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Gorkhaland question at stake in Darjeeling Lok Sabha election

Four hill parties, advocates for a separate Gorkhaland state but bitter rivals for years, have come together to back BJP’s candidate Raju Singh Bista in Darjeeling. Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has vowed not to split of the state.

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 16, 2019 22:20 IST
Singdhendu Bhattacharya
Singdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times, Darjeeling
Lok Sabha elections 2019,General elections 2019,Lok Sabha election campaign
Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief and Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee interacts with people during lok Sabha election campaign in Darjeeling. (ANI)

Out of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bengal, Darjeeling is one with a difference. Threatened by the rise of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the hills, four hill parties, bitter rivals for years, have come together to back the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Raju Singh Bista in this seat where polling will be held on April 18.

Mann Ghishing, son of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) founder Subhash Ghishing, who led the first wave of militant struggle for a separate state of Gorkhaland between 1986 and 1988, closed ranks with rival Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) led by fugitive Bimal Gurung, who drove out Subhash Ghishing from the hills in 2007.

Former Darjeeling MP R B Rai, head of the hill-based Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) is supporting the GNLF-GJM combine. A faction of Akhil Bharat Gorkha League (ABGL), whose leader Madan Tamang was killed in 2010 allegedly by Bimal Gurung’s followers, has also supported this group.

“We want political and administrative separation from Bengal. This will be impossible if TMC wins this election,” Mann Ghishing said at a rally in Kurseong organised in favour of Bista on Sunday.

Darjeeling was one of the two seats the BJP won in Bengal in 2014. The saffron party has set itself a target of 22 out of the 42 seats this time and Darjeeling is pivotal to the BJP’s ambitions.

TMC candidate Amar Singh Rai, a Gorkha and GJM (Binay Tamang faction) MLA from Darjeeling, has a different pitch. “This election is to ensure peace and development. BJP has betrayed the people of the hills, while Mamata Banerjee is making an attempt to improve the situation,” said Rai.

Rai is supported by another GJM (Binay Tamang faction) legislator Rohit Sharma (from Kurseong). But Kalimpong MLA Sarita Rai who is from the Bimal Gurung faction of the GJM is supporting the BJP.

The BJP has not promised Gorkhaland. But its manifesto said the party is “committed to finding a permanent political solution to the outstanding issues,” vaguely indicating that it will sympathetically consider Gorkha aspirations.

For the Gorkhas though, a separate Gorkhaland state has been a long standing demand which they do not want to dilute.

Mamata Banerjee has vowed to prevent division of the state.

Gurung, whose writ ran in the hills between 2008 and 2017, went underground in August 2017, but flags bearing his photos are seen in the rallies in the hills. In his absence, the split in the GJM has prevented the plot from turning into a simple hills-versus-the-plains affair.

One GJM faction led by Binay Tamang joined hands with the TMC. Tamang heads the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, a semi-autonomous body that runs the affairs in the hills.

Darjeeling has seven assembly segments, of which three are in the hills and four in the plains.

“Since 1986, the hill people have been voting overwhelmingly for one candidate. But this time, it will change. The era of unipolar voting in the hills is over,” said Harka Bahadur Chhetri, president of the hill-based Jan Andolan Party (JAP) maintaining equidistance from the TMC and BJP.

Apart from Chhetri, Congress’ candidate Shankar Malakar and TMC’s Amar Singh Rai are reminding the people that the two former BJP MPs – Jaswant Singh in 2009 and S S Ahluwalia in 2014 – were rarely seen in the hills.

With her eyes always set on this constituency, Mamata Banerjee visited the hills “at least 100 times” since she took charge in 2011. She also set up 15 development boards for various sub-castes such as Gurung, Tamang, Lepcha, Mangar, Rai, Bhujel and Bhutia.

“Road communication improved, tourism got a boost. Implementation of various government schemes was prioritised. But police highhandedness during the 2017 agitation made TMC unpopular in the hills,” said Misan Tamang, the owner of an eatery in Kalimpong.

The pro-BJP hill parties are telling the people that about 5,000 GJM activists had to flee their homes in 2017 due to police atrocities.

In the past 10 days, the TMC chief held five public meetings in this constituency.

Top BJP leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah addressed a rally each. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, too, was supposed to address one, the permission for which was denied by the Siliguri Police.

“BJP has again fielded an outsider. We have fielded a son of the soil, who can solve the problems of the Gorkha people. He can also bridge the gap between Gorkhas and Bengalis because his wife is a Bengali,” Mamata Banerjee emphasised in her rallies.

“While the CPI(M) and Congress candidates are expected to eat into TMC’s votes in the assembly segments in the plains, the JAP and Binay Tamang faction of GJM is likely to divide Gorkha votes in the hills,” said Mohan Rai, a tourism operator in Kurseong.

In 1989 and 1991 Lok Sabha elections, GNLF-backed candidates won Darjeeling. in 1996, 1998 and 1999, the CPI (M) which was then Bengal’s ruling party, won the seat after GNLF called for boycotts. In 2004, Congress won with GNLF support. In 2009 and 2014 the BJP won with GJM support.

First Published: Apr 16, 2019 22:20 IST