at her stall near Mirik Lake.

Prem Kumari Lama at her stall near Mirik Lake.

Hodgepodge in the hills

The contest between the TMC and BJP in Bengal takes on a different form in the hills. The TMC has not fielded any candidate here, deciding instead to leave the three seats to the two factions of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

The GJM had spearheaded the 2017 agitation for a separate state in Darjeeling, which is remembered for the incapacitating 105-day general strike in the hills. In a move widely believed to be engineered by Mamata Banerjee, the Morcha split into two in the aftermath of the agitation: the GJM1 led by Bimal Gurung and GJM2 by Binay Tamang. Tamang sided with the TMC. Gurung, who was on the run for three years after numerous police cases, allied with the BJP and is now back as a TMC supporter. The state government has already dropped over 70 criminal charges against him, while the process is on for 50 more, and Gurung has been actively campaigning for a TMC government in the state.

The factions not only do not see eye to eye, but they have also fielded their own candidates in the three seats. Whoever wins will be the TMC’s partner. While Banerjee has not said a word about which faction she favours, the Hill TMC has announced its support for the GJM1 under Gurung.

But despite both factions supporting the governing party, there is no guarantee that it will be smooth sailing for the TMC catamaran. Because the BJP is supported by the GNLF, and this is an alliance to reckon with.

Uphill, downhill

With a week to go for polling day, the Mirik municipality office was a flurry of activity. Rai and his followers were busy with meetings, rallies, and more meetings. Along with the excitement in the air was a sense of lament, that instead of fielding their own candidates, they’re relegated to a supporting role.

“Imagine a schoolkid who does all the classes regularly, takes private tuitions, and is all set to face the final exams but is not allowed to do so,” said a local TMC leader. “We feel like that.”

It’s from Mirik that the TMC made its journey into Darjeeling’s electoral politics. In 2017, when the party won the municipal election in Mirik, it became the first non-hill party to form the municipal board and firmly established itself as a credible opposition party in the hills.

Following various development projects and her constant efforts to reach out to the people of the hills, Mamata Banerjee had also become quite popular among a large section of the population, even though she was seen as a divisive leader who weakened “Gorkha unity” by setting up separate “development boards” for different hill communities. (This move was a clear strategy to woo people away from the Gorkhaland demand, one hill community at a time.)

In less than a month, sharp brakes came in the form of the agitation, which saw Banerjee not only squandering away her goodwill but becoming a central villain in her own story. It began with West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee announcing the government’s plan to make Bengali a compulsory paper in all schools. By the time Banerjee clarified that hill schools would be exempt from this rule, the GJM, under the leadership of Bimal Gurung, had already made it an issue.

What began as a protest against linguistic imposition by one political party soon took the form of a mass movement in demand for a separate state, which saw the coming together of all sections of the society and various apolitical and political groups, except the TMC. Thirteen people, including a policeman and a civil police volunteer, were killed in the agitation. The police allegedly fired at three protesters on June 18 – a charge denied by the government – and several government buildings were destroyed.

Ward councillors at the Mirik municipality office. Mamata's poster behind reads 'Bangla nijer meyekei chai', meaning 'Bengal wants her own daughter'.

Ward councillors at the Mirik municipality office. Mamata's poster behind reads 'Bangla nijer meyekei chai', meaning 'Bengal wants her own daughter'.

Banerjee’s popularity continued to spiral downwards even after the agitation, as she continued to muzzle dissent, with arrests and detentions becoming the order of the day. “It was a reign of terror,” said a man in his late twenties who makes a living by giving horse rides to tourists at Mirik Lake. “I can never forget or forgive her for that.”

Banerjee has never recovered from it. “As it is, the TMC is seen as a repressive force against Gorkha aspirations, an expression of Bengali hegemony,” said the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh’s Munish Tamang. “That it was responsible for so many people being shot dead has caused a lot of anger among the people in the hills.”

The Hill TMC shrank dramatically. During the agitation, there were reports of Gorkhaland supporters harassing TMC workers and supporters: burning down their houses and threatening them. Fearing persecution, many of them switched loyalties to other parties such as the GNLF, which was on a revival path. Many were rendered refugees in the plains of Siliguri for months.

“We were firm on what we stood for. And we suffered for it,” said a TMC worker in Mirik. “Yet we did not give up our faith in the party and Didi. So, now that it’s election time, it is kind of sad that we are nowhere.”

If it had not been for the agitation, would the TMC have perhaps been campaigning for its own candidates?

“Let bygones be bygones,” said Rai to this hypothetical question. “When Didi has decided to leave the three seats for Morcha, we are happy to support her. It is not that we were weak and could not field our own candidates; it is Didi’s generosity to give a chance to local Gorkha parties, and we support her wholeheartedly.”

Bimal factor

Bimal Gurung stunned everyone last December when he dumped the BJP and returned as a TMC leader. While many Morcha sympathisers are unhappy that he had sided with the “tyrannical” Mamata Banerjee who suppressed the 2017 agitation with an iron hand, many in the TMC are disappointed that they have to campaign for someone who was responsible for atrocities against TMC workers and their families during the agitation.

“We are in politics and it is a long-term project,” said a GJM1 office bearer who refused to be named. “The decision to ally with the TMC is a tactical one. They need us and we need them. We have to take it one step at a time.”

GJM1 spokesperson Binita Roka told Newslaundry that Gurung realised that the BJP will not do anything for the people of the hills.

“We have realised this and the people of the hills must realise this too,” she said. “If anyone can do anything for the people of the hills, it is the TMC. The BJP only used us in their fight against the TMC and they will continue to do so.”

For all the criticism of Gurung, he still has an impressive support base and is a crowd-puller. “He is such a cult figure that his followers will do just as he says, overlooking all his flaws,” said a young graduate at a tea garden near Kurseong.

“You cannot simply deny the fact that he is a true mass leader,” said Roka. “There is no one else like him in Darjeeling.”

Bimal Gurung addressing a rally in Darjeeling on April 14. Photos: Passang Yolmo

Bimal Gurung addressing a rally in Darjeeling on April 14. Photos: Passang Yolmo

Modi chamal

The BJP is hugely popular in the hills, evident not only in its massive rallies but also in private conversations, especially in the rural areas. Modi is greatly admired and revered.

“If it were not for Modi chamal [rice], my family would have perished,” said the young horse-rider in Mirik. The son of tea workers, he’s a graduate of Class 10 and wants to join the army someday. He now makes a living by giving joyrides to tourists on a horse owned by a friend. His income became nil during the pandemic.

“I got married two years ago. We were in dire straits,” he said. “The enhanced foodgrain that we got apart from money through a direct transfer – all thanks to Modi – helped us to survive the pandemic.”

He also feels that Modi will be able to transform Bengal. “He is a visionary leader who has led the country well,” he said. “We need him to transform Bengal as well. We need more jobs, more development. The TMC will never be able to achieve that for us given that this Kolkata party only wants to subjugate the hill people.”

Not just Modi chamal, there is Mamata chamal too.

“Depends on who you are talking to,” said Sumendra Tamang, a member of the Laliguras cultural resistance group that has been organising a #NoVoteToBJP campaign in the hills. Accusing the political parties, especially the BJP, of politicising government schemes, he said, “The foodgrain is the right of the people, ensured by the Food Securities Act of 2013. Modi or Mamata have not done anyone any favours by releasing more such foodgrains during the pandemic. This simple thing is communicated in such a way that what is rightfully due to the people looks like a privilege.”

One thing being said about the BJP is that it has no organisational strength. “It won the Lok Sabha election in the past by riding on the support of the Morcha,” said Rai. “It is now trying to win assembly seats by riding on the GNLF.”

But despite what the saffron party lacks at the organisational level, it surpasses everyone else in communication and propaganda.

“Both sides indulge in propaganda, but TMC cannot really match the might of the BJP in this department,” said Sumendra Tamang. “They [BJP] have been in it for far too long.”

TMC workers expressed the massive difficulty in countering the BJP’s narrative. “No matter what we do, they feel Modi has done it,” said a ward councillor in Mirik. “Didi organised the Dwar-e-sarkar programme to help people avail government schemes. We worked really hard for that, running around to help people with documentation that will help them avail government schemes, like old age pension. But when the money comes to their account, they say Modi sent it.”

Mann ko kura

“I think GJM2. Anit da has done a lot for the people here” said a housewife in Kurseong when asked who she will vote for, referring to Morcha leader Anit Thapa. “The people here like him.”

But this voter and the horse-rider in Mirik are exceptions. Most people were tight-lipped when this reporter asked about their mann ko kura unsure of which way the wind is blowing. Their main worry often is that of upsetting the neighbours, in case they are voting differently.

“When the leaders come for campaigning, the villagers greet them all equally and say good things to all. Their votes will do all the talking on poll day,” said a resident of Mirik.

A number of factors are at play, and the wind could be blowing anyway. If there is a strong dislike for Mamata Banerjee’s brand of politics, there is a sense of betrayal towards the BJP for not taking up the issues of hill people in spite of the fact that the locals have been sending BJP MPs to the Parliament since 2009. Local parties are often discredited for not standing their ground.

“We couldn’t fulfil the aspirations of the people because of the TMC government in the state which never cooperated with the centre,” said Manoj Dewan, BJP’s former district president. “Now with the BJP government at the state and centre, and BJP MLAs in the hills, we will be able to fulfil all our promises.”

Many are fed up of bandhs and agitations, and want development. “People want peace, stability and progress,” said Keshav Raj Pokharel, GJM2 spokesperson and the party’s Darjeeling candidate. “The days of disruptive politics are over.”

Munish Tamang said: “What should have been an easy election win for BJP in the hills, given the anger against TMC, has nevertheless become a contest essentially due to BJP’s own poor track record as far as fulfilling promises – permanent political solution, scheduled tribe status to 11 communities, setting up a Central University, etc – are concerned.”

Gorkhaland touches a raw nerve even though it is not a poll issue for any political party. While leaders do sing volumes on Gorkhaland in their speeches and explain how important the issue is to them, the demand is not in any major party’s manifesto.

“I have no faith in any political party,” said a septuagenarian in Darjeeling town, who said his only dream is that of a separate state of Gorkhaland. “All of them are the same. They promise something, but they never, never deliver. I am fed up of all of them.”

Prem Kumari Lama, the lollipop-seller by the side of the Mirik Lake, has given up on all hopes for Gorkhaland. “To see a separate state of Gorkhaland is my only dream, but I know there’s not a single party which will work towards it,” she said. A widow, her biggest issue now is getting a job for her son who lost his during the pandemic. “Any party which can create more jobs for the youths will get my vote.”

***

This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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