GJM calls 12-hour shutdown in Darjeeling Feb 9

Darjeeling, Feb 6 (IANS) A day after the West Bengal government announced its plans to form a Lepcha Development Council in the Darjeeling hills, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) Wednesday called a 12-hour shutdown Feb 9 in protest the government's move.

"We have called the shutdown against the state government's move to divide our people. The government is following a divide and rule policy to drive a wedge between the Lepchas and the Gorkhas," GJM spokesman Benoy Tamang told reporters after an emergency party meeting.

Lepchas are indigenous tribals of Sikkim and surrounding hills, including Darjeeling.

The GJM announced the shutdown in the presence of party chief Bimal Gurung.

As news of the GJM's call for the shutdown reached the state secretariat in Kolkata, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee went into a huddle with senior ministers and bureaucrats.

Later, North Bengal Development Minister Gautam Deb said his government was committed to giving full support to the new hill development body Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), which is now run by the GJM.

However, GJM president Bimal Gurung has threatened to step down as GTA chief executive to devote full time in leading the movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

"The West Bengal government will give full support to the GTA. Our job is to promote development there to ensure that the people remain joyful. The government will do it...we cannot and will not do anything which will make the hills suffer," Deb said.

He seemed guarded while talking to the media.

"I will comment on the recent development after watching the government reports. I will not comment anything on media reports," Deb said.

On why the peaceful hills have suddenly become violent, the minister said: "I have to adhere to some secrecy. I cannot divulge everything to the media."

On Tuesday, the state government decided to form the Lepcha Development Council in an apparent bid to put pressure on the GJM which recently revived its demand for Gorkhaland.

A day after its activists raised pro-Gorkhaland slogans at a programme in Darjeeling, where Banerjee was present, the GJM warned of "violence and bloodbath" if its demand for the separate state was not met.

The long standing agitation for forming a separate Gorkhaland out of the northern West Bengal hills has led to the loss of many lives over the past two decades, besides hitting the region's economic mainstays - tea, timber and tourism.

On July 18, 2012, a tripartite agreement was signed between the GJM, and the state and central governments for setting up a new autonomous, elected GTA -- a hill council armed with more powers than its predecessor, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council formed in the late 1980s.

The GJM now runs the GTA after sweeping its maiden territorial elections last July.

On Tuesday, former state chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattachrjee rapped the Banerjee government for "mishandling" the Darjeeling hill issue and warned that compromising on the Gorkhaland matter would create severe problems.

Bhattacharjee alleged that the state government had blundered by inking the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) accord without the GJM dropping its demand for a separate statehood.

"Any direct or indirect compromise on the Gorkhaland demand would not do any good. It is a vital border area. The issues of the Dooars (foothills of the Himalayas) and Terai (the plains close to the hills) are also linked," he said.

Bhattacharjee also questioned the chief minister's decision to form a Lepcha Development Council without following the GTA agreement in letter and spirit by reserving seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.