Old crisis, new demands

Marcus Dam

THE WEST Bengal Government has attempted to buy peace in the Darjeeling hills by conceding, at various stages over the past seven months, the demands of Subash Ghisingh for greater powers to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council [DGHC] of which he is caretaker Chairman. The Government is now confronted with a fresh challenge.

Having extracted an affirmative response to the additional powers he has been seeking, Mr. Ghisingh is now asking for a re-drawing of the political map. He wants more areas included under the Council in what appears a throwback to the days of the agitation for a separate Gorkhaland State.

As a follow-up to his outright rejection of the State Government's proposal to grant the Council a constitutional guarantee with the incorporation of a fresh clause to Article 371 to upgrade the DGHC, the Centre and the State Government have agreed to grant Sixth Schedule status to the Council. Despite this, at the end of the fifth round of tripartite talks convened by the Union Home Minister in New Delhi last week, Mr. Ghisingh asked that the Council's jurisdiction be extended to cover the entire Darjeeling district. That is, bringing the plains of the district and Siliguri — north Bengal's main business hub — under the purview of the DGHC.

And Mr. Ghisingh's Gorkha National Liberation Front has not stopped at that. It has demanded that the Nepali-dominant pockets in other parts of north Bengal such as the Dooars be included in the DGHC. Only tribal-dominated areas can, under the Constitution, can be included in the Sixth Schedule.

Apart from it being reminiscent of the clamour raised during the mid-1980s agitation for Statehood, the demand for inclusion of the Siliguri sub-division [where Nepalese are a minority] into the DGHC's domain has raised the hackles of the leadership of district's Communist Party of India [Marxist]. It not only threatens to kill any hope of elections to the DGHC being held by September as promised by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, but could also snowball into yet another confrontation between the State Government and the GNLF.

Bringing the DGHC under the Sixth Schedule will ensure it greater executive, legislative, financial and judicial powers befitting an autonomous self-governing body. Even before the Delhi tripartite talks, the State Government had said it had no objections to this. But a fresh controversy is looming with Mr. Ghisingh's new demand. And his colleagues, including the MLA from Kurseong, say "this is just one step towards the creation of a Gorkhaland State."

Whether Mr. Ghisingh's bargaining powers will pay off this time around is the question. So far the State Government has shown restraint towards what a senior State Minister and MLA from Siliguri describes as "Mr. Ghisingh's brand of politics." The Chief Minister has reiterated that there will be no further deferment of elections. But he has also made clear his determination to ward off any threat to peace in the hills — one that has been communicated to both the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister repeatedly. This concern has got his administration in the past to be overly accommodating towards Mr. Ghisingh's demands. But with the latter now asking for a revision in the territorial status of the DGHC it is clear that the situation calls for a good, hard, re-look.

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