The Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts have seen the rise of groups seeking separate States
The political landscape in the northern parts of West Bengal has, in recent times, been blotched by groups, which claim to represent the aspirations of ethnic communities, advocating secession from the State.
Whether in the hills of Darjeeling or the plains of the Dooars and the Terai, they are casting long shadows across the political scenario of a region, which shares borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and which is considered one of the most sensitive parts of the State.
Each of these formations is making an impact on the coming Assembly elections. Except for the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which is the dominant force in the Darjeeling hills, the others have only a marginal presence in the plains of north Bengal. But the activities of these "separatist" forces, as the State Government calls them, has caused much unrest over the past few years and poses a threat to the local administration.
The GNLF has, for all appearances, jettisoned its initial demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland, seemingly satisfied with the assurance of Sixth Schedule status for the Darjeeling hills. But the echoes of the demand for a separate Kamtapur, raised by the Kamtapur Peoples Party (KPP), still resounds in certain pockets of Jalpaiguri district. Also, the Greater Cooch Behar Peoples' Association (GCPA) has threatened an indefinite hunger-strike at the Cooch Behar district headquarters prior to the polls to protest against "the unconstitutional merger of the district with West Bengal."
No poll boycott
"We have not called for a boycott but consider the polls in Cooch Behar unconstitutional and unlawful as is West Bengal's rule over Cooch Behar," says GCPA general secretary Bangshibandhan Barman.
"We are asking the Election Commission not to force illegal elections on us and shall be mobilising our supporters from all the 12 blocks of the district on May 5 to protest against the polls."
The threat is not being taken lightly by the district administration, given the show of strength by the GCPA at a rally in Saheberhat in February. Also fresh in the mind is the violent demonstration by its supporters in Cooch Behar in September last.
"I was informed that a warrant of arrest had been issued against me following the demonstration. Nearly nine months have passed. What keeps them from arresting me," asks Mr. Barman.
According to the GCPA leadership, Cooch Behar should be given the status of a "Centrally administered region as was the consensus following the signing of the Cooch Behar merger agreement between Maharajah Jagaddipendra Narayan (of the princely province of Cooch Behar) and the Centre in August 28 1949."
"We are demanding a clarification of our territorial status," Mr. Barman explains.
"Our supporters and workers will force their way through any blockades on polling day if there is any attempt by the GCPA to disrupt the election process," warns All-India Forward Bloc leader and Agriculture Minister Kamal Guha, who is seeking re-election from Dinhata.
Mr. Guha, who is also the Vice-Chairman of the Uttar Banga Unnayan Parshad, which was set up to oversee development work in north Bengal, admits that the region is suffering from underdevelopment. "An amount of Rs. 45 crore has been spent on various development projects since the last Assembly elections. The fund flow was not sufficient, and we are putting pressure on the State Government for more," he says.
Underdevelopment is one of the reasons for political and social unrest in the region. "But divisive forces like the GCPA are out to destabilise this region despite our efforts towards greater development. The Left Front is committed to countering them politically if not through elections," Mr. Guha adds.
The GCPA has the "support" of leaders such as Atul Roy, votary of a separate Kamtapur and who recently formed the Kamtapur Progressive Party. Unlike the GCPA, Mr. Roy's party is contesting the polls and hopes to "emerge as the main alternative to the Left as the Congress and the Trinamool Congress have failed to live up to the aspirations of those disillusioned with the Left." The KPP will be fielding 30 candidates, most of them in Jalpaiguri district, the epicentre of its activities.
These groups have a potential ally in the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM), which is leading an anti-GNLF alliance, the Peoples' Democratic Front.
Having broken away from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) shortly after the 18-month-long violent agitation for Gorkhaland in the late 1980s, the CPRM's main political agenda remains a separate State even though the GNLF settled for what CPRM leader R.B. Rai calls "a compromise following intensive bargaining with the State Government."
A recent effort by the CPI(M) to cobble together an anti-GNLF alliance fell through because of the CPRM's refusal to budge from its stand on statehood. "It is an issue without which no political party in the hills can survive," says Mr. Rai. "By betraying the cause of statehood for Darjeeling, the GNLF's hegemony in the hills is under severe threat in the coming polls."