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The burning hills of Bengal

In August last year, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee spent a night at Takdah, a quaint spot 30 km away from Darjeeling. A year later, men allegedly belonging to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, set it on fire. Ravik Bhattacharya reports.

kolkata Updated: Aug 13, 2013 02:52 IST
Ravik Bhattacharya
Ravik Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
TMC,GJM,Gorkhaland Territorial Administration

In August last year, when she was courting the people of the hills, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee spent a night at Takdah, a quaint spot 30 km away from Darjeeling. She loved the forest bungalow so much that she ordered its renovation.

A year later, men allegedly belonging to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which is now spearheading the more-than-a-century-old Gorkha statehood demand, set it on fire. And the clash between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the GJM began – ending the bonhomie of more than two years.

Now, it’s an eyeball-to-eyeball situation between the two political bosses, CM and TMC chief Banerjee and GJM supremo Bimal Gurung.

But what broke the spell that Banerjee worked on Gurung? Hours after the UPA government cleared the Telangana state on July 30, Gurung quit as chairman of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration – an autonomous body formed after a deal signed between the state, the Centre and the GJM on July 18, 2011 – just after the Trinamool Congress came to power.

He said the outfit would never be able to address the aspirations of his people under Banerjee’s autocratic rule and called for a 72-hour strike. He later changed it to an indefinite one, as Banerjee started taking harsh steps against his workers.

The question that’s being asked in political circles is: who will blink first? Those who are familiar with Banerjee’s style of functioning do not expect her to do so. And the hill fox – as Gurung is called by both friends and foes – is not expected to back down either without a plan to fight another day.

Sources said now it would be difficult for Gurung to back out of the statehood demand. “We are trying to rally other political parties for the cause and continue the strike to keep pressure on the state and the Centre. If police try to force us, there will be bloodshed,” said a senior GJM leader.

Gurung, a former GNLF councillor in the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council – dominated by the Gorkha National Liberation Front – was a close aide of GNLF leader Subhash Ghising, a former non-commissioned officer of the Indian army. But they later fell out.

Gurung’s popularity grew after he personally supported Prashant Tamang, a Darjeeling boy and a Kolkata Police personnel, during the Indian Idol singing competition in 2007. The GJM was founded in the same year.

Meanwhile, on a public interest litigation, the Calcutta high court asked the state government on Wednesday to end the anarchy in the hills. Armed with the order, Banerjee announced at the state secretariat on Saturday: “I give them 72 hours to lift the strike. Or else, the government would do whatever it has to do. I will not tolerate this anymore.”

She also ordered the police and administration and the central forces to prepare for a heavy crackdown on the GJM after Tuesday. Already, hundreds of GJM supporters had been arrested – some in cases reopened even after a decade.

On Monday, Gurung added Janta Curfew – people will voluntarily not go out of their homes – to the strike programme for Tuesday and Wednesday. The GJM leadership will decide on the future course of action on Friday. “We will not relent. We will agitate through democratic means,” he said.

First Published: Aug 13, 2013 01:22 IST