Feb. 12: The Mamata Banerjee government today passed an order in Writers’ to establish a development board for the hill Lepcha community, hours after they broke their fast in Kalimpong in the presence of minister Gautam Deb who was shown black flags by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.
The resolution says the Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board will undertake all necessary work for the protection and promotion of the Lepcha language and historical and cultural landmarks of the community.
The board will also work to promote and support artisans and farmers of the community, the resolution said.
The board, which will be registered under the West Bengal Societies Registration Act, 1961, will be able to take loans from national and international financial institutions to achieve the goals of the board.
It will also be able to obtain funds from various government departments for development projects meant for the Lepchas, believed to be the original inhabitants of the hills.
A senior official at Writers’ Buildings said: “It is now clear that the state government wants to set up a board similar to the GTA. The board will also enjoy some of the facilities like the GTA.”
The board will have two separate wings — the general and the executive. But members of both the bodies will be nominated, unlike the GTA where the majority of members are elected.
The general body will have 31 members, of whom four will be government officials and the rest nominated by the government from among the Lepchas.
The general body would be the apex body of the board. It will have the power to pass audited accounts and budget estimates.
It will transact any business suggested by the executive body.
The general body will be headed by a chairperson nominated by the state government from the Lepcha community. The four state officials will be the member secretary and three ex-officio members.
For the post of member secretary, the state will appoint a senior bureaucrat on deputation.
The executive body will have 11 members, of which two would be government officers and the rest, including the chairman and the vice-chairman, Lepchas nominated by the state.
Senior officials at Writers’ Buildings said the state government has made it clear that it would have proper control over the board as all Lepcha members would be nominated by the state.
The state cabinet had approved the proposal of setting up of the board on February 2 soon after the chief minister’s visit to Darjeeling where Morcha supporters had raised Gorkhaland slogans after Mamata said “Darjeeling is a part of us”.
Today, in the presence of north Bengal development minister Deb, the Lepchas ended their six-day-old hunger strike in Kalimpong.
Lepcha leaders later said they had got an “assurance” from the chief minister over phone last night that the proposed board would be formed at the earliest.
Deb reached Kalimpong Town Hall around 10.30am and offered a glass of juice to the fasting Lepchas.
Morcha assistant secretary Binay Tamang, who was in Kalimpong today, expressed his party’s displeasure after the fast was broken.
“Do the Lepchas want to live under their mother or stepmother? And what is the guarantee that the state government will deliverÖ. They (the Lepchas) have become victim to the state government’s conspiracy, not us,” he said.
Tamang, however, repeated that the Morcha was not against Lepchas getting any benefits for the community.
The most influential Lepcha leader in Kalimpong today raised the question of permanency of the board if it was formed under the GTA. Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association president L. Tamsang said a board under the government would be a permanent entity, but it would not be so if it was formed under the GTA.
“If it (the board) is under the state government, it will be permanent. But the GTA may (tomorrow) say we don’t want the GTA. What will happen to the socio-economic development (of the Lepchas) then?” he asked.
Asked if the Lepchas were willing to explain this position to the Morcha, Lepcha Rights Movement convener Bhupendra Lepcha replied in the affirmative. “We will meet and talk to them and explain our position,” he said.
Leaders of the Lepcha Rights Movement, which had spearheaded the hunger strike, said the chief minister has personally told them last night over phone that the board would be formed under the state government. “The chief minister told our leaders in a telephone conversation that the board will be formed under the state government,” Bhupendra said.
Morcha leader Tamang said his party was opposed to the Mamata Banerjee-led government’s divisive moves in the hills. “Our party president (Bimal Gurung) will come to Kalimpong on February 16 and the next day he will address a public meeting there. Our future course of action will be announced there,” he said.
“It is the government action and intention we are opposed to. Let me remind you, the GTA passed a resolution on December 14 last year to form the Lepcha development board. We don’t have a recording of it, but even the chief minister had earlier agreed with us that the board would have to be under the GTA. But she now proposes to form the board by encroaching on our powers,” Tamang said.
When Deb was leaving the hills for Siliguri around noon, his car was stopped twice — at 8 Mile near Kalimpong town and Chitray, 14km from the town on NH31A, by black-flag waving Gorkhaland supporters.
Tamang was among the group of 150-odd Morcha crowd that tried to block the minister’s car at 8 Mile. In both places protesters lay on the road to block Deb’s car. Some of the agitators banged on Deb’s car with sticks. Policemen cleared the way for Deb by physically removing the protesters lying on the road.
Tamang later said: “We did not protest when he (Deb) was going up to meet the Lepchas because we wanted to prove that we are not against them. However, we agitated while he was returning to protest the manner in which they (the state government) stamped on us first in Darjeeling and today in Kalimpong,” he said.
“We had earlier said that if the GTA Sabha’s resolution (to bring the board under the GTA’s purview) is not accepted by the state government, we would go to the Supreme Court. We are not going to court against the Lepcha development board but against the state government for violating the memorandum of agreement and also the GTA Act,” Tamang said.
Late tonight, seven Morcha members were arrested for obstructing Deb’s convoy, but released on bail. Among them were three GTA members from Kalimpong — Kazmi Bhutia, Kalpana Tamang and Samuel Gurung.