Bimal Gurung's reappearance added to the litany of political quagmires from the Darjeeling hills

Bimal Gurung's reappearance added to the litany of political quagmires from the Darjeeling hills
Photo Credit: Deccan Herald

Bimal Gurung, who till recently was absconding and in hiding since 2017 for fear of being arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act after he and some party members were allegedly held accountable for a breach of peace in the Darjeeling hills during the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation, made a very public appearance along with his aide Roshan Giri in Kolkata on October 21.

In an impromptu press meet outside the Gorkha Bhavan in Salt Lake, Kolkata, Gurung announced his resignation from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which he had with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The NDA is an Indian political alliance made up of centre-right and right-wing political parties and led by BJP. It was founded in 1998 and currently controls the Indian union government as well as the governments of 18 states of India.

Gurung simultaneously declared his support to the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) before the 2021 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election as an ally. While he has pledged loyalty to the hills of Darjeeling and its people, he mentioned that the Bhartiya Janata Party did not improve the situation of Darjeeling, which led to his decision to join hands with TMC and Mamta Banerjee, the current Chief Minister of West Bengal and the founder of TMC. 

“We will give a fitting reply to BJP. I want to see Mamata Banerjee as chief minister for the third time in 2021,” Gurung said during the press meet. Adding that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which currently has the political control rein of the Darjeeling hills, had worked hard in the past the help BJP win but the Centre did not fulfil its promises even after several meetings with the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, but that Chief Minister had fulfilled all the promises and commitments made to every group and organization.

Undeniably, this new turn of events has caused quite an uproar. Just days after Gurung’s reappearance, on Sunday, protest demonstrations were held by Gurung’s rival, Benoy Tamang’s faction in the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha- Benoy Tamang [GJM-BT]) after Bimal Gurung’s faction in the Gorkha Jamukti Morcha (called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha- Bimal Gurung [GJM-BG]) put up their party flags in Darjeeling town, for the first time after his disappearance asking that Gurung be allowed to return immediately.

However, GJM-BT, who organized Sunday’s protests took down the flags put around Darjeeling town by GJM-BG and warned people that Gurung’s entry into Darjeeling would also mean a return of violence and that the people should not let him enter the hills.

Though Gurung during his appearance at the Gorkha Bhavan was not allowed inside, the police personnel on the scene did not arrest Gurung even though there are more than 150 charges against him, the most significant one being the UAPA charge for his alleged involvement during the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation. Gurung, at the moment, is at a hotel in Kolkata with his close aides, expecting the West Bengal government to drop the above-mentioned charges against him.

To understand who Bimal Gurung is and what led to the events of October 21, 2020, one must understand what Gorkhaland is. A quick Google search and a Wikipedia link will bring one to this description:

“Gorkhaland is the name of the proposed state in India that the Nepali-speaking Gorkha ethnic group in the district of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and the Dooars in the northern region of West Bengal have expressed a desire to create. The demand for a separate administrative unit in Darjeeling has existed since 1909 when the Hillmen's Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum to Minto-Morley Reforms demanding a separate administrative setup.” The term Gorkhaland was coined by Subhash Ghisingh, leader of Gorkha National Liberation Front, who led a violent agitation for its formation in the 1980s. This movement culminated with the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988.

Looking closely into who Bimal Gurung is what led to the events of October 21

Bimal Gurung was formerly a Gorkha Volunteers Corps member who fought for the creation of a Gorkhaland state in India during 1986-1988 under the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Following this, he became a councillor representing Tukver constituency in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) after the previous councillor Rudra Pradhan was murdered in Darjeeling. He became a close aide of Subhash Ghisingh, the leader of GNLF and chairman of DGHC. Later, he turned against his mentor to launch the second agitation for a Gorkhaland state. He is also one of the founders of Gorkha Jamukti Morcha, the political party which has the political controls of the Darjeeling Hills. Gurung was also the chairperson of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) which is a semi-autonomous body that governs the hilly areas of Darjeeling District and terai within the state of West Bengal.

After the West Bengal government decided not to hold the fourth DGHC elections which were due in 2004 and instead decided to make Subhash Ghisingh the sole caretaker of the DGHC till the Sixth Schedule council was established. As most of the other political parties and organisations opposed the setting up of a Sixth Schedule Tribal Council as there was only a minority tribal population in the DGHC area, which led to a lot of resentment among the former councillors of DGHC and this was when Gurung decided to break away from the GNLF. 

In 2007, when Prashant Tamang from Darjeeling, was a contestant of Indian Idol, Gurung rode on and capitalized on the public’s overwhelming support for Tamang whom Gurung had supported and through which he was able to overthrow Subhash Ghisingh from the post of Chairman of the DGHC when Ghising resigned from the post in March 2008. The GNLF after Gurung’s leaving had lost most of its supporters and units to a new party formed and headed by Bimal Gurung- Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).

As soon as the GJM was formed, the demand for the formation of a Gorkhaland state comprising of districts of Darjeeling and many other areas of Dooars was given new life by Gurung, with the total area of the proposed state of Gorkhalaand being 6450 km2 and comprises Banarhat, Bhaktinagar, Birpara, Chalsa, Darjeeling, Jaigaon, Kalchini, Kalimpong, Kumargram, Kurseong, Madarihat, Malbazar, Mirik and Nagarkatta. GJM maintained that unlike the Agitation of the 1980s for Gorkhaland, the movement would be through non-violence and non-cooperation.

Even though Gurung was able to garner mass support from the people of the Darjeeling district, Dooars and other parts of India for his demand of separate statehood, but after the controversial and very public daylight murder of the former chief of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), a moderate faction of the Gorkhaland movement, and a vocal opponent of GJM, Madan Tamang in May 2010, of which many believed Gurung was heavily linked to as well as the resignation of many important leaders and figures from the GJM such as- Trilok Dewan, Amar Singh Rai, Amar Lama, Anmole Prasad and Palden Lama, led to more speculation arising about the authenticity of Gurung's statement denying the GJM’s links to Tamang's murder.

Darjeeling was able to return to normalcy only after the TMC-INC coalition government came to power in West Bengal in 2011 and the Tripartite Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) agreement was signed between the Government of India, the West Bengal government, and GJM in 2011, in Pintail Village near Siliguri in the presence of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders. The agreement was signed by West Bengal Home Secretary G.D. Gautama, Union Home Ministry Joint Secretary K.K. Pathak and GJM General Secretary Roshan Giri. 

2013’s Agitation

Earlier in 2013, the Congress Working Committee unanimously passed a resolution to recommend the formation of a separate Telangana state from Andhra Pradesh to the INC-led central government. This caused a flare-up of demands throughout India, among which prominent were the demands for statehood for Gorkhaland in West Bengal and Bodoland in Assam. This caused a 3 days bandh, after which GJM announced an indefinite bandh from 3 August. The West Bengal government armed with a Calcutta high court order declaring the bandh as illegal and the West Bengal government toughening its stand against the bandh sent a total of 10 companies of paramilitary force to suppress any violent protest and for the arresting of prominent GJM leaders and workers.

To which, GJM announced a unique form of protest 'Janta Bandh', in which with no picketing or the use of force, the people in the hills were asked to voluntarily stay inside on 13 and 14 August, which proved to be a significant victory for the GJM and an embarrassment for the West Bengal government. On August 16, 2013, a marathon 'all-party meeting' was convened by GJM at Darjeeling and the Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee was informally formed by the pro Gorkhaland parties.

2017’s Agitation

However, the GTA agreement signed between the Government of India, the West Bengal government, and GJM earlier in 2011 seemed to be short-lived as the GJM time and again raised the issue of Gorkhaland leading to GJM giving the call for an indefinite bandh and another agitation in Darjeeling in June- September 2017. Protests initially started after the West Bengal government announced on May 16, that the Bengali language should be a compulsory subject in all schools across the state. This move of the West Bengal government was interpreted as an imposition of a culture that is alien to the area administered by GJM where a majority of people speak Nepali.

While initially, the protests were peaceful, it was heightened in June 2017 when Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee visited the region. The West Bengal Government who had initially ignored the situation was forced to soften its tone when the protests and rallies intensified significantly. On June 8, a cabinet meeting was conducted at Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling where the West Bengal Government clarified that Bengali will only be an optional subject in the hills. The leaders of GJM refused to believe this and intensified the protests more with the protesters reviving the old demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland, leading to the West Bengal Government calling in the para-military to control the situation on June 9, 2017, which led to some clashes between the police and the protestors, with many strikes being called.

On June 15, the situation worsened when the police raided a GJM office and seized spades, sickles, bows, arrows, hoes, and shovels, which led to violent clashes between the police and the agitators and the GJM called an indefinite strike and shut down in the region. There were more incidents of violence which included riots, arson, torching of vehicles, government properties and houses. In one incident, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was set on fire by the protesters. With mass rallies being conducted often by the Gorkhaland agitation supporters, added with the internet services of the region being suspended by the West Bengal government for the duration of the shutdown, also causing many complaints of the violation of human rights in the region, and an Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) team being sent to the region to investigate the issue.

On July 9, the protesters reached New Delhi, with supporters staging a march from RajGhat to Jantar Mantar, which was followed by the GJM rejecting the West Bengal Government’s offer of talks. On August 29, the West Bengal government called a meeting with the hill parties which was fruitless because they could not conclude. Another round of talks where there was a consensus to end the shutdown. 

The supporters of ending the shutdown met the Home Minister on September 19, leading to the hills slowly returning to normalcy and on September 26, the internet services were restored in the region. GJM also had a new chairperson, Binay Tamang, who finally called off the strike after 104 days on September 27 and a month later on October 27, the Supreme Court directed the Centre government to withdraw 7 of the 15 central armed forces deployed in the region. This was when Bimal Gurung went into hiding for fear of being arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, bringing us to the beginning of our article.

Jiwan Rai, an author and social commentator from Sikkim who writes for various local dailies comments on what Gurung’s resurfacing, after such a long hiatus, meant for the future of Darjeeling politics and the hope for Grokhaland. Rai has said that this move of Gurung is nothing but a means of survival for him, the same goes for whatever political step he does take next as it has already lost its meaning and that it won't have a significant influence on Darjeeling, its governance and polity.

"The people of Darjeeling have given him plenty of chances, but politics isn't just a screaming match and him resurfacing after being in hiding for the last three years has just dwindled his chances in the negative", Rai added. "Moreover, after opposing and trashing Mamta Banerjee from 2008 up till now and then suddenly extending support to her just shows that his plot has finished, because he has built his political career through opposing her is surprising."

“If Gorkhaland is Bimal Gurung’s supreme political mission and if Mamta Banerjee is one of the greatest hurdles for the achievement of Gorkhaland, then for Bimal Gurung to side with Mamta Banerjee is not only a political mystery, it is also a blunder on Gurung’s part and he knows that but he is doing it because he has nowhere to go and nothing to latch that’s why I would say he has lost his political plot,” says Rai.

Rai added that while most of Darjeeling’s general public is intellectual, highly qualified and well-educated, and leading in sectors of literature and arts, he has now started questioning Darjeeling’s political wisdom at the turn of events such as the last three Lok Sabha representatives elected from the Darjeeling constituency- Jaswant Singh 2009-2014, S. S. Ahluwalia 2014-2019 and Raju Bista 2019- present, all candidates from the Bhartiya Party and all are not Darjeeling folks, but the public have voted for them. In the case of Jaswant Singh, the people of Darjeeling had hoped that he would bring forth the topic of Grokhaland in the Parliament, while in his first term people were disappointed that no such thing happened, the people of Darjeeling repeated the same mistake by re-electing him, the same thing happened with S. S. Ahluwalia and Raju Bista. As for now, the Gorkhaland issue has been put on the backburner, with more issues like the 11 left out communities trying to be put into the Scheduled Tribe category and circling back onto the topic of the Sixth Schedule being put into the forefront, Rai has stated. 

“Further, the people of Darjeeling are aware that BJP has been and is merely trying to increase their representation in the Parliament, by giving them hope, it doesn't take 15 years to understand this. The people from the hills are happy only with the mention of the word Gorkhaland in the Parliament and congratulate Bista on doing the bare minimum, is that all it takes to become an MP? Just to stand up and say Gorkhaland, is that the eligibility? Contributions to the likes of Dil Kumari Bhandari’s, a former and the first woman member of parliament (Lok Sabha) from Sikkim, for the inclusion of the Nepali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution are what should be celebrated,” Rai concluded.

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