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Morcha signals March offensive
Bandhs back, CM blamed

Bimal Gurung addresses the crowd at the Mela grounds in Kalimpong on Sunday. Picture by Chinlop Fudong Lepcha

Kalimpong, Feb. 17: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has announced a series of shutdowns in the Darjeeling hills from next month to demand Gorkhaland, blaming Mamata Banerjee for forcing its hand and virtually taking away a peace trophy from the chief ministry’s showcase of achievements.

In a throwback to the days of unrest, two instalments of 48-hour bandhs have been called on March 14 and March 15 and March 21 and March 22. The bandhs will be book-marked by other protests and a rally. (See chart)

“The government of West Bengal has pushed us to agitation. Mamata Banerjee has pushed us into it by forcibly interfering in our affairs. She came to Darjeeling and slapped us by saying Darjeeling is a part of Bengal. She made utterances like ‘I can be rough and tough’. Just like she fought for ma, mati, manush, we are also fighting for our ma, mati, manush,” Morcha chief Bimal Gurung said in Kalimpong this morning.

Gurung announced a staggered schedule for the “limited programmes in the third and final agitation for Gorkhaland”. The protests will begin with an across-the-board strike at government offices on March 9 and end with a public rally in Sukna on March 31.

The schedule appears to have been drawn up with the intention of keeping the pot boiling and the momentum alive while the Centre formulates a stand on Telangana, the formation of which is expected to compel the Morcha to harden its stand.

The Sukna meeting was originally scheduled for March 10 but has been postponed to the end of the month to give the Centre more time, sources said.

“These are limited programmes in the third and final agitation for Gorkhaland. More will be announced at the massive meeting in Sukna,” Gurung said.

Mamata had waded into the sensitive issue when fresh talk of Telangana was already piling pressure on the Morcha, which had co-operated with the state government in bringing peace to the hills, to prove that it had not forgotten the cause of Gorkhaland.

The Morcha’s room for flexibility had severely shrunk after Mamata asserted in the heart of the hills at a government event that Darjeeling was a part of Bengal and subsequently formed a Lepcha board that strengthened Gurung’s suspicions of a divide-and-rule policy.

Gurung’s choice of Kalimpong — where Lepchas had held a hunger strike in support of the government’s board proposal — to announce the agitation was another pointer to his compulsions to address suggestions of divisions within the hills.

Gurung’s announcement deals a body blow to one of the key objectives behind Mamata’s peace initiative: avoid shutdowns.

The last marathon strike in the hills on the statehood demand had started on January 12, 2011. The March 9-27 government office strike announced today would be the longest since then.

Gurung also made a reference to the shooting of a Calcutta police officer in Garden Reach by an alleged Trinamul activist and said the same could happen to people in the hills under the present government.

“When they can kill a policeman, they can shoot at our youths and women. People must remain vigilant. We must be able to give our lives for Gorkhaland,” he said.

A hill veteran said: “It is common knowledge that Gurung and his party are under pressure to keep the statehood agitation alive, given the developments taking place with regard to Telangana. In the middle of this, the manner in which Mamata Banerjee tried to bulldoze her way in seems to have stoked the present crisis in the hills.”

The hill veteran said: “Mamata failed to read the pulse of the hill people. Not only did she speak against statehood but she also reprimanded the people who shouted ‘we want Gorkhaland’ in response to her speech…. She was insensitive. Things would not have gone from bad to worse had she simply ignored the statehood issue in her speech, especially since it was a government event,” the veteran said.

Gurung told journalists in Kalimpong after his speech that the deteriorating law and order situation in the state called for the imposition of President’s rule.

He accused Mamata of dividing the hill people. “We are not against a Lepcha development board. We are against the interference of the state government in the GTA,” he said.

Gurung said the Lepcha development board proposed by the state government must be scrapped.

N.T. Lepcha, the co-ordinator of the Lepcha Rights Movement that had spearheaded the hunger strike in Kalimpong, could not be reached for comments.

Despite fog and intermittent showers, about 15,000 supporters turned up at the Morcha meeting. But it was much less than the 6 lakh people the party had promised to mobilise.

Many party supporters from different parts of the hills could not make it to the Kalimpong meeting because of traffic snarls. Gurung blamed the police for deliberately blocking traffic to prevent Morcha supporters from attending the meeting.

North Bengal development minister Gautam Deb said the Morcha must not resort to bandhs and strikes. “The Morcha leaders have been voted to power in the GTA by lakhs of hill people with the aspiration that their developmental issues would be taken care of. We would urge them to refrain from strikes and instead work in the GTA and use the autonomous body as a tool for development,” Deb said over phone from Birpara in Jalpaiguri.

Asked whether the government would issue instructions to keep offices open between Mar 9 and 27, Deb said: “I cannot comment on it but would reiterate that the state wants peace and development in hills.”

On January 31, he and party leader Mukul Roy had held talks with hill Trinamul leaders at the NHPC bungalow here, instructing them to go ahead with campaigns in favour of development and peace. Deb, when referred about the meeting and asked whether the party would intensify its campaign after Gurung’s today announcements in Kalimpong, said: “We will sit and discuss the entire issue with state leaders before taking any decision. The political scenario in the hills and plains are different and we are not in favour doing something hurriedly as it can create new complications in hills,” he said.

The call of strikes by the Morcha chief has also left stakeholders of tourism industry concerned.

“Everybody has the right to do work in a democratic manner. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha is a political party and we have nothing to say about its decisions. We would, however, urge the leaders in the hills to keep tourism out of the purview of the strike and consider it as an emergency service like milk supply and health,” said Sadhan Roy, the general secretary of the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators’ Association.

“In our neighbouring country of Nepal, we saw a similar arrangement couple of years back when the administration and even the agitators co-operated with tourists and there was no problem in tourist movement across the country despite strikes and agitations. We request a similar arrangement and also want the administration to ensure that tourists, who are our guests, do not face any inconvenience,” Roy said.

Additional reporting by Vivek Chhetri from Darjeeling and Avijit Sinha in SIliguri