Lepchas who were on a protest fast at Kalimpong in the Darjeeling hills as part of their agitation for a body for development of their community independent of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), called off the hunger strike as it entered its sixth day on Tuesday following a request by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The development came on a day when the State Government issued a notification on establishment of the Mayallang Lepcha Development Board – a move that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leadership is opposed to and one that could only exacerbate relations between it and the State Government.

 “The setting up of the Board is in violation of the GTA agreement and we will be moving the Supreme Court against it,” GJM assistant secretary Benoy Tamang told The Hindu over telephone. The hunger strike, organised by the Lepcha Rights Movement (LRM) where 238 people were on an indefinite fast and 3,600 on a relay-hunger strike, had given rise to fresh anxieties in the hills. Rumblings of political discontent have already been audible since Ms Banerjee’s visit to the region a fortnight ago when she had spoken about setting up a development board for the Lepcha community.

 GJM president Bimal Gurung had reacted saying it was a ploy of the Chief Minister to “divide and rule” the people of the region. His party and the State Government seem to be on a collision course, putting paid to Ms Banerjee’s claims that “the hills are smiling”.

Minister for North Bengal Development Goutam Deb, who had gone to Kalimpong during the day to meet the fasting Lepchas on the instructions of Ms Banerjee, was confronted by angry crowds carrying black flags on his way back from the hill town.

Though the GJM leadership denied that the protestors were party supporters, it pointed out that the hunger strike was the outcome of a conspiracy by the State Government.

“The conspiracy is to divide the people of the hills along ethnic lines. We have all along been in support of a development body for the Lepchas but have been maintaining that such a body should be under the GTA”, Mr Tamang said.

The LRM leadership expressed satisfaction over the notification on the setting up of the Board that came a day after receiving an assurance from the Chief Minister on Monday evening.

“We withdrew the fast following an appeal from Ms Banerjee, who called us with an assurance that the development board would be set up independent of the GTA,” LRM convenor Bhupendra Lepcha told this correspondent over telephone from Kalimpong.

“We have been opposed to a development body within the purview of the GTA as that would mean that Lepchas who only belong to areas within the GTA’s jurisdiction will benefit. What happens then to those of our community who reside elsewhere in the State?” he asked.