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Crossing khukris over quota

Twenty-six years ago, as the Gorkhaland dream took shape in the hills, Amar Lama had volunteered to lend the final touches to the Gorkha National Liberation Front flag.

A few months after the flag was designed ' with Gorkhaland set against a green background ' Subash Ghisingh, then a small-time politician in the front, decided to change it.

What followed was four stripes, three stars and a khukri against a green background. It was under this flag that Ghisingh led the violent, 28-month agitation for Gorkhaland.

A lot has changed in two-and-a-half decades. The Sixth Schedule status has replaced the demand for statehood. But many, like 45-year-old Lama, fear the new status could divide the hills.

In the new settlement, 10 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes in the 33-member Gorkha Hill Council, Darjeeling, which will replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. The DGHC didn't have quotas.

Most people had rallied behind Ghisingh for the new status in the hope that they would also be considered tribals. But with 10 seats being reserved in the new set-up, the government has sent a clear signal that there are no immediate plans to classify all hill communities as tribal.

The hills now have a tribal population of about 35 per cent, including the Bhutias, Lepchas, Yolmos, Limbus and Tamangs.

The Scheduled Castes, especially, fear they may be losing the benefits due to them without gaining tribal status. It's this fear that the Opposition People's Democratic Front ' the anti-GNLF coalition ' is looking to exploit.

'We can only accept the Sixth Schedule if all the hill people are made tribes. (If not), there must be seat reservation also for the Scheduled Caste community,' says Lama, a lawyer who doesn't belong to any party now but is the PDF's consensus candidate from Darjeeling.

His rival, the GNLF's Pranai Rai, is also a lawyer and, at 37, a young candidate like Lama. Both are popular civic commissioners. It's virtually a one-to-one fight as the CPM, which has fielded K.B. Watter, has virtually no presence here.

Asked about the Opposition's campaign plank, Rai says those who want tribal status must be patient. 'Everything takes time.'

The Darjeeling municipality commissioner from ward 18 claims the young people are with him.

'People are conscious these days. I always get the drains cleaned early in the morning so that these leaders get to see a clean Darjeeling. These people have been in politics for so long, but I am not aware of their contribution to society', adds Rai, who had won from the minority-dominated ward by a margin of more than 1,000 votes in the 2004 civic polls.

The GNLF, which has held the Darjeeling seat since 1988, wanted a new face to beat the anti-incumbency factor. The sitting MLA, D.K. Pradhan, is now the PDF spokesperson after he rebelled against Ghisingh. The GNLF believes a young leader would pull in the youth's votes.

Lama, who proved his popularity by defeating the GNLF commissioner from Ward 10 in the last municipal polls, has been in politics since he finished his studies. He went to jail with Ghisingh in 1981 but soon drifted away from the GNLF. He was one of the accused in the attack on Ghisingh in 2001.

Lama abhors the violence of the '80s. He believes development can take place only in a politically conscious society. 'I wonder where all our youths are.... We have to bring in new faces with new ideas.'

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