If anything reinforces the case for Gorkhaland and highlights how different the Nepalis of Darjeeling are from the Bengalis of Bengal -- it is the assembly elections of 2011. While all of Bengal is consumed by the clash between Mamata Banerjee and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, up here in the Darjeeling Hills it is largely ignored. Up here, all election talk centres around a rivalry between an old, wily Gorkha warhorse and his biggest bête noire, a muscleman turned Gandhian, who was once his trusted lieutenant. Up here, it's all about a mighty clash between Subhash Ghisingh and Bimal Gurung.
Yes, the khukuris are being brandished once again.
Yet, till just a week ago, this wasn't the case. Then Bimal Gurung, president of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), seemingly ruled the hills unchallenged. Riding a wave of discontent against Ghisingh in 2007, Gurung had outwitted his former boss by snatching power and forcing him out of the hills and into exile in Jalpaiguri. It was a masterstroke -- and it strangely involved a popular TV show called Indian Idol.
The third season of Indian Idol featured a talented Nepali policeman called Prashant Tamang. Success in the initial rounds catapulted Tamang into an instant hero -- and since the format of the show involved voting through SMS, it mobilised a Nepali community, clamouring for heroes. Ghising ignored the phenomenon, but Gurung saw an opportunity. He whipped up the hysteria, getting everyone into the voting process, even rolling out money power for the exorbitantly-priced text messages. Tamang's win as Indian Idol was hailed as a great "Gorkha victory" and Gurung recognised as the man behind it.
Gurung never looked back. Soon after in a public rally, Gurung, a stocky, menacing man with exaggerated mannerisms, rejected Ghisingh's formula of the Sixth Schedule for Darjeeling. The Sixth Schedule formula -- which was even ratified by the Union Cabinet -- would have given tribal-like status to the Nepalis of the region and more autonomy to the Hill Council. Ghisingh's popularity was already on the wane -- and anyway nobody understood the intricacies of the Sixth Schedule. It was easier to back Gurung and the emotive promise of Gorkhaland.Over the next three years, Gurung, unlike Ghisingh, decided to adopt more Gandhian ways. This involved more than just burning incense sticks next to a Gandhi portrait in every rally. Crippling strikes were called, and they carried on for months, leaving the tea, timber and tourism economy in a shambles. But the Gandhian cloak had a Fascist border. Gurung soon launched the GLP (Gorkhaland Personnel) -- a quasi police "moralistic" force that chastised people using tobacco or pulled up kissing couples. On mandated days, the GLP enforced a Nepali dress code for the entire community to show they were different from Bengalis. Cars coming up the Hills were forced to change their number plates to GL (Gorkhaland) and charged registration fees. Gurung himself was surrounded by a slew of cloned bodyguards -- all with spiky gelled hair, goatees, Gaelic tattoos on forearms and revolvers thrust into waistbands.
But popular support stayed with him and the Centre and the state called him to represent the Nepalis in tripartite talks. His image did take a beating when Madan Tamang, a popular leader and conscience keeper of the movement, who often criticized both Ghisingh and Gurung, was stabbed to death by hoodlums in broad daylight. The Bengal police found a GJM connection to the killing and for a few days, fearing a backlash, Gurung stayed out of Darjeeling. But he returned dramatically, with more than a thousand supporters defying prohibitory orders stating emphatically: "Bimal Gurung did not kill Tamang." That was that. ( Watch Bimal Gurung's election speech )
Gurung has always displayed a keen sense of realpolitik. In 2009, he wooed BJP leader Jaswant Singh to fight the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat. Singh returned the favour by raising the Darjeeling issue several times in Parliament. In this election though, Gurung seems to have ditched the BJP, instead favouring the Trinamool-Congress combine, supporting them in the Doars and Terai regions. Of course, in the hill seats of Kalimpong, Kurseong and Darjeeling the GJM has fielded its own candidates. As is the GJM way, all three candidates have already submitted signed resignation letters. "They will only focus on Gorkhaland. If they deviate, they will be removed," says Gurung. For him it's a foregone conclusion -- the GJM is going to win all three seats.
But it is not as if his former maverick mentor has his way. For the last three years, Ghising has been living out of a rented two-storey structure in New Jalpaiguri, plotting his return. The Election Commission's code of conduct and its promise of a level-playing field gave him the perfect opportunity. In the dead of night, under heavy police protection, Ghisingh set off for the Hills, arriving in Darjeeling early on April 8 and the next day in a well-attended rally announced Schwarzenegger-like, "See…I'm back." ( Watch Subhash Ghising's election speech )
There's an archetypal story on Ghisingh from the late 50s, when he was a Gorkha soldier in the Indian Army. Serving in the Northeast, one day he captured a Naga terrorist, who, on learning he was a Nepali from Darjeeling, urged him to fight for his own freedom from tyranny. It wasn't till the 80s, though that his outspoken politics and fiery oratory skills fanned a mass, albeit bloody, movement for Gorkhaland. The violence forced both Rajiv Gandhi at the Centre and Jyoti Basu in the state to come together as signatories to usher in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. But within years the euphoria faded and frustration mounted as the Hill Council, riddled with corruption and autocracy, gathered more abuses than accolades. His Sixth Schedule formula was the last straw.With Ghisingh's return, the stakes for this election are clear. On May 13, the hill people will have decided for not only Gurung or Ghisingh - but also for the Sixth Schedule formula or a Gorkhaland state. In his come-back rally, Ghisingh argued, "Gorkhaland was just a brahmshastra (primary weapon) to achieve citizenship for Nepalis, who were labelled foreigners. I never asked for Gorkhaland." He went a step further ridiculing the GJM for chasing a dream, "What gives you the right to take the people for a ride?" In reply, Gurung was at his menacing best, "He (Ghisingh) has a tourist visa till the election. Once that is over he will be made to leave."
Whatever the verdict, Darjeeling could experience another round of violence that could plunge the area into further disarray. Already, the burden of living out an agitation has taken a toll. The mass movement for Gorkhaland started in the 80s -- and now almost 20 years later the Darjeeling hills have the look of an area that lives in the decaying ruins of its former glory; pot-holed roads, shabby infrastructure, little electricity or water and no opportunities. As Udaya Mani Pradhan, a prominent resident, puts it: "We have sacrificed heavily."
But it is these very symbols that steel the heart of the hill people, convincing them their struggle is right and justified. And that it is time for them to make and claim their own destiny.