The man behind Darjeeling’s Gorkhaland protests owes his rise to Indian Idol
Bimal Gurung, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader blamed for the recent turmoil in West Bengal’s Darjeeling, owes his rise to a TV reality show.
He was a foot-soldier of Subhash Ghising, the leader who spearheaded the violent Gorkha agitation for a separate state in the 1980s, until Prashant Tamang – a Kolkata police constable hailing from the Darjeeling hills – caught popular imagination by qualifying for the last rounds of the Indian Idol song contest.
Gurung helped Tamang’s cause by reaching out to Nepali-speaking residents of Darjeeling and adjoining areas to vote via SMS for Tamang, who ultimately won the 2008 edition of the show.
Nearly a decade later, Tamang has fallen off the radar. But Gurung is still going strong, even though he is on the run after police raided his office as violence erupted over the ‘imposition’ of Bengali language in the hills by chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Having signed a tripartite agreement with the Centre and the state and settled for an autonomous administrative council instead of full-fledged statehood, just months ago Gurung was faced with the real possibility of losing both the plot and personal popularity. The latest controversy, however, has given him a fresh lifeline.
“He may in hiding for now, but his political future has been secured for the short term,” said a bureaucrat not willing to be named.
Few, in fact, dare to speak aloud about Gurung publicly in the hills. The 53-year-old leader has over the years acquired a fearsome reputation. He once led the dreaded Gorkha Volunteer Corps, the militant wing of Ghising’s Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).
The Corps is suspected to have been behind many killings and kidnappings that marked the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s. Gurung first became an elected member of the autonomous council from Chow Bazar of Darjeeling town in 1999 after the murder of the sitting member Rudra Kumar Pradhan.
“He rules by fear,” said a police official who once served in the hills. Ghising had to flee Darjeeling after his bitter fallout with Gurung. Madan Tamang, a prominent Gorkha leader critical of Gurung, was hacked to death in broad daylight in 2012.
The latest turmoil, however, has overshadowed Gurung’s controversial past. With popular sentiment in the hills ranged against the state government, Gurung has once again emerged as the rallying point for local pride.
Still the elected chief executive officer of the autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, Gurung – the son of a tea garden worker - has now threatened to carry on with the agitation for statehood until it is achieved. “We will not stop,” he is reported to have said before going underground.
With the hills suddenly ablaze, even his rivals have begun to fall in line. Neeraj Zimba, the spokesman of Ghising’s GNLF, has expressed readiness to agitate for separate Gorkhaland under Gurung’s leadership. “We are ready to work under the collective leadership and don’t mind if Bimal Gurung leads the alliance,” Zimba said after a joint meeting of several parties last week. Most parties with a strong footprint in the hills participated in the meeting.
Dr Harka Bahadur Chettri, leader of the pro-Gorkhaland Jan Andolan Party which boycotted the meeting, also lent support to the Gorkhaland cause. Chettri has demanded that Gurung’s GJM extract a pledge from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for a separate state. The BJP has twice won the Darjeeling parliamentary seat with support from the GJM.
Ironically, Gurung finds himself on a strong wicket while on the run. The imposition of Bengali – a misplaced fear since the government has since clarified that it is optional and not compulsory – has allowed him fresh political ammunition. If he is arrested, he will acquire a brighter halo.