By-poll result gives a fillip to Gorkhaland movement

Kolkata, Nov 11 (IANS) The victory of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM)-backed independent candidate in West Bengal’s Kalchini assembly seat could fan the separatist movement in the northern part of the state, say political leaders and analysts.
Wilson Champamari, supported by the GJM, won Tuesday from the Kalchini assembly constituency in north Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district. The Adivasi Vikas Parishad (AVP) nominee finished second, leaving the more established political parties far behind.

State Public Works Department (PWD) minister and senior Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) leader Kshiti Goswami said Champamari’s victory would consolidate the movement for Gorkhaland and trigger demands for a separate Gorkha state from other parts as well.

“This electoral result will consolidate GJM’s movement for Gorkhaland. Earlier, their demand to include some areas of the plains to their Gorkhaland state was not justified democratically. But now, they will be able to substantiate it saying locals have voted in support of their call.

“So now on they will say people in Dooars also want a separate Gorkhaland state,” Goswami told IANS.

The constituency comprises a large number of tea gardens in the foothills of the Darjeeling Himalayas known as the Dooars.
Added Congress leader Manas Bhuinya: “The Kalchini result is a matter of concern. One should not sit complacent just because the Congress has suffered a loss in Kalchini. Tomorrow the conflict between the hills and the plains may reach whole of Jalpaiguri and the Dooars region. It may endanger the integrity of the whole Bengal.”

“The government should take rectification measures immediately,” the Congress state legislative party leader said.

The GJM was, of course, upbeat.

“The electoral result is for a Gorkhaland state. Thousands of people living in Terai have shown their support in favour of the Gorkhaland call,” GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told IANS.

“It’ll help us to take the Gorkhaland movement one step forward.”

The GJM has been spearheading the Gorkhaland agitation and has demanded inclusion of the Dooars into its proposed state. The GJM’s demand brought it into conflict with the AVP and the two groups have clashed several times over the past one year.

Political analysts agreed that the electoral result was “very significant”.

“The Kalchini result is very significant. An independent candidate winning from the Dooars with support from the GJM outfit is something to be taken note of,” political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Roychowdhury said.

“In the near or distant future there may be pressure on the present geographical and political boundary of the state (West Bengal).

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BJP, the new X-factor in West Bengal

Rajat Roy / Kolkata
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the otherwise lightweight party in the highly polarised political scenario in West Bengal, is gradually becoming the X-factor in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. After the first phase of polls in the state on April 30, leaders of the ruling CPI(M) had conceded that BJP candidate Jaswant Singh had a clear edge in Darjeeling over their own candidate, Jibesh Sarkar. Now, these CPI(M) leaders are pinning their hope on the BJP to ensure Left victory in at least three seats — Krishnanagar, Dum Dum and Alipurduar.

Unlike the previous two occasions when it had formed alliance with the Trinamool Congress, this time, the BJP is fighting the ongoing general elections alone in the state.

According to the Left, if the BJP is able to retain a considerable share of opposition votes in these areas, it would ensure a smooth passage for the Left candidates. The CPI(M) is so concerned that some of its leaders like Shyamal Chakrabarty and Amitava Nandy were seen enquiring from BJP candidates why they were not being able to put up a good show in Dum Dum and North Kolkata.

In Alipurduar in 2004, the BJP lost to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), a Left Front constituent. But the combined Opposition vote was more than what the Left got there. Earlier in 1996, it got merely 7.95 per cent of the votes in the state when it fought alone.

To add to its worries this time, a number of tribal voters in Alipurduar boycotted the poll on April 30 in response to the call given by the Adivasi Vikash Parishad. The tribals had traditionally supported the Left. So, if the BJP fails to retain its votes there, Alipurduar might turn out to be a close contest this time.

In 1999, the BJP’s Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukherjee won from Dum Dum and Krishnanagar, respectively, and subsequently became ministers in the NDA government. But in the 2004 elections, they lost to CPI(M) candidates.

So, this time, all eyes are on Krishnanagar, Dum Dum and Alipurduar to see if the BJP turns out as the crucial factor in deciding the fate of these seats.

Previous results show that the BJP, when it fought alone in the state, never got more than 10 per cent of votes. But with the support from the Trinamool, Mukherjee got 43.82 per cent votes in Krishnanagar in 1999, followed by 40.54 per cent votes in 2004.

The Left is concerned because in 2004 the total opposition vote in Krishnanagar was at least 75,000 votes more than what it got. In 1996, when the BJP last fought this seat on its own, it got only 8.02 per cent votes, or 71,000 votes in absolute terms. Of course, Mukherjee is very popular in this area as he did a lot for his constituency when he was a minister in the NDA government.

This time, Mukherjee, an eminent barrister from Krishnanagar, has built his campaign on his personal charisma. On April 30, senior BJP leader L K Advani addressed a huge rally in Krishnanagar in support of Mukherjee. Only two days later, Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya went there to campaign for his party’s candidate, the sitting MP Jyotirmoyee Sikdar. Compared to Advani’s rally, that was a very poor show.

On the other hand, Tapas Pal, the Tollywood actor and Trinamool candidate, has other worries. Shankar Singh, the local Congress heavyweight, had withdrawn completely from the campaign, threatening to subvert his election.

But, how much of the opposition votes would he be able to retain after the Trinamool left the BJP and formed an electoral alliance with the Congress? In last year’s panchayat elections, the Opposition gained a lot in this district, indicating a steady erosion in the Left vote bank.

People in Krishnanagar have no straight answer to that. According to a veteran doctor of the town, “Satyabrata Mukherjee is very much in the race.” Senior CPI(M) leaders are hopeful that the BJP candidate would be able to make a serious dent in the Opposition vote to spoil the chance of the Trinamool candidate.

If the personality factor of the BJP candidate in Krishnanagar is crucial to the outcome of the vote there, in Dum Dum it is just the opposite. After getting marginalised in the intra-party squabbles, Tapan Sikdar left the BJP three years back and joined Uma Bharti. Recently, he returned to the party and was nominated to contest from Dum Dum. The present MP from Dum Dum, the CPI(M)’s Amitava Nandy, is worried that Sikdar’s campaign is not picking up at all. In an informal chat, Nandy recently asked Sikdar about it. Sikdar’s blunt reply was, “What can I do? I joined the party only three months back. So, it is difficult to motivate my party workers. Also, the paucity of fund is a serious concern.”

In 2004, the BJP got nearly 42 per cent vote in Dum Dum against the CPI(M)’s 49.6 per cent, while the Congress managed 6 per cent. But in the last panchayat elections, the CPI(M) lost a major share of seats in two lower tiers of the three-tier panchayat system. So, Nandy has valid reason to be worried. To add to his worries, his party leaders in the district are not cooperative.

The party has ordered his bete noir, Subhash Chakrabarty, the most influential leader in the district, out of the district to East Medinipur to control the extent of the damage due to infighting in the party. That’s why he was desperate to see the BJP did sufficiently well to make dent in the Opposition vote bank.

But the CPI(M)’s campaign against the BJP for endorsing the Gorkha agitation in Darjeeling hills is now going against its interest.

This has put the BJP candidates on the defensive in the plains of Bengal. After touring a number of districts in south Bengal, Shamik Bhattacharya, a state BJP leader, feels there are indications that a shifting of support is taking place at the ground level.

A source close to senior RSS leaders in the state disclosed that they would in all likelihood transfer their vote to the main opposition, the Trinamool. If that happens across the party, the Left would have reasons to be concerned.

Dangerous politics

Shikha Mukerjee DNA

In line with its commitment to chopping up the larger Indian states into bite-size pieces for reasons that range from respect for people with separate identities and recognition of their rights to administrative convenience, the BJP has nominated former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh to contest the Darjeeling seat in West Bengal.

By doing so, the BJP has packaged the dangerously fissiparous demand for a separate Gorkhaland as a demand with merit, legitimacy and right.

For the BJP it would appear that the price of a seat in the Marxist bastion of West Bengal would be, if won, a politically septic focus for the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM). This would be a low cost initiative with little risk.

Given that the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) was auctioning its support to whichever party agreed to advance its agenda of carving out a separate state of Gorkhaland in the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and in the Dooars including Siliguri city, the BJP can claim its bid was successful and that it had negotiated a bargain. Officially the BJP has not committed itself via its manifesto to pitching for a separate Gorkhaland state. Its candidate, Jaswant Singh has, albeit wrapping the bitter message in meaningless reassurances.

Encouraging ambitions of a separate Gorkhaland state, albeit technically within the framework of the Indian Constitution, may not seem to be dangerous. It could be dressed up to sound sympathetic to the quest for Gorkha identity and esteem that began with the movement launched by Subas Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front.

While the issue of whether the bid for a separate Gorkhaland is a simple demand of hill people for respect and identity can be discussed later, what does need to be fore-grounded is the link between the idea of a separate Gorkhaland and India’s security.

The tacit support to the bid for a separate Gorkhaland nails BJP’s blinkered, if not distorted vision, on how it would fulfil its campaign promises of meeting terrorism from across the border with a muscular capability to protect India and improve the security environment. Having declared that the rival Congress is weak and irresponsible about handling the threat to security posed by terrorism, it is bizarre to note that the BJP has taken a soft position on Gorkhaland.

There is no question that early Nepali settlers in the Darjeeling area deserve a separate identity to distinguish them from citizens of Nepal who later migrated to India in search of livelihood. That demand for a different identity was met through the Gorkha Hill Council accord that recognised Gorkhas as people who “belonged” to the hill areas of Darjeeling, distinct from the Nepalis who migrated there and to other corners of India in search of work.

The demand for a separate Gorkhaland is, however, not about lebensraum; it has to be juxtaposed against the issue of security, including defeating terrorism. The BJP ought to have known its geography of India rather better; the demand for Gorkhaland would jeopardise that slender land connection described as “Chicken’s Neck” between the rest of India and the Northeast of the country.

The area that GJM has claimed for Gorkhaland includes sensitive places like the Sukna forest where the 33 Corps of the Eastern Command is stationed, crucial for defending India’s borders in the Eastern Himalayas where China is a looming sometimes threatening presence.

Any blockages within the Chicken’s Neck would snap the link between the rest of the country and Sikkim, it would hamper movement in and out of Bhutan towards which India has treaty obligations and it would isolate an area where according to Indian intelligence ISI, Le-T, HuJI terror networks have been operational. It may be pointed out that it is in India’s security interest to remain alert as there are strong suspicions of a connect between terror networks and insurgents in the Northeast and links between Maoists and insurgents as well.

In other words, the foothills of Darjeeling are not peaceful, quaint places for “tea” tourists. That Siliguri has been a staging post for ISI operatives, who have used it to move in and out of India via Nepal should have alerted the BJP to the risk of irresponsibly encouraging GJM.

That there have always been small and vocal groups raising a demand for “Greater Nepal” where connection via the now deposed monarchy would serve as adhesive is known to BJP.To convert Darjeeling into an “innocent political fishing expedition” by lining up with the openly divisive Gorkha Janamukti Morcha is to refuse to acknowledge the rather more sinister and serious implications of promoting the idea of smaller states in a place where India’s borders are open to Nepal, China, Bangladesh and last but not least Bhutan through which terrorists, arms and information is trafficked.



Rocky road to Darjeeling

The tip of Mt Kanchenjunga turns crimson as the last rays of the sun touch upon the three blade-shaped spurs of Tindharia, around which the legend

of labour leader Sagina Mahato is woven. “It’s our final battle. Vote for Jaswant Singh,” a GJM activist campaigns for a candidate who does not belong to his party at this railway township, about 30 km south of Kurseong.

Considering its unique electorate composition and issues, Darjeeling has always thrown up surprises in elections. This time, it promises to have an even more interesting and suspenseful Lok Sabha poll because of various other new factors.

Some of them are: BJP’s decision to fight the polls for the pro-Gorkhaland GJM in proxy, presence of the saffron party’s high-profile candidate Jaswant Singh, the inability of CPM and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to campaign anywhere in the constituency, flight of former Gorkha strongman Subash Ghisingh from Darjeeling and support of Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) to BJP.

What has queered the pitch for Congress which had won the seat in 2004 and CPM is BJP’s decision to fight from Darjeeling, riding piggyback on GJM. The saffron party has a negligible presence in the region.

“BJP is an opportunistic party. The people of the constituency will reject it,” says CPM candidate Jibesh Sarkar. “Our position is strong because we stand for peace and unity,” he adds.

The constituency has seven Assembly segments, of which three are in the Hills and four in the plains. Marxists have a strong base in the plains segments of Siliguri, Phansidewa, Matigara-Naxalbari and Chopra. The hill Assembly seats of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong comprise about 48% of the over 12-lakh strong electorate. Currently, GJM holds total sway over them as well as the foothills that have a sizeable Nepali population.

Keeping this in mind, both GJM and BJP are confident of victory. Both have focused on the Gorkhaland issue. Singh has promised to take the Gorkhas’ “101-year-old demand” to “Delhi and beyond”. Besides, he has also roped in Kamtapur Progressive Party by sympathizing with its demand for a separate state for Rajbanshis, who live in huge numbers in North Bengal.

Despite all this, CPM and Congress regard each other as main rivals. Congress nominee Dawa Narbula, who bagged the seat with GNLF support last time, projects himself as the only “hill candidate”. He calls Singh “an outsider who will be of no help to the hill people”. Apart from the hill votes, he is banking on Congress’s alliance with Trinamool. In 2004, he had defeated his nearest challenger Mani Thapa (CPM) by over a lakh votes.

This time, CPM feels that any division of hill votes between BJP and Congress will go to its advantage. It also expects overwhelming support from voters in the plains who are against the Gorkhaland demand.

Given GJM’s stranglehold over the Hills, Marxist leaders find it difficult to campaign in Nepali areas. “GJM has not allowed us to canvass in the Hills. We have taken it up with the Election Commission,” says urban development minister and CPM leader Asok Bhattacharya. The chief minister, who hasn’t been able to set foot in the Hills since GJM’s rise in October 2007, has described the situation there as “not conducive to the polls”. He has also expressed concern over GJM raising a police wing called Gorkhaland Personnel.

Another factor that may trouble the Left is Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP)’s decision to boycott the elections in support of its various demands, including an autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Adivasis dominate almost all 46 tea gardens in the plains of Darjeeling.

Confident of Citu’s influence over these workers, Bhattacharya, however, says, “The boycott will not have any impact in our district.” In contrast, ABAVP has been tough with RSP in the Dooars in neighbouring Jalpaiguri district, which has 153 tea estates.

In the Hills, GJM’s decision to back BJP has landed other pro-Gorkhaland parties in a spot. CPRM, which broke away from CPM in 1996 over the statehood question, has agreed to campaign for Singh. “Our support is for Gorkhaland, our common goal,” explains CPRM central committee member D S Bomzan.

On the other hand, Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) has not taken kindly to GJM’s decision to field “an outsider”. “We have appealed for conscience voting,” says ABGL chief Madan Tamang.

But the biggest surprise has come from Gorkha National Liberation Front chief Subash Ghisingh, who has been living in Jalpaiguri following his banishment from the Hills by GJM last year. His party has decided to boycott the elections seeking Schedule Tribe status for all Nepali ethnic groups. This, observers claim, may keep anti-GJM (read anti-BJP) voters away from the polls. But an unforgiving GJM says, “Ghisingh has spoilt the chances of his return to the Hills.” Smaller parties, such as CPI (ML)-Liberation, BSP and Aamra Bangali have fielded their own candidates.

Devoid of any national issues, Darjeeling is set to go to the polls high on emotion. Voters in the plains and Hills will certainly go different ways, keeping their dispute alive for a long time to come.

Jaswant BJP man from Darjeeling: Gorkhaland team pledges support

New Delhi/Kolkata: The BJP will field senior leader Jaswant Singh — under EC scanner for alleged distribution of cash to voters in Rajasthan — from Darjeeling in the coming election.

A 10-member Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) team, spearheading a movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland, comprising the Darjeeling hills and adjoining areas in North Bengal, met party’s PM-candidate L K Advani during the evening and pledged support for Singh’s candidature.

Singh and party co-in-charge for West Bengal S S Ahluwalia were also present at the meeting. After meeting Advani, spokesperson Balbir Punj told The Indian Express: “Jaswant Singh shall be our candidate from Darjeeling.” Dawa Sherpa, initially declared the BJP candidate from the seat, has agreed to withdraw from the fray. He was also present at the meeting. The seat is currently represented by Congress’s Dawa Narbula.

Singh said he met Advani to “clarify” the issue of alleged distribution of cash by him in Barmer — where his son is in the fray. “I met him to clarify that it (distribution of money to the poor) is part of our tradition,” he said.
Ever since GJM’s Bimal Gurung met Advani at an NDA dinner in February this year, he had been sounding out the BJP to field a “national figure” from the seat, offering him the outfit’s “unconditional support”. Recalling that Inderjeet — who, like Singh, was not a Darjeeling native — represented the seat in the past, sources said the GJM “would not have agreed to any Bengali-speaking leader.” The party feels that Singh’s one-rank-one-pension demand for ex-servicemen is likely to go down well with the electorate in Darjeeling.

Roshan Giri of the GJM told The Indian Express: “The BJP assured us of support on the issue of Gorkhaland and it said it would make a mention of it in its manifesto. We requested the BJP to field Jaswantji from Darjeeling and if it does, our party will support it”.