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Fast poses unfamiliar test in hills

- Lepcha protest swells, worried Morcha hunts for pointers in meet today

Kalimpong, Feb. 10: An ongoing hunger strike by Lepchas at Kalimpong has been drawing an increasing number of participants, sowing the first seeds of worry from within for the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the unquestioned political force in the Darjeeling hills.

The Lepchas, said to be the original inhabitants of the hills and who account for 1.5 lakh of the nearly 20-lakh hill population, are on a “fast unto a death” from Thursday to seek peace in the region. At the root of the hunger strike is a Lepcha development board announced by the Mamata Banerjee government last week.

The Morcha is opposing the board’s inclusion under the government but the fasting Lepchas do not see that as a valid ground for objection and want the Morcha to drop its opposition.

The Morcha wants the board under the GTA, the council that runs the hills, but the government has floated it under the backward classes welfare department. The state government has changed the name of the Lepcha cell from “council” to “board” in deference to the Morcha’s wishes and the concept itself is not new.

However, the timing of the announcement of the board — close on the heels of a backlash against the chief minister after she virtually ruled out a Gorkhaland state — has fuelled charges of a “divide-and-rule” policy and injected an element of polarisation in the hills.

The Lepchas and Gorkhas have so far lived in harmony and their lives are closely intertwined. Even now that fabric is not threatened but the growing popularity of the fast — the participants have not had food or water for the past four days — is making the Morcha sit up and take note.

The Morcha has repeatedly appealed to the Lepchas to end the hunger strike but more people are flocking to the hunger strike, which started at Tricone Park and has now spread to Kalimpong Town Hall. The Town Hall fast now has around 850 participants, far more than the 50 at the park.

“The fact that the number of Lepchas on indefinite hunger strike has swelled from 50-odd members to more than 900 within four days is a matter of concern for the Morcha,” said a hill veteran who did not want to be named.

At the Kalimpong Town Hall and Tricone Park, about 3,000 Lepchas gathered today to listen to leaders of their community. At the Town Hall, Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (ILTA) president L. Tamsang, regarded the most influential leader of the community, told the protesters to carry on with the fast without fear because the demand for the board was legitimate.

Tamsang, who was speaking in the Lepcha language, said all members of the community must be prepared to sacrifice their lives instead of living in fear and oppression. A person who translated Tamsang’s speech quoted him as saying: “The board is meant only for the socio-economic development of the community…. Why is there so much of opposition to it?”

The Morcha, which had called a 12-hour strike in the hills yesterday to protest the announcement of the board by the Mamata government, is now waiting to gauge the mood at rally of the All India Lepcha Association, a Darjeeling-based outfit, in Darjeeling.

The All India Lepcha Association is of the view that the board for the Lepchas should be under the GTA. But the association is not known to have much influence on the Lepchas in Kalimpong, where most people of the community reside.

“If the All India Lepcha Association can draw a significant crowd, the Morcha can breathe easy to an extent as it can claim that some within the community are standing by the party’s decision. However, given the momentum the hunger strike has generated, it is to be seen whether the Darjeeling meeting will be a success,” the hill veteran said.