Darjeeling: With the two factions of the GJM one led by Bimal Gurung and the other by his former deputy Binay Tamang fighting for supremacy in the Darjeeling Hills, the imbroglio over Gorkhaland has taken a back seat this election, as key stakeholders pitch for development amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Over the past three decades or more, the demand for a separate state of the Gorkhas and the implementation of the Constitution’s sixth schedule which provides for the creation of autonomous councils in certain tribal areas had been the two major poll planks of Hill parties.

Gurungs return from hiding after a span of three years and his fight with Tamang for control over the region, however, have changed political equations.

Add to that, the pandemic has crippled the tea and tourism sectors — the financial backbone of the Hills — and left many jobless, with voters in Darjeeling realising well that they need infrastructural development and employment opportunities more than anything else to stay afloat.

The three assembly seats in the picturesque hills – Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong is up for a four-cornered contest this time, with the BJP and the Congress-Left-ISF alliance in the fray along with the TMC’s “two friends from the Hills” GJM factions led by Gurung and Tamang.

The sparring entities have fielded candidates, who would be contesting as Independents from the seats.

Also Read | Gorkha problem to be fixed after BJP comes to power in Bengal: Amit Shah

Sources in the TMC said senior leaders of the party are in a quandary over who should they support during campaigns or on the day of polling, as most of the activists seemed to have sided with Gurung.

“Statehood is not an issue for us this assembly polls.

We are more concerned about the development of the Hills, jobs, administrative overhaul. We have come up with a 52-point manifesto,” Tamang told PTI.

Gurung, who returned to the hills last year and crossed over to the TMC from the BJP, maintained that Gorkhaland will always be the “most pertinent” issue for his outfit, while also clarifying that the overall development of the region is dominating the poll narrative this time.

“The tea, timber and tourism industries have faced a major setback due to the COVID-19 pandemic. People now want jobs, development and a better standard of living,” he said.

The BJP, which has now emerged as a challenger to the supremacy of both the GJM factions, stressed that the party, if voted to power, will offer a “permanent political solution” in the region.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah has also allayed fears over NRC implementation, and asserted that Gorkhas and their identities would never be harmed.

“We haven’t really said anything about statehood. The party, however, has plans to chalk out a permanent political solution for the Hills. Apart from development, especially in remote areas, generating jobs is also important,” BJP Darjeeling district president and GJM turncoat Kalyan Dewan said.

Roshan Giri, the Gurung faction’s general secretary, claimed that the BJP was making “false promises”.

“Since 2009, they had been making similar promises but nothing changed in the Hills. The TMC has promised a permanent political solution. We have full faith in Didi (Mamata Banerjee),” he told PTI.

Asked if the fight between the two GJM factions will give the BJP an advantage, both the parties replied in the negative.

“Binoy Tamang is not a factor in the hills. It’s ‘only Bimal’ that matters,” Gurung stated.

Darjeeling, often referred to as the ‘Queen of the Hills’, draws thousands of tourists from across the globe every year. The place, also known for its world-class tea, is ethnically dominated by the Gorkhas.

Lepchas, Sherpas, and Bhutias also make for a significant part of its population.

Several tea gardens, however, have closed down owing to paucity of funds, and many workers went out of jobs. Also, the labourers had long been seeking a revision in daily wages.

“We are fighting for the rights of tea garden workers and revival of the tourism sector. The TMC, GJM and the BJP are fooling the masses,” CPI(M) leader Ashok Bhattacharya said.

Senior TMC leader in North Bengal and minister Gautam Deb feels the statehood demand has caused a lot of bloodshed in the Hills, and the region has not progressed well all these years.

“People in Darjeeling have suffered enough over this separate statehood demand. But, it has not yielded any result.

We would fight for the growth and betterment of the region,” he said.

The demand for Gorkhaland was first made in the 1980s, with the Subhas Ghisingh-led GNLF launching a violent agitation in 1986, which dragged on for 43 days, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.

The movement led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988, following the intervention of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu.

The Council administered the Hills for 23 years with a certain degree of autonomy.

In 2007, however, the statehood demand gained momentum again after the formation of the GJM, under Bimal Gurung’s leadership, who was once a trusted aide of Ghisingh.

After the TMC took over the reins of Bengal in 2011 by ending the 34-year Left rule, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) was formed with Gurung as its chief.

But peace was short-lived in the region as Gurung, unhappy with the current state of affairs, rekindled the agitation in support of Gorkhaland in 2013, and engineered a 104-day-long strike in 2017, accusing the TMC government of trying to “wipe out” Gorkha identity.

The three-month-long strike changed equations in the Hills and Gurung was forced to go into hiding as several cases, including some under UAPA, were slapped on him.

The agitation led to a split in the GJM, with Binay Tamang, his deputy, emerging as the leader of one of the factions with the help of the TMC.

Gurung, subsequently, joined hands with the BJP and helped it bag the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat for the third consecutive time in 2019 and also the assembly segment in a by-poll.

In October last year, making a dramatic appearance in Kolkata, he quit the BJP-led NDA and aligned with the TMC, underscoring that the saffron party has “failed to find a sustainable solution” for the Hills.

The Mamata Banerjee camp, which already enjoyed the Tamang faction’s support, welcomed Gurung in its fold, with her government going slow on the criminal cases filed against him.

According to a GJM source, who did not wish to be named, the elections this time will actually be a test of strength for the two GJM factions.

Polling for the three assembly seats in the Hills will be held on April 17.

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