Gurung’s Return to TMC Fold Evens Out Mamata’s Attempt to Climb Contours of Darjeeling Hill Politics

Sougata Mukhopadhyay
·5-min read

Kolkata: The sudden re-emergence of fugitive Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung at the gates of Gorkha Bhavan in Salt Lake, Kolkata on the afternoon of Durga Puja Panchami made the rumour mills run overtime about his possible truce with Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee.

Sure enough, some drama before the Gorkha Bhavan gates and chasing of Gurung’s convoy across the city later, the Gorkha leader announced his severance of ties with the BJP-led NDA and his renewed alliance with Banerjee for the 2021 state elections.

Undoubtedly, ahead of the high-stakes battle between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the announcement changes the dynamics of politics at Darjeeling Hills where Trinamool has struggled in the last three Parliamentary polls since 2009, owing to GJM’s support to the BJP.

Many observers have begun calling this a “miracle” and a “political coup” that Banerjee may have pulled off while the BJP leaders were caught napping.

However, one must bear in mind that the Morcha had allied with the Trinamool in both the 2011 and 2016 state elections with Banerjee promising Gurung hill autonomy (which led to the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2012) but never the separate state of Gorkhaland, the mainstay of Gorkha politics in the hills. The results of those supports worked out to the mutual benefits of both TMC and GJM and left the BJP wanting.

The Morcha currently holds sway over some 13 Assembly seats in the hills of Darjeeling and the adjacent foothills of Terai and Dooars. With Banerjee winning over the more popular Gurung faction of the Morcha, she may have positioned herself to give serious heartache to the BJP in some 10 of them in the upcoming polls.

That calculation, along with certain reform policies like the state’s Chaa Sundari Scheme launched by Banerjee in February this year to build affordable housing for tea garden workers of north Bengal and hiking their daily wages are a few moves the Trinamool Congress is counting upon to revive some lost ground which it has rapidly lost to the BJP in that part of the state.

But it may not be a cakewalk either since the process of the return of the prodigal son is still fraught with challenges, complexities and, most importantly, questions that the Bengal government needs to answer to its people.

Gurung and his associates, including the party’s general secretary Roshan Giri, have been running from law since September 2017 after the Gurung-led massive Gorkhaland agitation in the hills over a misconstrued language policy of the state and during Banerjee’s presence in Darjeeling for a cabinet meeting. The unrest led to multiple deaths and injuries among police and protestors alike, the army had to be called in and the region experienced a record 104-day long shutdown.

Amitabha Malik, a sub-inspector with district police, was killed and four policemen sustained bullet injuries after they were fired upon allegedly by Gurung’s aides during a raid to catch the leader from a forest area near Darjeeling in October that year.

Gurung and his associates were slapped with some 150 cases under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and under various sections of IPC pertaining to murder, attempt to murder, rioting and arson. The state police returned empty handed after each attempt to nab him from inside the state and outside. Until, of course, he showed up right under the nose of the Bidhannagar Police Commissionerate on Wednesday afternoon. Only this time, the police were found advocating for him and trying to get the Gorkha Bhavan doors opened.

It would be interesting to see how the Mamata Banerjee government would manage to dilute such grave charges against Gurung and his followers in a bid to hold up to its end of the bargain, especially in the wake of the fact that the government has, thus far, vehemently opposed Gurung’s petitions both before the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court for anticipatory bail and relief from arrest and procured favourable orders.

“I am not a criminal. Neither am I a terrorist nor an anti-national. I am a political leader. And those cases have been slapped on me for political reasons. I want a political settlement to those cases,” Gurung said during his Press conference on Wednesday.

Secondly, factional feud within the GJM – between the pro-Mamata Binoy Tamang faction and that of Gurung – continues to remain a messy affair. With Gurung’s return to the hills, perceptibly soon after the Durga Puja, those differences could sharpen and rise to the fore, evidently to Banerjee’s disadvantage.

It’s incumbent upon the TMC, therefore, to ensure a smooth return for Gurung and his team to Darjeeling. And that can only happen if political ambitions of both factions are taken care of. It’s a tricky proposition, but Banerjee has no choice but to work out the math.

Clearly, Gurung is also desperate for his return. Three years is a long time in politics, enough to trigger amnesia in the masses. Ahead of the all-important state polls, it’s understandable why he would want to revive his footing in his own political terrain. But make no mistake, even this newly revived bonhomie could easily fizzle out and tables could turn like it repeatedly has in the past decade in the state’s upper reaches. And who knows it better than Banerjee herself?

“We are not bothered about Gurung joining hands with Mamata Banerjee since our party will not stoop to levels of the Trinamool and promise them separate statehood. We will fight in the hills and in the plains and there’s nothing to stop us from throwing the TMC out of power,” said Dilip Ghosh, BJP Bengal president.

But as Gurung himself said during his interaction with reporters, “there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics”, the future of Bengal’s hill politics is likely to remain a bumpy ride. The immediate roadmap for the region, though, has certainly turned a lot more interesting.