The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) leadership finds itself in a bind. Having raised the expectations of its supporters for a separate State of Gorkhaland to be carved out of the Darjeeling hills and certain areas contiguous to it in the Terai and the Dooars areas of the north Bengal plains, what appears to be its immediate concern now is to keep intact its credibility as the region's dominant force without having much to show for as yet on the Statehood issue.
The eruption of violence in the Darjeeling hills in the aftermath of the police firing at Sipchu in the Dooars that claimed two lives on Tuesday only underlines the fact that the statehood demand is being driven by strong emotive factors and ethnic sentiments. It has also plunged the hills whose economy remains severely battered by frequent shutdowns into a fresh spell of political uncertainty and unrest.
Critics argue that by precipitating such a situation, the GJM is desperately trying to cling on to its image as the sole custodian of the Statehood campaign in the face of questions being raised of whether or not it has a hidden agenda and is warming to the idea of putting in place in the hills an administrative body with greater autonomy to replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, thus soft-pedalling the Statehood issue.
The GJM leadership, quite predictably, dismisses such talk and accuses the West Bengal Government of “provoking the violence” earlier this week.
Not that it was not bracing for a showdown with the State authorities – one way of responding to any aspersions being cast on its integrity as being foremost in the campaign for a separate State.
Since at least a week before the flare-up at Sipchu camps were being set up in the surrounding forest areas by party activists waiting to move with senior leaders into the Dooars, defying prohibitory orders imposed by the Jalpaiguri district authorities to pre-empt any ethnic confrontation, given the animosity towards the Gorkhaland demand of a large segment of the tribals who are pre-dominant in the region.
These developments need to be viewed against a backdrop of the growing need of the GJM to hold onto its support bases which might have suffered fissures because of promises remaining unfulfilled and extend its sphere of influence in the Dooars.
It was imperative for its leadership to consolidate its supremacy as a political force not just in the hills but also the Gorkha-dominated pockets in the Dooars. One way to do so was to keep the momentum for Statehood not just going but giving it fresh impetus, the outcome of the long-drawn tripartite talks stretching over more than two years now involving it, the Centre and the West Bengal Government notwithstanding.
The attempted thrust into the Dooars can be explained in the need for the GJM to validate its claims for inclusion of parts of the region having a substantial Gorkha population into its scheme of things; whether that of a separate State, the next best option of a Union Territory, or even in the proposed regional authority under discussion at the tripartite talks and whose territorial jurisdiction has been the bone of contention between the players concerned.
Which begs the question: Why the sudden change in tack a day after expressing satisfaction over the tripartite talks on January 25 and a reported assurance from the Centre that the draft for the proposed administrative body for the region is forthcoming?
The GJM's argument for now jettisoning the proposal for an “interim” arrangement and intensifying its movement for a separate State is the State Government's dismissal as untenable the demand for inclusion of parts of the Dooars and the Terai into the jurisdiction of the proposed body. The latter has also made it clear in no uncertain terms that there can be no bifurcation of the State.
A way out of the political gridlock remains elusive despite the occasional flicker of hope.