The Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), installed this week to administer the affairs of the Darjeeling hills, is an important milestone as it brings, even if temporarily, a respite from the fierce statehood movement that often culminated in bloodshed and strife for a large number of Gorkhas as well as people from the plains. No matter how the GTA fares, the restoration of a democratically elected body to run the hills, after nearly 20 years, is a singular event in Darjeeling’s history.
An aggressive engagement by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to the effect that Bengal will never be divided but that, at the same time, the Gorkhas would have true self-determination and development has finally broken the ice. Bimal Gurung, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) chief, and his team made a steady climbdown on their agenda of a separate state for Gorkhas. Gurung had sworn a separate state for the Gorkhas would be realised by March 2010, whipping up a pan-Gorkha, emotional campaign across the country in 2007. As the GTA comes into being on August 4, he looks far from his coveted goal.
It has truly been a steady slide for Team Gurung while accepting the GTA — one that many would like to believe is another version of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) under Subash Ghisingh. Apart from dropping the statehood demand, the GJM also had to settle for a mere five mouzas out of nearly 400 it had demanded from the Dooars and Terai regions. In doing so, Team Gurung had to alienate a vast population of Gorkhas living in these belts, who had been an important constituent of the GJM movement. In real terms, the GJM bequeathed the leadership of the hills to Mamata didi (Gurung has been calling her “Maa”), when it conceded the hills will not raise the statehood demand as long as the Trinamool Congress is in power in Bengal.
A combination of factors has brought about such a drastic transformation. To list the important ones, there is the Madan Tamang murder case in which Bimal Gurung, Roshan Giri and several other GJM leaders are named in the FIR. The case has been a trump card and gamechanger for the governments in Kolkata and New Delhi. Tamang, a fiery leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, was the sole dissenting voice against Gurung and his men when he was murdered on May 21, 2010. The police could track and retrieve a telephone conversation giving telltale evidence of the GJM leadership’s alleged involvement. The CBI took up the investigation in January 2011, as the Calcutta high court directed the state CID to hand over the case. The murder charge became a real handicap for the top GJM leaders even though they alleged they had been framed.
Those following the case closely know why the investigation has not made any significant headway till date. Despite the tapes, and despite the submission by another arrested accused implicating Gurung and Giri, the CBI has never taken the GJM leaders into custody for interrogation — an elementary step in such an important case. The better option for the government has been to flash the case like a red card whenever necessary to silence the GJM leaders. Fortunately, this is one instance when the state and the Centre have been able to identify a common cause — using the Madan Tamang murder case to douse the GJM flames. It has worked effectively.
The other major factor that contributed towards a settlement is the huge financial package offered to the GTA. The GTA will have access to an annual special Central assistance of Rs 200 crore. This apart, it would get shares of the state plan funds and the hill affairs department’s budget as well as other allocations from Centrally sponsored schemes. All combined, the annual spending limit for the GTA would be nothing less than Rs 250 crore to make a moderate estimate. In other words, for a five-year term, the GTA will have access to anything between Rs 1,250 crore and Rs 1,500 crore. According to official records, the DGHC under Ghisingh, in sharp contrast, was allocated a total of about Rs 235 crore for a 10-year period from 1988-89 to 1999-2000. It had actually received Rs 174 crore.
Control over the fund is a worry for Gurung, given past experience. During the DGHC’s tenure, Ghisingh had to frequently revert to the statehood demand to ensure fund flow. In prior consultations with Team Gurung, the state government assured a free flow of funds to the GTA, provided it adhered to financial discipline: audit, scrutiny, utilisation certificates and a true reflection of change in ground realities. Both Darjeeling and Kolkata have woken up from their old rivalries to generate new hopes. Good governance by the GJM, the rule of law and a climate of robust development can restore stability to the hills.