The brutal assassination of Madan Tamang, President of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) in broad daylight by an armed gang on 21st May is a body blow to democracy in the trouble-torn, three  mountainous sub-divisions of Darjeeling district in West Bengal.

Two days after the murder the police fear that the main accused, all members of Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s (GJM) frontal organizations, have taken shelter in neighbouring Sikkim.

Laxman Pradhan , General Secretary of ABGL has lodged an FIR accusing Bimal Gurung, his wife Asha Gurung and several other GJM central committee members including Roshan Giri, Harka Bahadur Chhetri and Binay Tamang  of criminal conspiracy.

It is now widely believed that Mr. Tamang’s fearless opposition to the fascist and corrupt leadership of GJM had infuriated them. GJM’s stranglehold on the hills was getting threatened by the coming together of several anti-GJM outfits including the influential Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) under the leadership of Mr. Tamang.

Subhash Ghising-led Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) , once the predominant political force  in the hills, although on the run for much of the past two years, has started regrouping with new vigour and is making their presence felt all over again in the hills.

As the political ground under their feet started slipping, a sense of desperation might have led the GJM leadership to plot the dastardly act of eliminating Mr. Tamang – perhaps the only leader in the hills who had the  courage and credibility to challenge them.

Now that its bloodthirstiness has come out in the open, GJM’s politics of coercion has dropped its crude pretension of Gandhian non-violence.

GJM’s image is already in tatters. Cases of extortion are rampant all over the hills. A private militia, called Gorkhaland Personnel (GLP),  is  used by GJM to unleash a reign of terror on whoever defies their writ. 

GJM has recruited about 4000- odd boys and girls from the hills and the Dooars in GLP. The party pays them a monthly payment that ranges from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000.

Apart from providing personal security to GJM supremo Mr. Gurung, the stick ( at times, khukri) – wielding GLP staff are also seen patrolling streets in the hills in uniforms resembling  the fatigues of national security forces.

Corruption scandals involving the top brass of GJM are surfacing  thick and fast.

On 23rd April, Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) Administrator B L Meena alleged that merely 30 to 35 per cent of the DGHC funds were actually being spent and he had no idea about the rest of it.

In a recent press conference at Pintail village, Mr.  Meena declared, “I better not comment on the remaining part (60 to 65 per cent) of the disbursed Rs 220 crore as everybody is aware of what is happening in the hills.”

Without making any direct reference to GJM, Mr. Meena made it clear that most of the developmental projects in the hills are controlled by the members of GJM and the quality of their  execution is downright  shoddy.

It is indeed a tragedy that Mr. Gurung, who ousted Mr. Ghising from the hills on the ground of abusing the power the Gorkha population had bestowed on him, has proved himself to be as venal and despotic. Unfortunately, when  any sordid history repeats itself, cynicism soars. The residents of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong  sub-divisions would do better than giving in to cynicism.

Concentration of power without any accountability is the defining characteristic of  a regime fallen into an authoritarian rut. History tells us that whipping up ethnic sentiments to build an illegitimate power structure as a political strategy inevitably  follows the law of diminishing returns.

Unless  the local civic bodies are revitalized by grassroot level democratic participation,  the feudal character of the political formations in the hills will be here to stay. A culture of democracy has to evolve from the ground up. 

It is now up to the civil society to save democracy in the hills.

 

Last four weeks turned out to be a grim period in Siliguri.

  

Three suspected ultras were killed in an explosion at Champasari on the outskirt of Siliguri on 3rd April.  A few Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) went off accidentally in a tin-roofed house which was being used as a base for making bombs.

  

On 9th April, another secret IED unit was unearthed at Mallaguri.

  

Four days later, the police seized a huge cache of explosives, IEDs and timers in another house, in nearby Pradhan Nagar.

 

A search conducted by the intelligence agencies and the police in these three places has resulted in finding some diaries, documents and photographs.

  

Information gathered so far has led the police to believe that a group of 46-odd young people have been clandestinely operating in Siliguri since December last. Most of them are Nepali refugees from Bhutan. They entered India via refugee camps in Nepal.  

It has been revealed that they belong to a breakaway group of the Bhutan Tiger Force (BTF) called the United Liberation Front of Bhutan (ULFB).One can’t be certain though that ULFB’s blast targets are limited to locations in Bhutan.

 

Though, so far, nothing has come out in the open, ULFB’s links with the Maoists in Nepal can’t be ruled out yet. 

 

The recent electoral success of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led by Mr. Pushpa Kumar Dahal ( better known as Comrade Prachanda) who also functions as the Supreme Commander of  the armed wing of the party  – People’s  Liberation Army, will have an inescapable impact on other side of the border. 

 

Maoists after capturing power through the ballot, not bullet, may now build democratic institutions and processes.  Genuine democratization of Nepal is certain to pay out peace dividends not only to her citizens, but also to her neighbors. 

 

On the Indian side of the border, the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJM) is now leading an agitation in the hills of Darjeeling district for carving a new state out of West Bengal. After ousting  Subash Ghisingh led Gorkha National Liberation Front ( GNLF) out of the autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha  Hill Council (DGHC) , it has now assumed  the political leadership of those Nepali (Gorkhali) speaking Gorkhas who are clamoring for a state of their own (to be called Gorkhaland) within India. 

 

The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Act was passed by the West Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1988 to provide for the establishment of an Autonomous Council for the social, economic, educational and cultural advancement of the Gorkhas and other communities residing in the hill areas of Darjeeling district.

 
The  Gorkhaland movement makes a clear distinction between  Gorkhas living in North Bengal and the rest of the  Nepali speaking population in India be it the citizens of Nepal residing in India or Nepali speaking Indian citizens living in other parts of the country or the residents of  Sikkim, where Nepali is the official language.

 

Unlike the hills ( Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong sub-divisions of Darjeeling district), despite being  a sub-division of the same district, Siliguri  so far hasn’t suffered directly the disruptive effects of the Gorkhaland agitation. But looking at the moves made by GJM this month, it appears that it now wants to spread the unrest into Siliguri.


GJM’s talk about following the Gandhian  path notwithstanding, the strident tone of their messages and truculent posturing of their leaders betray the belligerent  bent of their minds. Cases of extortion and harassment are increasing in the hills. Bandhs imposed by veiled threats are bringing administrative and development activities in the hills to a grinding halt. Darjeeling’s economy relies heavily on tourism. Continued lawlessness is now threatening to ruin its economy.

 

Not to miss out on an opportunity to fish in the troubled water, two other sub-regional parties – Kamtapur Progressive Party (KPP) and Greater Cooch Behar Democratic Party (GCDP) have joined GJM in political brinkmanship. They too are demanding homelands for themselves.

 

Militancy in this region is like a hydra headed monster.  Secessionist outfits operating here may have different names and constituencies but they all have one common enemy – the state. Their motives often merge at the strategic level and actions, at the operational. Terrorist organizations of Assam viz. United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) too have been linked to anti-state violence in North Bengal.

 

Talking about the state, how has it responded to the blast plans that Siliguri averted narrowly? 

 

Till now the police have nabbed and detained only sixteen suspects with as many as six of them being young girls. The girls were pursuing nursing training at different private health establishments. This has prompted the police to appeal to nursing home owners to be more cautious while recruiting trainees. 

 

The law enforcers have asked employers to verify the background of all their employees. They have also made it mandatory for landlords to furnish details of their tenants to the nearest police stations. 

 

All that is fine. But why the police have been rather tardy in following through their initial successes?

 

Is any lack of coordination among as many as six different intelligence agencies and the police hurting the progress of investigation?

 

Or, is it because of the forthcoming panchayat election in West Bengal, the ruling Left Front Government has decided to not to ruffle some feathers? 

 

It must be said though while the tightening of security measures is a necessary, but by no means, sufficient condition in containing subversive activities in this region. 

 

The insurgency problem in North Bengal is multi-dimensional in nature. It can not be successfully countered without a systemic approach. 

 

To understand the nature of this challenge, one has to begin with its geo-political dimension. 

 

Siliguri is located in the so called ‘Chicken Neck of India’, an isthmus that connects the restive North East to the rest of the country. It borders  on four countries – Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. 

 

India shares 1690 km of open border with Nepal. With Bangladesh it shares 4053 km of porous border. Nepal and Bangladesh are among the poorest nations of the world.  

 

About 45% of 154 million Bangaldeshis live below the poverty line. The economic condition is a little better in Nepal. About one third of its 30 million people are in the same category. 

 

In addition to wide spread poverty, political strife has made the life of a common man much more trying in both these countries. Nepal, after 12 long years of political turmoil, which took away at least 13,000 Nepali lives, has now been reduced to an aid and remittance dependent economy. Bangladesh continues to be ruled by a caretaker government which still doesn’t have a firm schedule for holding the election in place.

 

Influx of migrants into India from both Bangladesh and Nepal is rapidly and radically changing the demography of North Bengal. An explosion in population is creating an enormous pressure on the land. Reckless construction is now posing a serious threat to the mountains, forests, biological diversity and agricultural land of North Bengal. 

 

Darjeeling district can boast of one of the most scenic landscapes in India. Unless we immediately stop deforestation and unplanned urbanization, it won’t be long before the wondrous beauty of Darjeeling turns into a vast stretch of squalor.

  

While Bhutan (population of over 700,000 people) has been a peaceful country, terrorist outfits from its neighboring countries have often used its territory to train their recruits. 

 

Like in many parts of the world, poor and dispossessed refugees are posing multiple dilemmas before India. National security, socio- economic, and humanitarian issues are commingled here. The civilizational, historical and cultural ties that India shares with its neighbors are as old as centuries. There are families in North Bengal who have members living across the border. India can not enjoy sustainable peace or prosperity if she fails to help her neighborhood to attain them.  

 

The other major dimension of the crisis relates to the slippery slope of identity politics.

 

 

History of independent India is replete with sub-nationalist movements losing their way into terrorism. Terrorism inevitably undermines morality. Then, it undermines reason too.

 

The hills of Darjeeling district are not inhabited only by Gorkhas and Bengalis. When China annexed Tibet in 1950, thousands of Tibetan refugees took shelter in this district. Diverse ethnic groups like Lepchas, Bhutias, Limbus et al call Darjeeling district their home. In fact, Lepchas have been living in Darjeeling for more than 150 years. A good number of Marwaris, Biharis and Punjabis too have been residents here for more than a generation. .It is indeed remarkable that all these communities have lived together peacefully and harmoniously for over many decades. 

 

Politicians thrive on engendering and organizing hatred. They make political capital out of every new way of dividing people. Little they know, they are riding a jaguar. If they can’t get off it in time, they will be swallowed by it. Undone by their own irresponsible rhetoric. 

 

Separate statehood can’t be an answer to the entrenched woes like poverty and the insecurity arising out of globalization. India is a country of myriad ethnic groups. We can’t keep forming state after state. There can be no end to this process of fragmentation. It will weaken the idea of India itself. 

 

On its part, the Left Front government of West Bengal has to take its fair share of blame for the current mood of despondency in the hills.  For more than three decades, their rule with respect to this region has been characterized by self-serving myopia. They have been shown very little eagerness to understand the grievances and aspirations of the people in the hills. 

 

Now is the time for the Left Front to introspect hard. This is a crisis with far reaching implications. Nothing less than a respectful, even handed approach with a long view  of shaping a common future can free them of the taint of a neo-colonial mindset. 

All measures to quell the unrest should be non-escalatory. Any excess in response can grievously hurt the prospect of a happy reconciliation. I’m not advocating any naïve romanticism in the face of unconstitutional hardline approach though. Firmness can speak through a genuine voice of goodwill and trust.

  

The prevailing sense of alienation and insecurity in the hills can be tackled best by nurturing the roots and branches of the democracy tree. Its shade and fruits are for all to share. There is no getting away from the fact that true democracy is all about deepening of personal freedom and widening of participative decision making. Inclusive, tolerant societies will learn how to stay true to their own culture and conserve their distinct way of living, even in the face of globalization whirlwind. In stead of the divisive politics that creates a siege mentality, grassroot level empowerment will instill dignity and hope.

 

Investing heavily in the physical and social infrastructure of North Bengal is now a policy imperative for the central and state governments. DGHC too has to reform itself. Its corrupt officials and inefficient administration will now meet with very little tolerance. 

Market – the much maligned beast – too can play a key developmental role if its forces are directed well. The natural logic of the market is for expansion, inclusion. Contraction and separation end up destroying opportunities. Particularly, job opportunities. High rate of employment is the best bulwark against the vulnerable youth falling prey to rabble rousing.

 

Commerce is a glue that keeps people together. Competition in the market place teaches us civility too. There is no getting away from the fact we live in a world whose inter-dependency is increasing exponentially. Free exchange of ideas accompanies free exchange of goods and services. Splitting up people and decimating the market run contrary to the historical lesson that successful societies across the world have taught us.

 

The civil society in North Bengal – be it in the hills or valley – too has a lot of soul searching to do. Prejudices and stereotypes are pernicious constructs of close minds. The opium of the mass entertainment is befuddling our cultural sensibilities. We have become woefully shorn of both interest and respect for the life and letters of our own next-door neighbor. Meanwhile, contests on TV are converting us into sms  citizens of  a country whose borders are outlined in outlandish sets, located  in nowhereland.

 

A spirit of curiosity and openness in local cross-cultural initiatives can dispel the insecurity around cultural identities. Otherwise, the manufactured culture peddled by the irresponsible and imbecile mass media will continue to shrink the space for real debates of our times, and our place.

 

Fight we must. And fight together. Against two monstrous common enemies – poverty and environmental degradation. 

 

 

 

 

 

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