The north-south divide in West Bengal

There is growing politics around the demand of a separate State

January 02, 2023 12:40 am | Updated 05:18 pm IST

Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supremo Bimal Gurung. File

Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supremo Bimal Gurung. File | Photo Credit: PTI

In the second week of December 2022, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) president Bimal Gurung organised a national seminar in New Delhi on the issue of Gorkhaland, which seeks a separate State to be carved out of territories of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal. 

The convention was a fresh attempt by the GJM leadership on creating a platform to reignite the statehood stir in Darjeeling hills. Representatives of different political parties including Hamro Party chief Ajoy Edwards and Binay Tamang (who was in Trinamool Congress at that point) joined the seminar, giving more credence to the event. 

A few days after the convention, on December 28, when the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) and the Trinamool Congress wrested control of Darjeeling Municipality from Hamro Party, Binay Tamang quit the Trinamool Congress accusing West Bengal’s ruling party of bulldozing democracy in the hills.

With these two developments, the new realignment of Darjeeling politics looks clear. Bimal Gurung, Binay Tamang and Ajoy Edwards have come together to take on the Anit Thapa-led BGPM and the Trinamool Congress in Darjeeling. Last June, elections to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) were held after a period of 10 years and the BGPM won the regional autonomous body.  

Political realignment and allies turning political adversaries are not new to the politics of the hills, a region which, since the 1980s, has witnessed several movements for creation of a separate State. 

While political considerations may be the reason why the parties in the hills choose these alignments, one cannot look away from the regional disparities in the State that triggers the demand of a separate State. For decades, development in West Bengal has been Kolkata-centric and remote districts in the State have waited for their turn.

The political discourse in the State has often centred on the divide of north and south Bengal. Development issues are not the only reasons behind the recurrent demands for separate States. There are divides of ethnicity and language that form the basis of such demands. There is a clamour for demand of ‘Greater Cooch Behar’ State in Cooch Behar also.

The Trinamool Congress government has over the past 11 years tried to address these issues. The government set up a new State Secretariat in north Bengal, announced the formation of several boards for different communities in the hills. But these initiatives have failed to bring any lasting solution. The experiments of granting limited autonomy in the form of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (1988-2012) and GTA (2012-till date) have not been fully able to address the grievances of the people of Darjeeling hills.

Different political parties have different stands on the demands of autonomy and creating a separate State out of the territories of West Bengal. The ruling Trinamool Congress is opposed to any division of the State and the party leader and chairperson Mamata Banerjee has clearly made this point on several occasions. The State leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that they are not in favour of any division; however, the local leaders occasionally make statements about the discontent among the people in hills triggering the debate about the north-south divide.  

Also read | Bengal BJP chief reiterates demand for bifurcation of State

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won all the seats in north Bengal including Darjeeling. Any support for the demand of a separate State may help the BJP reap some electoral dividends in north, but will result in serious setbacks in south Bengal.

While the politics around the north-south divide in West Bengal may appear to be murky, but outside the ambit of politics, there is a trust deficit between the north and the south. Ms. Banerjee has been frequently visiting districts of north Bengal, holding government and party events. However, this may be the time for her government to look at something other than a Kolkata-centric model of development and try something different to assuage the leadership of the north. Mere assurances of development and setting up a development board will not be enough in the long run. The regional disparities of north Bengal need to be addressed at the earliest.

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