Statehood for north Bengal: The story of an old demand, new political dynamic

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Less than a week after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha member John Barla raised a demand for the formation of a separate state or Union Territory comprising districts in north Bengal — from where he is elected — ethnic groups in the region have voiced past demands for separate states.

This, experts feel, is not good news for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government which has made efforts to win over pockets of constituencies in north Bengal. But, to be sure, the quick pace at which the BJP has distanced itself from the demand indicates that it is not too comfortable with the call either, given the passions it generates in the rest of the state.

Several Gorkha groups from the Darjeeling hills as well as the Dalit Rajbanshis in the plains have started talking about their long-standing demands for statehood. Armed movements carried out by some of these outfits claimed numerous lives in the past, and posed a difficult political challenge for Marxist chief ministers (CMs) Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and their successor Mamata Banerjee.

Also Read | ‘I am sorry to say…’: Mamata Banerjee amps up attack on Guv Jagdeep Dhankhar

The revival of the demand

Observers believe that the BJP’s rise in the region may make the situation even more challenging for the TMC. In the recent assembly polls, the party bagged 30 of the 54 seats in the eight north Bengal districts, although the TMC won 213 of the state’s 294 seats against 77 wrested by the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP bagged a record 18 seats of the state’s 42. In north Bengal, it secured seven of the eight seats.

Days after the BJP said that it does not endorse Barla’s demand and sees Bengal as one state, the Member of Parliament (MP) from Alipurduar constituency on Thursday met governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who is on a week-long visit to Darjeeling.

Accusing the TMC of post-poll violence, Barla said, “We told the governor about the atrocities. Even the police are threatening our people. How can people of north Bengal survive?” He said he did not talk to Dhankhar about his demand for a separate state, but reiterated that he will raise it in Delhi. After he left, Dhankhar posted back-to-back tweets criticising the administration.

Barla’s visit to the governor’s house in Darjeeling triggered a chain reaction.

The National Gorkhaland Committee, the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists and the All India Gorkha League (Pratap Khati faction) met Dhankhar on Thursday and Friday, and submitted memorandums demanding the creation of Gorkhaland as a separate state. The Gorkha Rashtriya Congress submitted another memorandum, demanding Sikkim’s merger with Darjeeling.

Leaders of the bigger hill parties, such as the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) that started the Gorkhaland movement in the mid-1980s and the Bimal Gurung faction of the Gorkha Jamukti Morcha (GJM), which supported the BJP in all elections till October last year, have supported Barla while sticking to their demand for a state carved out of Darjeeling and parts of the Terai and Dooars regions. A few hundred people have been killed in the Gorkhaland movement over the last four decades.

The backlash from Kolkata

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, CM Banerjee accused Dhankhar of encouraging forces that want to divide north Bengal.

“He purposely met groups and people who want to divide north Bengal. I have information that he has asked them to carry on agitation. Who is he to give them such instruction? I am not going to tolerate this. There should be a probe on who he took with him to Darjeeling and who he met there,” said Banerjee.

The BJP bagged the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat thrice since 2009 with Gurung’s support. Gurung, whose party is now an ally of the TMC, has been alleging that the BJP misled the Gorkhas and made false promises about finding a permanent political solution to the Gorkhaland issue. In an apparent volte-face on Thursday, Gurung said, “We cannot oppose the demand for a separate state. We are even ready to talk to Barla but he and the BJP should not raise the issue only to meet a political objective.”

Sandip Limbu, a senior GNLF leader, and Prakash Gurung, president of the youth wing of Gurung’s party, said they too are not opposed to Barla but the creation of Gorkhaland remains their primary goal.

Mamata Banerjee’s sharp response to the demand also comes from the fact that she has invested political energy, over the past decade, but in particular before the assembly polls, in wooing the Gorkha community. She granted 175 crore for the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, the district council run by the Binoy Tamang faction of the GJM which is opposed to Gurung, but is an ally of the TMC. The TMC did not contest the Darjeeling and Kalimpong assembly seats as well.

Yet, the BJP, which has very little organisational strength in the hills, managed to bag the Darjeeling seat by fielding a former GJM leader. Party leaders, including national president JP Nadda, carried out an extensive campaign in north Bengal and held closed-door meetings with leaders of different communities and ethnic groups, and it clearly paid electoral dividends.

A complex terrain of identity politics

During her pre-poll visits to the region, Banerjee announced major projects in five other north Bengal districts with grants for different communities figuring prominently in the list of sops.

She announced that 161 former members of the banned militant outfit Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) would be employed as home guards. Formed in 1995, the KLO carried out an armed struggle for a separate state for the local Koch Rajbanshi community which comprises a sizeable section of voters, especially in the Cooch Behar district. KLO militants were armed and trained in Assam by United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants. According to the KLO’s original doctrine, its objective is to form the state of Kamtapur comprising six districts of north Bengal. Banerjee also announced that a police battalion would be set up with local youths and named after Narayani Sena, the army of the ancient kingdom of Kamtapur. The BJP made a similar promise.

Banerjee also cleared a grant of 5 crore for the Rajbanshi Language Academy, 10 crore for the Rajbanshi Development and Cultural Board and a second campus of the Panchanan Barma University. Barma is the most prominent face of the Rajbanshi community since he carried out the first movement against caste politics in the last century.

In 2005, five people, including three policemen of whom one was an additional superintendent of police, were killed near Cooch Behar town during a violent agitation by another organisation, the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (GCPA). Banshi Badan Barman, general secretary of GCPA, said, “We have always demanded a separate state of Cooch Behar. We have a soft corner for those fighting for the identity of ethnic communities.”

But while talking to HT before the polls, Barman said, “No chief minister of West Bengal did so much for the Rajbanshis as Mamata Banerjee has done.”

After the poll results were announced on May 2, Jiban Singha, the absconding chairman of KLO, broke his long silence and issued two statements and a long video message demanding Cooch Behar’s separation from West Bengal. In the video, which was shot in a jungle, he was seen dressed in military gear and his men armed with rifles. He alleged that Rajbanshi people were being killed by TMC workers.

On Wednesday, Singha issued a six-page statement in which he threatened to take “ultimate action” against the TMC’s Cooch Behar district president and former Lok Sabha MP Partha Pratim Roy and former minister from the region, Benoy Krishna Barman. Roy had recently visited Kolkata and alleged that separatists were trying to divide Bengal.

The political challenge ahead

The ruling party senses the trouble it might face in future. TMC workers in north Bengal have lodged multiple police complaints against Barla and two BJP legislators who spoke in his support.

The CM, while addressing a virtual administrative meeting on June 23, asked officers from the region to take strong action if anyone creates a disturbance.

Accusing the BJP of supporting these outfits, TMC Rajya Sabha member Sukhendu Sekhar Roy said, “The BJP central leadership is behind this. They tacitly backed the Gorkhaland movement for years. People of Bengal went through a trauma when West Bengal was created during Independence because of Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha leaders who wanted their communal politics to expand. We cannot allow Bengal to be divided again. These plans will fail because people are with Mamata Banerjee.” He added that if the BJP was keen on creating new states, it should focus on such demands in other states, including Gujarat (“where some people want Saurashtra”) and Assam (“where there is a demand for the formation of Bodoland”).

Bengal BJP state general secretary Sayantan Basu, who spends most of his time in north Bengal, said, “These are bogus allegations. Our party does not want the state to be divided, but there is enough ground for the local people to feel aggrieved and neglected. The region has not witnessed any development in decades. We want the state to interact with the people and take proactive steps. It can be a special package. Also, Siliguri town can be made the state capital for a few months every year. That will bring north Bengal under focus.”

Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, said although the BJP has not officially supported Barla, his demand will encourage the Gorkha groups and outfits such as KLO to start fresh movement before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

“I wonder how the BJP would have tackled this situation had it come to power. Although the party has captured most of the seats in north Bengal, Banerjee enjoys the people’s mandate. Splitting north Bengal will not be possible at this moment,” Bandopadhyay said.



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