Ajoy Edwards –Observations by an intrigued neighbour
Ajay Edwards

What do you think of when you hear the word Darjeeling? The beautiful, undulating landscape or the region’s political aspirations? It is no secret that the majestic hill station and the region around it is as much a political hotbed as it is home to world-famous tea. And while elections may be over in West Bengal and three years away in neighbouring Sikkim, it has done little to halt political developments in Gorkhaland.

Churnings in the restive Darjeeling hills have taken newer dimensions with the proliferation of a new Gorkha party and two others waiting on the drawing board.

The already-crowded political landscape—which has at least 11 regional Gorkha outfits—saw the emergence of one more party-the latest edition of the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) or the Indian Gorkha Democratic Front. With BGPM, the number has now gone up to a dozen.

Also Read | How Darjeeling, the Queen of Hills, fought COVID-19 sans infrastructure

The political aspirations of this region are well known: that explains why over a dozen parties are vying for the support of ‘merely’ 8.75 lakh people, harping on the same emotive issue of a separate state and a distinct identity for the Gorkha people in the region. Political analysts now believe that the fragmentation of Gorkha leadership among the Nepali-speaking people of Indian origin is almost complete. They, however, add that burgeoning regional political platforms in the already crowded political landscape is diluting issues they claim to espouse. 

On September 9, Anit Thapa—former deputy chief of a breakaway Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJM), headed by his former comrade-in-arms, Binay Tamang— floated the BGPM, claiming that the days of Gorkha politics of one man-party were over.

Thapa claims that it is the dawn of a new political era, a claim analysts and political rivals dismiss as rubbish, saying “it’s nothing but old wine in a new bottle.”

Thapa, along with Tamang, had broken away from the Bimal Gurung-headed Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJM) after the Morcha strongman went into hiding following a 104-day long, violent shutdown in the Darjeeling hills in 2017 to form the Binay Tamang faction of the GJM.

Four years down the line, the GJM faction headed by Tamang no longer exists. 

Ajay Edwards, a prominent Gorkha leader who, until recently, headed the Darjeeling branch of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), is also set to float a new political platform. “We will launch a new political platform—the Ekta Manch—within the next 60 days,” Edwards tells EastMojo.

The start of the Manch is in the process, Edwards adds. “People of the hills are tired of violence. The last 35 years of violent politics cannot continue …violence has made three generations of poverty-stricken people of the hills jobless; many have been orphaned. Violence is a dead end,” he says. 

Too many parties, little difference in ideology

The proliferation of 14 political parties is one too many for a small place like Darjeeling, and has brought to the fore an acute leadership crisis within the Gorkha political landscape, says political analyst and former academician Amar Singh Rai.

“Politics in the Darjeeling hills are not based on any ideology as such and floating of new parties has more to do with personal differences than tenants,” Rai tells EastMojo over the phone from Darjeeling.

Citing the formation of many Gorkha parties for personal differences, Rai, himself a former lawmaker from Darjeeling, says he sees nothing to distinguish among the newer breed of Gorkha leadership.

“The newer Gorkha political parties in the hills do not have any set ideologies. Gorkha leadership, across the political spectrum, harps on the basic sentiments of the hill people–the Gorkha identity and separate land (read Gorkhaland),” says Rai, who is no longer active in politics.

On September 9, Anit Thapa—former deputy chief of a breakaway Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJM), headed by his former comrade-in-arms, Binay Tamang— floated the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha.

But Edwards, who parted ways with the GNLF due to political differences with the party president Mann Ghising, does not concur with Rai. He believes political leaders could no longer discount hill people’s aspirations. “The people of the hills deserve autonomy and respect. We want to launch a movement just like the ‘Free Tibet’ movement,” Edwards says.

“We don’t want the people of Bengal or the rest of the country to see the Gorkha people as ‘troublemakers’, disrupting their holidays in the hills…we want our people to be respected. Our goal is for a separate statehood…for which the people of the hills have to be united and hence the Ekta Manch… we have a long-term and short-term vision. Attaining Gorkhaland may take years… if not during our generation, maybe during our future (generation)…,” says Edwards, who is also a prominent entrepreneur and social worker from Darjeeling.

But political analysts feel that core issues—the Gorkha identity and statehood demands—are getting diluted and losing relevance in the changing contours of Gorkha politics. “There are no leaders who take the problems of the Gorkhas and talk with conviction to the political leaderships either at the Centre or the Bengal government. The voice of the Gorkha people have gone unheard and smothered despite violent agitations,” says senior journalist and political analyst Rajesh Sharma. 

Meanwhile, the proliferation of parties has started a flurry of recruitment drives across the hills with leaders of the newly-minted parties as well as the existing ones going all out to woo supporters—money and organisational positions are being doled out to garner support. While Thapa has chalked out plans to hold meetings across the hills, his bête noir and once the undisputed Gorkha strongman, Bimal Gurung, is also busy trying to revive his support base in the rural and the tea gardens belts.

Politicians of all hues are also busy holding outreach programmes in the remote hill areas to garner support.

Edwards, too, has stepped up his people-to-people outreach programmes. 

“We are feeling the pulse of the rural folks and tea garden workers—the mainstay of political support in Darjeeling hills—and give them a voice,” he says. The outreach programmes are drawing “followers” by the hoards who are making a beeline to join the political bandwagon.

“It is the same set of opportunistic people who jump from one political ship to another for monetary gains,” says a senior hill politician, who does not wish to be named.

“The same set opportunists who were with Gurung then shifted alliance to Tamang- Thapa combine, have once again thrown their lot behind Thapa for personal and monetary gains—eyeing the largesse doled out by the state government,” the above-mentioned politician, says.

The demand for Gorkhaland: Forgotten? Fossilised? Outdated?

The Gorkhaland demand has dominated the political narrative of the restive Darjeeling during successive polls in the hills since the early 1980s when Subhash Ghising spearheaded the first violent mass agitation for a separate state. Since then, three generations of Gorkhas and other communities living in Darjeeling hills and the neighbouring Terai and Dooars have grown up on a staple diet of Gorkha pride and a dream for a separate state of Gorkhaland. “However, no political entity or leader, until now, has been sincere in resolving the century-old demands,” says Sharma.

“There may be a dozen Gorkha parties in the hills and many more to come…but the hill politicians are digressing from the real objective,” says Rai, the former politician. Once Gorkha leaders assume political control, the core issues get buried, says Rai. The justifiable demand for a Gorkha identity and a separate state has time and again got buried in the quagmire of “make-fast-buck” power politics in the hills, agrees Edwards.

“First 25 years were lost during the DGHC under the GNLF and then during the GTA, which Bimal Gurung ran as his private property,” he adds. 

Then, there are the bigwigs like the BJP, which has won the Darjeeling parliamentary seat on three successive terms. The saffron party, riding piggyback on pro-Gorkhaland political parties, led by the GJM headed by Bimal Gurung—is playing a devious game. 

Taking advantage of the emotive demands, the BJP as well the Trinamool Congress (TMC) keeps on lobbying tall promises which they fail to keep, says Sharma. 

NB Khawas, the TMC spokesperson for Darjeeling hill region, says, “When the TMC started functioning in the hills in 2005, we were not very popular as a party. But after the 2021 assembly polls, people in the hills have now realised that everything is with the state (government). Today, 90% of the hill people have positive thinking toward Mamata Banerjee and the TCM,” Khawas, who started his political journey under the leadership of Subhash Ghising, tells EastMojo

Rai says the hill people who are emotional and sentimental about identity and land have been taken for a ride.

“The whole issue of land (Gorkhaland) is like a begging bowl…lots of people in the hills now realise,” says Rai. Gorkha political leadership and analysts are confused about the BJP’s agenda for the hills, he adds.  

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