Mamata Banerjee at the news conference at Writers’ on Saturday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Aug. 10: Mamata Banerjee today gave the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha 72 hours to call off its eight-day-old strike and threatened stern action if it did not, but Bimal Gurung set up a possible showdown by oozing defiance.
“If anyone crosses the Lakshman rekha, I shall act according to the law and the court order (of August 7 on how a government should tackle a general strike),” the chief minister told a news conference in Calcutta.
“I am setting a 72-hour deadline.”
The Morcha chief hit back immediately. “After 72 hours, our people will observe a janata curfew: no one will come out of their homes. Will they use police to break open business establishments?” Gurung said in Darjeeling, demanding the chief minister withdraw her statement.
“Who is she to force things on our people? Is she our baap (father)? This (statehood agitation) is the sentiment of lakhs of people in the hills. If the government tries to use force, there will be a bloodbath….”
On her way out of Writers’ in the evening, Mamata was asked to react to Gurung’s statement that the agitation would continue. She said she would respond after the three-day deadline passed.
By issuing an ultimatum, Mamata has taken a big risk. If Gurung ignores it, she may be compelled to use force to break the strike, a tactic fraught with the danger of provoking violence where the state will carry the blame. Such an outcome could strengthen Gurung’s hands.
Bimal Gurung at the Morcha
office in Darjeeling on Saturday.
Picture by Suman Tamang
If, however, Gurung blinks first, which could happen if his supporters’ resolve cracks under the hardship of a long strike, Mamata would have established her authority in the hills and swelled the ranks of her admirers in the rest of Bengal.
There is a third possibility. When both sides strike uncompromising positions, they might simply be shadowboxing before entering the negotiating ring.
Mamata, who has been treating the “indefinite” strike as a law-and-order problem since it began on August 3, said that if the Morcha failed to meet her deadline, the government would “implement the court order A to Z”.
The court had asked the state to act against violence, vandalism and intimidation, keep essential services including public transport running, and prevent road and railway blockades, among other things.
Officials said the options before the government include clamping the Essential Services Maintenance Act, which allows it to summarily showcause and suspend any employee in an essential service who skips work.
They said police reinforcements could be brought in from neighbouring districts to increase deployment on the main roads and outside railway stations, bus depots, hospitals, courts, schools and colleges.
The government is also considering strict application of the West Bengal Shop and Establishment Act, 1963, which allows cancellation of a shop’s licence if it fails to follow prescribed opening and closing hours, the officials added.
Accusing the Morcha leadership of overstepping their bounds, Mamata said: “Birat lejwala neta, boro boro shob neta achhey. Shob lej ketey dewa hobey (There are big leaders, leaders with large tails. All tails will be trimmed). Whatever we do, we’ll do in the interests of the people of Darjeeling.”
On Gurung’s resignation as chief executive of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, she said the “next man” had been asked to take charge within three days. The Morcha chief dismissed it as a move “to appoint a caretaker”.
Gurung also stuck to his stand of not holding talks with the state government despite Mamata offering a dialogue if the agitation was withdrawn. “We will only talk with the Centre,” he said.
Mamata threw a jab at the Centre for entertaining a Morcha team in Delhi, warning it against engaging in divisive politics for the sake of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat.
“I’m telling the politicians at the Centre, ‘Don’t play games for that one seat. Don’t try to divide Bengal’. A state cannot be divided on the basis of race. That is not how a country is run. I am very serious,” she said.
BJP member Jaswant Singh had won the seat in 2009 with the Morcha’s support after his party promised to consider a Gorkhaland state if the NDA came to power.
CM SETS DEADLINE, GURUNG WARNS OF BLOODSHED
WHAT MAMATA SAID
I am setting a
72-hour deadline; I hope they will withdraw the strike. I declare this illegal and unconstitutional
I have tolerated it for eight days. Enough is enough....
I am rough and tough
The government is there and it will act
Lakshman rekha, I will act according to the law
WHAT GURUNG SAID
After 72 hours, our people will
observe a janata curfew: no one will come out of their homes. What will they (the government) do?
She must withdraw her statement. This (agitation) is the
sentiment of lakhs
of people in
If the government tries to use force, there will be bloodbath in
From tomorrow, even more people will come out on the streets
GOVT CAN DO
Act to ensure normality
Enforce West Bengal Shop and Establishment Act to keep shops open
Tell the high court names of those behind the bandh and start contempt
Deploy heavy police force to keep traffic going
Dig up pending cases against those fomenting trouble and