Will BJP’s Gorkhaland stand become its Achilles heel in Bengal?

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has asked the saffron party to deliver on its election manifesto promises on Gorkhaland. However, the BJP can ill-afford to be seen as a party supporting the bifurcation of West Bengal.

india Updated: Jun 16, 2017 07:24 IST
DK Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Bimal Gurung,Gorkhaland,BJP
GJM head Bimal Gurung needed an emotive issue to regain his grip on the region, and chief minister Mamata Banerjee unwittingly provided it when she issued a statement that Bengali would be made a compulsory subject in schools. (Samir Jana / HT Photo)

The BJP’s one-seat gambit to include the Gorkhaland issue in its 2014 election manifesto to gain an edge in the Darjeeling parliamentary constituency might come back to haunt the party as it looks to expand its footprint in West Bengal.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which has launched a violent agitation in the Darjeeling hills for a separate Gorkhaland state, wants the saffron party to deliver on its promises. “Bengal is just a chowkidar (watchman) of Gorkhaland, and it’s time for its retirement. The West Bengal assembly will never pass it (resolution for creation of a separate state); the Centre will have to do it on its own. We ensured victory for the BJP (in Darjeeling) in 2009 and 2014. This issue is part of its manifesto too. The BJP government at the Centre must now work towards ensuring it (Gorkhaland),” GJM chief Bimal Gurung told HT.

Gurung sent a delegation of GJM leaders to meet West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh last week to remind him of the party’s commitment in the manifesto. He said he raised the statehood issue at a recent NDA meeting, and would now send a delegation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand the implementation of the BJP’s poll promise.

The BJP had initially sought to skirt the Gorkhaland issue in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, making no mention of it in its poll manifesto. Hours after releasing the document though, it was compelled by the GJM to issue a late night statement, saying, “Further to the election manifesto of the BJP released today… the BJP reiterates that it will sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas, the Adivasis and other people of Darjeeling district and the Dooars region.”

With negligible presence in West Bengal, the BJP depended entirely on the GJM’s support to win the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat.

However, the saffron party has made significant gains in the erstwhile Left bastion in the past two years – emerging as the principal challenger to the ruling Trinamool Congress. As it is, the BJP can ill-afford to be seen as a party supporting the bifurcation of West Bengal even though it has been in favour of smaller states. But those with stakes in Darjeeling are jittery. Union minister and Darjeeling MP SS Ahluwalia has written to Union home minister Rajnath Singh, asking him to examine the demand for a separate state.

Gurung might not be accommodative of the BJP’s political compulsions, though. An erstwhile member of the Gorkha Volunteer Cell, the militant wing of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), Gurung had taken little time to dump his patron – GNLF chief Subhash Ghising – after seizing an opportunity to mobilise public opinion by setting up fan clubs for then Darjeeling Indian Idol contestant Prashant Tamang.

He set up the GJM in 2007 and soon forced Ghising to shift base to Jalpaiguri. Gurung went on to become chief executive of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) – a semi-autonomous administrative body that replaced the Ghising-led Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council – in 2012, while the GNLF founder died a disheartened man in a Delhi hospital in 2015, .

The GJM swept the GTA elections in 2012. However, it was perceived to be on a slippery wicket ahead of this year’s elections – especially after the Trinamool Congress recently won civic body polls in GJM stronghold Mirik. Gurung needed an emotive issue to regain his grip on the region, and chief minister Mamata Banerjee provided it when she announced last month that Bengali would be made a compulsory subject in schools. Though a school dropout, 54-year-old Gurung is known as a master tactician. He pounced on the controversial issue to start an agitation.

“We were already waging a battle for a separate state, and have now combined it with the issue of language. Nepalese is our matribhasha (mother tongue). English is the language for employment while Hindi is our rashtrabhasha. What’s the need to bulldoze a fourth language when we already have three languages? Bengali language is being forced upon our children from primary to high school. We will do whatever we can. If we have to shed blood or die for our language, art and culture, so be it,” Gurung told HT.

Banerjee finally realised her mistake, and clarified that Bengali would not be made compulsory at schools in the Darjeeling hills. However, her retraction came a bit late, because the GJM had already mobilised the people on the issue and used it to bring them onto the streets to demand a separate state.

First Published: Jun 15, 2017 09:06 IST