Forty-six days after a general strike began in the Darjeeling hills in support of the demand for a separate state, leaders of the 14 party-strong Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee are meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday. But well before the meeting, on July 27, they had already declared that the strike will continue.

Beyond extending the strike, the leaders appear not to have any plan on how to further the statehood demand. “The movement is only going in a horizontal way with the GMCC [Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee] expanding its base, but the demand for Gorkhaland not making real progress,” said Samar Sinha, assistant professor, Nepali Department, Sikkim University.

Being from Darjeeling, Sinha is an ardent supporter of Gorkhaland and has been observing the developments on the ground closely. “Our Member of Parliament [SS Ahluwalia of the Bharatiya Janata Party] has failed to raise the issue of Gorkhaland in the Parliament,” he said. “And the GMCC has is not able to lead the movement the way it should.”

A major blow to the Gorkhaland cause came on July 25, when Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir clarified that the Centre is not considering any proposal to set up a committee to look into the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. The Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the dominant party in the hills that has been spearheading the movement for a decade now, had, several times in the past, claimed that the Union government was considering such a proposal.

People on the streets are disillusioned with the lack of progress and are keeping a wary eye on their leaders. “We have been let down by these leaders time and again,” said a homemaker from Kalimpong, not willing to reveal her identity. “This time also, so far, they have not been able to offer us much hope. But we are ready to wait. If they do anything to compromise on the Gorkhaland dream, the janata [common people] is not going to spare them.”

No wonder then that when a team of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, led by general secretary Roshan Giri, left for Delhi, it issued a press release that said: “We would like to reiterate that apart from a separate state nothing else will be discussed with our alliance parties.”

The party is in alliance with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

“The leaders are scared [of the public],” Neeraj Zimba Tamang, the Gorkha National Liberation Front spokesperson, admitted to, as an earlier piece reported. The Front is one of the major constituents of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Trust deficit

Having begun the agitation, which has taken the shape of a mass movement with an unprecedented participation by people, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has been accused of not steering it well enough. “The GJM is not able to handle the situation,” said Sinha. “Like most hill parties, it suffers from a trust deficit and doesn’t have public credibility.”

So, while passions are running high, so are doubts among the people. Sinha said that this is rooted in their past experience, such as Gurung’s acceptance, in 2011, of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which was the result of a tripartite agreement between the Centre, West Bengal and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. The semi-autonomous body replaced the earlier Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which was formed in 1988 following a violent movement led by Subhash Ghisingh and his party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, in 1986.

If Ghisingh compromised to accept the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council even after 1,200 deaths in the 1986 agitation, Gurung took up the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration deal in spite of having famously declared that he would shoot himself in the head if he did not get Gorkhaland by 2010.

A vehicle burns after it was set on fire by protesters in Darjeeling in July. (Photo credit: PTI).

Leading from behind?

Though Gurung has made press statements from his office, he has largely been in hiding and stayed away from public demonstrations and even crucial meetings of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee.

Not just Gurung, most top leaders from his party have been avoiding public appearances. This has evoked a mixed reaction from the masses. Some people, like the homemaker in Kalimpong, said that they understood the compulsion, but many came down sharply on Gurung and his ilk. Angry posts like this one on Facebook pretty much sums up their mood.

While Gurung clarified that he is not in hiding, Rohit Sharma, the Kurseong MLA and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s central committee member, said such criticisms were uncalled for. “It is for the safely of the leaders that they have to stay away,” he said. “A number of false cases have been slapped on them. If they get arrested, there will not be anyone to lead the movement.”

The West Bengal government recently filed a murder case against Gurung, his wife Asha, and 22 others for their alleged involvement in the death of a Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporter on June 17. The supporter was killed in clashes with the police. The Morcha leaders were also booked for arson, assault on police officers and conspiracy to incite violence. The leaders claimed three of their supporters were killed in police firing.

Besides that, the murder of Madan Tamang, the leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League who was killed in 2010, keeps coming back to haunt the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders. Last week, the Central Bureau of Investigation sought a non-bailable arrest warrant against Bimal Gurung and 21 other accused in the case, but the request was turned down by the Kolkata city sessions’ court, bringing temporary relief to the leaders.

The infighting among Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee constituents, especially between the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the Gorkha National Liberation Front have not sent out positive signals either.

While the Morcha has staked a claim on the committee’s leadership, the Front has called for a “collective leadership” and has been critical of the Morcha for announcing several protest programmes unilaterally. In the early days of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee, Gurung had publicly questioned the Front’s commitment to Gorkhaland, given that it had just made a turnaround to support the demand for a separate state from its earlier position to seek special tribal status for the hills.

Gorkha Janmukti Morcha's Bimal Gurung. (Photo credit: Passang Yolmo).

New leader wanted?

Leader or no leader, people have been organising their own protest drives in towns and villages, at market squares and roadside corners. “Leaders have not mattered, honestly,” said Sinha. “That is because this is not really a leader-centric movement, but cause-centric. It is the common people’s agitation, and they are not going to get swayed away by rhetoric this time.”

The Morcha’s Sharma does not agree that there is a leadership crisis. “Well, so far as our party is concerned, I can say that people have full faith in the leaders,” said Sharma. “Once the party has given their commitment to Gorkhaland – and nothing short of it – in writing, there is little reason for the people to doubt them.”

Said Zimba Tamang of the Front: “It is about collective leadership, not the charismatic leadership of one person. All parties have come together to fight for a common cause.”

But covertly, the need for a new leader has been voiced from many quarters. For example, in this video, poet-journalist, Umesh Pariyar, of Kalijhora, performing at Gairibas in the Dooars, sings: “Send people who can speak up in Delhi, remove leaders who are useless.”

Sinha, however, said that he felt a new leadership will not be a “magic pill”. “Instead, new leaders will fuel ego issues and infighting. Besides, there is just no alternative right now.”

Satyabrat Sinha, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata, said: “The demand for Gorkhaland, while creating an opportunity for people to join politics, also cuts the other way and is very exacting and the people unforgiving. So new leaders would not only have to be able to challenge the existing leadership but also deliver on the statehood aspiration. It is a tall task.”

As of now, people have little choice but to trust Morcha leaders, some of whom are camping in Delhi desperately looking for a solution.

“While the people of Darjeeling distrust leaders, there is little choice,” Satyabrat Sinha said. “Morcha is the only party with the organisation, money and experience to dominate Darjeeling politics. They have been adept at displaying the accommodative skills that is characteristic of Indian politics, aligning with the Trinamool Congress first and now with the Bharatiya Janta Party.”

This is the second part in a series on the turmoil in the Darjeeling hills. Read the first part here.