Karma Lepcha, the general secretary of the All India Lepcha Association, speaks at the meeting in Darjeeling on Monday. Picture by Suman Tamang
Feb. 11: A Lepcha association that supports the creation of the community’s development board under the GTA today attracted only 150 people to its meeting, denting the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s hopes of sending a strong message to the state government on the issue.
The Darjeeling meeting of the All India Lepcha Association had assumed importance as the Morcha was hoping to use this meeting to send a message to the Mamata Banerjee-led government that many of the community were in favour of the creation of the development board under the GTA.
A source in the hills, who did not want to be named, said: “The attendance has come as a major blow and the Morcha has been given the message that the Lepcha community in the hills is with the agitators in Kalimpong. The thin attendance has also cornered the Morcha, which is at a loss to evolve a strategy to end the impasse from the day the Lepcha community started the hunger strike in Kalimpong.”
The All India Lepcha Association, which is Darjeeling-based, is not known to have much influence in Kalimpong, where most of the 1.5 lakh Lepchas of the hills reside.
In Kalimpong, six of the protesters on a fast unto death to protest the opposition to the board’s formation in the hills, took ill and had to be hospitalised and put on saline.
A team of the Lepcha Rights Movement, which is spearheading the protest in Kalimpong, today met the home secretary in Calcutta.
The leaders said they had gone to Calcutta at the invitation of the government and had conveyed their concerns regarding the “politicisation” of the impending formation of the Lepcha development board.
“We came here to tell the state government that we are appealing to all political parties to not politicise the board’s formation,” said one of the leaders in the team.
The Lepcha leaders said they told the home secretary about the fasting protesters and sought the government’s help. The state government has not committed anything yet, the Lepcha leader said.
The Morcha has said it is not against a Lepcha development board but it has to be under the GTA. The state government, however, has announced the formation of the board under the state’s backward classes welfare department.
In Darjeeling, Duk Tshering Lepcha, the president of the All India Lepcha Association’s youth wing, said the public meeting today was not against the agitators in Kalimpong. “We are neither opposing the Lepcha development board nor those who are on an indefinite hunger strike in Kalimpong. Our agitation is only against the Mamata Banerjee-led state government which is trying to divide the hill people,” he said.
“All Lepchas must understand that the state government is trying to drive a wedge between these two communities but we need to stand up against this policy and we need to uphold this unity. A parallel body in the hills will not help things.”
At today’s meeting, one elected GTA member from the Lepcha community was present. Dawa Lepcha, who was one of the last speakers, also told the 150-odd gathering at Chowrastha that a parallel authority in the hills would not be a good thing.
Asked about the thin attendance, Karma Lepcha, the general secretary of the association, said: “Most of our community members stay in villages and transportation is a problem.”
A senior Morcha leader on condition of anonymity said: “The Lepchas have the right to make their demand. There is no denying this fact. However, we as a party also have a stand and this is to oppose the state government’s interference in departments transferred to the GTA. We, too, have the right to defend our stand.”
In Kalimpong, a doctor said the six protesters of Tricone Park who were put on saline on the fifth day of the fast unto death “are okay”. “They are being given intravenous saline. They are okay,” said Sonam Bhutia, the superintendent of the Kalimpong sub-divisional hospital.
Thirty more persons joined the indefinite fast today, taking the number of fasting protesters to 321. Lepcha Rights Movement coordinator N.T. Lepcha clarified today that the figure of 900 given yesterday included people who sat on fast for a few hours or a day to express solidarity.
Asked if the community leaders were rethinking on the indefinite fast, N.T. Lepcha said there was no talk on how long the fast should continue. “This (fast) is an expression of our deep sense of hurt on the opposition to the formation of the development council,” he said.
When asked what would create the right situation for the Lepcha Rights Movement to review their protest, he refused to give a direct reply. He said the demand was always for the formation of a development board under the state government.
The CPRM, one of the Morcha’s rivals, called for an early formation of the board and asked both the state government and the GTA to put an end to the “unwarranted” stand-off.