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Gorkhaland: Mamata's pride, Gorkha identity at crossroads in Darjeeling Hills


Ashim Sunam for Reuters
The snail is moving at a tortoise's pace in the tea-growing region of Darjeeling as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has been slowly trying to make inroads into the hills, most recently promised to hold more cabinet meetings in the district to gradually gain a foothold in the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)-dominated region of Darjeeling. And she is doing that by setting up more development boards for different communities in the hills as the chief minister has already announced more than 10 such boards as of now. In the name of development boards, some political experts and politicians believe, the CM is playing the policy of divide and rule: Divide the people to break their long-standing demand and dream of Gorkhaland, statehood demand for which dates back to 1907 and is the most pressing issue in the hills of Bengal.

Demands of a separate Gorkhaland have so far been through demonstrations and hunger strikes and primarily confined to the corridors of Darjeeling, with the GJM leading the way. There were talks about hunger strikes in December 2016 in New Delhi as well but those did not materialise. However, the GJM is aware of Mamata's entry into the hills and her efforts to cripple and weaken the movement for creating Gorkhaland by such tactics, said GJM general secretary Roshan Giri. "In the name of development of boards, the chief minister is trying to fight with us (GJM). The main objective of Banerjee is quite clear while handing out such boards. She wants to cripple the Gorkhaland movement, which we have been spearheading for the last nine years with peace," Giri told International Business Times, India.

Has GJM failed the wish of the people?

When local leader Bimal Gurung formed the GJM in 2007, there were expectations that the dream of Gorkhaland might be achieved. He promised to turn that ever-lasting dream into reality. There was huge support for the party with the people prepared for month-long strikes and ready to give it all. However, now the statehood demand looks like a far-fetched dream with the GJM reaching an agreement with the state government in 2012 accepting the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA).

On September 2, 2011, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a bill for the creation of the GTA, a semi-autonomous body to administer the Darjeeling hills which will have administrative, executive and financial powers but no legislative powers. Now what the GJM must answer is whether the locals gave their all for the GTA. After all, for decades now, the people of the hills have battled high unemployment, lack of higher educational institutions and even basic medical facilities to someday realise their separate identity as Indian Gorkhas on the lines of ethno-linguistic-cultural sentiment under Gorkhaland. So far, Mamta's development card has worked

The residents of Darjeeling have been looking for a pro-development political figure, and now with the dream of Gorkhaland dwindling away, Mamata's trump card in development boards did find some takers in the hills. On the other hand, the GTA, which was tasked with developing the region by improving facilities, has been mired in controversies and allegations of misusing the money meant for development, prompting Mamata to question if indeed pro-statehood local leaders are honest in their demand for the development of the region.

With this, Mamata has so far been able to convince the locals that the development boards are what will lead to their prosperity. The Bengal government has funded the board for various activities like houses for the poor and scholarships to students, among other progressive works. The boards have been set up primarily to preserve, promote and safeguard the local language, which some people believe was on the verge of extinction. Sanjay Moktan, chairman of the Tamang Development and Cultural Board, said: "The so-called divide and rule is not happening in the region. The politicians (in Darjeeling) are just politicising the matter. We would not have come to such things had the GTA done something productive for the people in the name of development. With the formation of such boards across the region, it is Darjeeling which will ultimately benefit."

TMC entering the Hills
Meanwhile, Mamata's Trinamool Congress (TMC) is looking beyond the development boards in the hills with some of the local GJM members defecting to join the TMC. In August 2016, Pradeep Pradhan, one of the founding members of the GJM, along with 11 leaders joined the TMC. This marks the corrosion Mamata's entry to the region has caused to not only the GJM but also to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and its leader Bimal Gurung, who has been long demanding the formation of a Gorkhaland state within India and so far enjoyed colossal support in the hills.

Scepticism still prevails 

Despite a lack of credibility of the Gorkhas' political leadership, a separate Gorkhaland state is still the popular sentiment in Darjeeling and a majority of the locals still perceive Mamata's development boards as nothing more than the state government sponsored NGOs. Upendra, a political observer and a resident of Darjeeling, said: "From time immemorial, there are always a certain group of people within a community who are driven by personal ambition, greed, hunger for power and it is no different in our communities too. These handfuls of people have subverted their individual community/caste agenda and projected themselves as the leaders. They do not reflect the real community aspirations."

He added further that the development boards are nothing but the TMC's launch pads in the hills and that all Mamata cares about is spreading her party's reach in the hills. "These boards are nothing more than baits set forth by the Bengal government to ensnare gullible, greedy and desperate people, in an attempt to wean them away from demanding a separate state," said Upendra. Upendra, like scores others, is more than worried about the future of Gorkhas. He feels Mamata's development boards are not the answer to protect the identity of Gorkhas. "I am afraid that in 20 years' time, the hill people will become a Rai, a Sherpa, a Limbu, a Lepcha, etc., but our collective identity as 'Gorkhas' will be obliterated."

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