The ongoing agitation in the Darjeeling Hills over the creation of Gorkhaland has caught the Bharatiya Janata Party in a bind. Even as violent protests continue over the statehood demand, the saffron party has not yet taken a clear stance on the matter and has instead kept the spotlight on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s purported mishandling of the situation.
For a month now, an indefinite shutdown has been declared in the Darjeeling Hills, the epicentre of the protests for the separate state for Nepali-speaking Gorkhas, to be carved out of West Bengal. The protests first began after Banerjee’s government ruled that Bengali be taught compulsorily as a second or third language in all West Bengal schools and soon transformed into a violent stir demanding the creation of Gorkhaland. The agitation is being led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, an ally of the BJP.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s agitation has focused on attacking Banerjee and the West Bengal government’s policies and has not censured the central government, much to the BJP’s relief. The BJP government too has continued to blame the West Bengal chief minister for the continuing violence.
The BJP concerted effort to stay out of the spotlight, even though it has more powers than the state government to grant the statehood, reflects its internal dilemma over the demand.
In its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had promised to take a sympathetic view on the Gorkhaland question. It has also won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat for two terms, with the Gorkha Janmukti Manch’s support. Therefore, it is unable to reject the Gorkhaland demand outright.
On the other hand, now that the BJP is planning to expand its footprint in West Bengal, it cannot grant the statehood demand either. The bifurcation of West Bengal is an emotive issue and no party that hopes to be a major player in the state can take a stance that goes against the majority Bengali sentiment.
When the demand for Gorkhaland resurfaced nearly a month ago, the BJP’s West Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh and other leaders had publicly opposed the bifurcation of West Bengal, even before the party’s Central leadership could take a view on the matter. BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is in-charge of West Bengal, had also said the party was not in favour of a separate Gorkhaland but would make all efforts to ensure that the Gorkha identity and culture was not undermined.
BJP President Amit Shah then summoned the state leaders to Delhi and censured them for speaking up on the demand before the Centre had declared its stance. They were given strict instructions that the BJP’s state unit must refrain from commenting on Gorkhaland and instead keep the focus on the Banerjee government’s poor handling of the agitation.
Grass not greener
If the BJP is in a fix, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha also finds itself in an unenviable position
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders have been camping in Delhi for nearly two weeks to convince the Centre that it should act before the situation gets out of control, but to little avail. It is learnt that party leaders approached the home ministry on the issue but Rajnath Singh put them off saying he could not initiate talks on statehook demand till Banerjee was not on board. The home minister also said he would have to first discuss the situation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was at the time visiting Israel and then Germany, where the G-20 summit was held, between July 4 and July 8.
But the continuing political stand-off has worsened the situation in Darjeeling where a month-long shutdown has brought life to a standstill and choked up supplies. Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha leaders said there was no doubt that the people are facing immense hardship, but they were willing to brave it out for the Gorkhaland cause. “That is the sentiment on the ground, we are facing a lot of pressure from our people,” remarked a senior leader.
If the pressure continues to mount, the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha will no longer be able to show the same restraint in dealing with the BJP. So far, the Gorkha party has been careful not to attack the Prime Minister or the Centre and its supporters have not gone beyond demanding the resignation of SS Ahluwalia, the BJP MP from Darjeeling, who has not visited the constituency even once since the outbreak of violence, but their patience might run out soon. That could spell serious trouble for the Modi government.