Post-poll ethnic strife looms over Dooars

4 May 2009, 0249 hrs IST, Keshav Pradhan, TNN
 
 
           
 
 
Sunday’s flare-up between Nepalis and Bengali Muslims at Jaigaon in the Dooars has brought into sharp focus how the politicization of ethnic issues

 

by both pro-and anti-Left forces has turned north Bengal into the country’s newest flashpoint. The situation may worsen after Lok Sabha election results are announced on May 16.

There are many reasons for this. The practice of playing one ethnic or linguistic group against another gained momentum in early 2008 when Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) revived the Gorkhaland movement and the Left opposed it.

It became more blatant after BJP challenged the might of CPM, RSP and Forward Bloc in the elections, riding piggyback on pro-Gorkhaland and Kamtapur forces.

Hemmed in by Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Assam, Sikkim and Bihar, the region, which military strategists call Chicken’s Neck, has a mixed population of Nepalis, Adivasis, Bengalis, Rajbanshis and north Indians. After the Nepalis, Rajbanshis are the second ethnic group which is fighting for a separate Kamtapur state comprising six north Bengal districts. Adivasis, who dominate most of the 199 tea gardens in the Dooars and the Terai, want an autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The violence at Jaigaon, located close to the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing, erupted over two unrelated cases of murder, that of a Nepali and a Muslim boy. In no time, it took a communal colour. There was an undercurrent of tension in the Dooars for quite some time. It is the outcome of the fast-growing mistrust and suspicion between Nepalis and non-Nepalis over the Gorkhaland issue. Both GJM and the Left are responsible for this divide. GJM has rubbed the plains people the wrong way by seeking to include the Dooars and the Terai where Nepalis are in a minority in its proposed Gorkhaland. The Left, on the other hand, has created a kind of fear psychosis among non-Nepalis, especially Bengalis, by claiming that they all will have to quit the region in case Gorkhaland becomes a reality.

Lately, the growing assertiveness among Adivasis has added a new dimension to the region’s ethnic politics. In February, the tribals, under the leadership of Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP), hit the headlines after they took up arms to resist GJM’s campaign in the Dooars. Some radical Bengali organisations backed the Adivasis to the hilt. All this while, RSP and CPM remained quite, allowing ABAVP to fight their battle against GJM. In the process, they lost a vast majority of Adivasi and Nepal tea workers to ABAVP and GJM.

In the late Nineties, a huge chunk of Nepali CPM cadres from the Dooars had joined the Maoist-run Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Ekta Sangh, banned since 2001, over the alleged recruitment of Bengali teachers for Nepali medium schools.

ABAVP has added more to the Left’s woes by boycotting the elections in support of its four-point charter of demands, which include reopening of closed gardens and formation of an autonomous council for Adivasis. This has made the fate of Left candidates in the Darjeeling, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri constituencies uncertain.

The boycott issue has led to fears about a possible a fratricidal war between Adivasis loyal to ABAVP and those close to the Left. Soon after the polls, ABAVP activists attacked fellow Adivasis in Palasbari and Telepara gardens for ignoring their boycott call. In the Eighties, about 250 Nepali CPM cadres were killed and over 30,000 uprooted from their homes for several years after they picked up arms to oppose Subash Ghisingh’s Gorkhaland stir in the hills.

Things look equally uncertain for Nepalis and other non-Adivasis, who turn out in heavy numbers to cast their votes in the Dooars. In February, Adivasis had attacked Nepalis in Nagrakata, Madarihat, Birpara, Banarhat and Binnaguri after thousands of GJM supporters from the hills tried to march into the Dooars.

Most Bengali-dominated urban settlements in the Dooars are surrounded by tea gardens and forest villages inhabited by Adivasis and Nepalis. Last year, GJM workers and Bengalis had clashed with each other at Kalchini, Hamiltonganj, Birpara and Mal Bazar.

There is an undercurrent of tension in the foothills of Darjeeling district, the epicentre of the Gorkhaland movement. Bengali-Nepali ties began to worsen in the plains of Darjeeling district after radical Bengali organisations like Bangla O Bangla Bhasha Bachao Samiti and Aamra Bangali, who call Nepalis “foreigners”, opposed the Left Front government’s decision to give autonomy to Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule in 2006.

Tension between the two communities has grown further since early 2008 when GJM claimed Siliguri as a part of its proposed Gorkhaland. With virtually no support base in the hills, CPM remained silent when activists of radical Bengali organisations attacked Nepalis in plains settlements like Bagdogra, Kadamtala, Matigara and parts of Siliguri town in June last. This gave GJM a chance to accuse CPM of using radical elements to “terrorise” Nepalis.

To checkmate the Left, the Gorkha party has now joined hands with Kamtapur Progressive Party, a Rajbanshi organisation. It is also trying to maintain contact with ABAVP and former parliamentarian from Alipurduar, Joachim Buxla, who left RSP after he was denied renomination for the just concluded polls.

Adding more to the ethnic cauldron, BJP nominee from Darjeeling Jaswant Singh and NCP leader and former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma have lately thrown their weight behind pro-Gorkhaland and Kamtapur activists.

On the back foot, the Left has fallen back upon the emotive slogan of “Resist Banga Bhanga,’ instead of the magic of Brand Buddha, to fight against whom it calls separatist forces.”

Symposium for separate statehood

DARJEELING, July 18: To analyse the Gorkhaland demand and to remove the misconception that the movement is violent in nature, the ‘Intellectual Forum of Darjeeling District and Dooars’ a body of intellectuals has organised a two-day symposium from tomorrow.
“The symposium on 19 and 20 July is to bring intellectuals and strong advocates of smaller states for the right to self-determination of ethnic minorities like Gorkhas and Adivasis,” Mr P Arjun, convener of the Forum said. “Our mission is to disseminate the geo-political, historical and sociological factors in consonance with the present situation. Organisations like Aamra Bangali and Jana Chetna have labeled our movement as violent. We attempt to clear it,” he stated. Eminent speakers like Dr Mahendra P Lama, senior editor’s Mr Joel\ Rai and Mr Swaraj Thapa, historian and writer Mr Somnath Pal and APDR activist Mr Abhiranjan Bhaduri would address the symposium. n SNS