Lok Sabha Election 2019

Mellow campaign in Darjeeling amid an undercurrent of anger


The 2017 police firing that claimed 11 lives rankles with the Gurkhas, and the rage is directed at Mamata Banerjee.

The sun is shining bright after two days of intermittent rain and soaking in its warmth are three elderly Gurkha men seated on a bench in downtown Chowrasta and watching tourists go about their business.

They seem the kind who may have the answer to why Darjeeling, a politically volatile hill station, appears so indifferent to the election, though voting is just days away? Not a single poster or banner at any public place, no visible canvassing, no roadside meetings or debates.

“That is because people are scared to express their views openly,” says Debi Rai, a businessman who, at 91, is the oldest of them.

“Such is the atmosphere of fear that we cannot be sure whether you are a reporter or a detective sent by [West Bengal Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee to find out if we are with her or against her.”

‘Don’t feel safe’

His companions — S.B. Subba, 80, and Prakash Gurung, 69, — nod in agreement. “We can never forget what happened in 2017,” says Mr. Subba, a former employee of the District Magistrate’s office.

“Her police killed 11 of our men. We no longer feel safe. It is best to keep quiet now and have our say during voting.”

“Who are you going to vote for?”

Mr. Gurung, a retired BSF officer, replies: “It is in our interest to vote for the largest national party because they alone can make our voice heard in Parliament. That is why we voted for the BJP in 2009 and 2014. It is a different matter that they did nothing for us, but they remain our best bet. You can say we are caught between the devil and the deep sea. Between the two, we naturally prefer the BJP.”

Ms. Banerjee is a much-disliked figure in Darjeeling today because of the 104-day strike in 2017 that saw the collapse of life and deaths of 11 local people at the hands of the police. The strike was called by the Gurkha Janmukti Morcha in protest against her decision to include Bengali as a medium of instruction in the schools of the hills. It dragged on in spite of her assurance that the language was only optional and ended after some key GJM leaders switched sides in her support. The hardship caused by it is now blamed entirely on her.

Modi magic

With bitter memories of the strike still fresh, Narendra Modi — who has promised a permanent solution to the problems of Gurkhas — is being seen as a hero by most people in Darjeeling. It doesn’t matter to them that the BJP candidate, Raju Bista, though a Gurkha, belongs to Manipur. They are quick to point out that he is more Gurkha than the Trinamool candidate Amar Singh Rai, the current Darjeeling MLA who is married to a Bengali.

“Rai became an MLA fighting against the State government, and now he is contesting on Trinamool Congress ticket. Which self-respecting Gurkha will vote for him? People can never forget the police atrocities during the strike. Raids are still going on. There may be democracy in the plains, but out here we have dictatorship,” says Sanjog Gurung, spokesman of the youth wing of the Gurkha National Liberation Front, which is supporting the BJP.

When I reach out to the MLA, he says: “It is true people are still unhappy about the strike. We are explaining to the voters that some of our own people got violent and that is why the police opened fire. In any case, this strike was nothing compared to the agitation in 1986.”

“In this election we are fighting for the Gurkha identity — not for Gurkhaland, but for a law that protects us from being branded as foreigners. We can’t ask for a separate State without preparing the people for it. Our first priority is to create human resources.”

His thinking, however, may not impress those who now see a new saviour in Narendra Modi. A woman in her twenties, who works as a receptionist in a hotel, says: “I don’t understand politics much, but I will vote for Modi. I don’t know why, but I like him.” She isn’t alone: almost everyone you speak to on the streets of Darjeeling echoes similar sentiments.

Hopes alive

The Trinamool’s hopes are kept alive by the fact that Darjeeling the town alone does not decide the outcome in Darjeeling the constituency, which also includes — apart from the hill towns of Kalimpong and Kurseong — vast stretches of plains such as Siliguri, Matigara, Phansidewa and Chopra.

But then, the BJP has been winning the seat since 2009, when there was no Modi wave, and now, with the winds in the hills blowing decisively against Ms. Banerjee, the party looks set to retain Darjeeling.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 2:00:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/mellow-campaign-in-darjeeling-amid-an-undercurrent-of-anger/article26836397.ece

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