The hill region of West Bengal received unprecedented autonomy on Monday after a deal was inked between the Centre, the state and the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the group spearheading the current phase of the Gorkhaland movement.
Short of statehood, which the votaries of Gorkhaland had been demanding for long, this is the maximum power any autonomous region in the country enjoys. But the situation is expected to open a Pandora's box, with similar demands from the leaders of statehood movements elsewhere.The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) will be in charge of the region. Its members will be elected in the next six months. The GTA will have more powers than the outgoing Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.
The main architect of the deal, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, however, was categorical in stating that there was no question of dividing Bengal and declared: "Darjeeling is not something outside Bengal".
The crowd which had been erupting in applause at every statement of leaders, heard it with a stoic silence.
Bimal Gurung, President of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha told reporters after the function that the demand for Gorkhaland is still there but the present task was to effectively implement the agreement.
But the crowd had many things to cheer about.
The tripartite agreement paved way for more scope of self governance with a generous grant of Rs 200 crore per year from the center for three years in addition to the state's allocations.
In great many ways, the GJM leaders representing the hill people will now get wider scope of addressing the development issues - starting from educational institutions to agriculture, land revenue to research, building infrastructure to constructing bridges and roads.
The picturesque Pintail village, on the outskirts of Siliguri town, provided an ideal setting to ink the important deal.
Hill people and GJM supporters, dressed in their traditional attire came in thousands to attend the meet. They danced and sang and played traditional instruments converting the venue into a fair of celebration.
Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had a piece of advice to the new body.
"It must accept the plurality of the region and recognise the hopes and aspirations of the different groups of people," Chidambaram said.
He pointed at GJM President Bimal Gurung and Mamata Banerjee and explained that "it was because of these two people that the years of strife in hills will end".
The Left Front stayed away from the function and received flak from the chief minister.
"They sat on the agreement and politicised the issue," she said and amid thundering claps announced "hills and the plains are the two sisters".
It was on August 22, 1988 when another important tripartite agreement to form the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was signed at a glitterng ceremony at the Banquet Hall of Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
Then the signatories were CG Somaih, former Union home secretary, RN Sengupta, the then state chief secretary and Gorkha leader Subash Ghising.
As they signed documents, former Union home minister Buta Singh and former Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu looked on to put the first ever stamp of approval to recognise the aspirations of the hill people.
At Pintail the signatories were Union home ministry's joint secretary KK Pathak, state's home secretary GD Gautama and GJM leader Roshan Giri. Host of other Union ministers and state ministers were also present at the dais.
The new body has the word "Gorkhaland" which, for a large section of people in the hills and plains, is a major step towards forming a brand new state.
Many believe that the agreement will only bring temporary relief to the hills as the region has a tradition of resorting to the agitation if authorities fail to deliver.
Subash Ghising had an uninterrupted rule of 20 years but people threw him, literally out of the hills, without any hesitation.
Bimal Gurung has to deliver and Mamata Banerjee has to provide able support. Otherwise, the statehood demand, so dear to the people of the hills, will just be a matter of time before used again to ignite passions and return to agitation.
* GTA will be headed by a chariman having 45 elected members and another five nominated by the governor
* GTA will get sweeping powers to set up educational institutes and undertake developmental works.
* High powered committee to probe feasibility of including new areas to the GTA in the Dooars and Terai region
* GTA to receive annual grant of Rs 200 crores in addition to state sanctions
* GTA will have greater autonomy than the erstwhile DGHC
* State and centre to help set educational and research institutions
* State to announce special package for Darjeeling
* Gorkhas to apply to backward classes department for tribal status