Wrapped in khadas (scarves), chief minister Mamata Banerjee is felicitated by the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Assocation. Dorji Lepcha, the president of the Lepcha Youth Association, doffs his hat; women in the crowd clap during Mamata’s speech at the Mela Ground in Kalimpong on Tuesday. Pictures by Amit Datta
Kalimpong, Sept. 3: Mamata Banerjee today embraced the Lepcha community of the hills and used a podium in the heart of the Darjeeling hills to meet her political objective of keeping Bengal undivided.
“You are the original people of Darjeeling…. You never wanted to divide the state,” the chief minister said as she tried to question the rationale behind the demand for Gorkhaland.
“Your contribution is no less than anyone else’s. Today, the Lepcha population in Darjeeling is no less than 1.5 lakh,” she added amid a huge round of applause from 20,000 people who had come to the Mela Ground in Kalimpong.
Mamata was here on an invitation from the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (ILTA) to accept the highest award of the community. She was honoured with the title of Kingchoom Daarmit (goddess of good fortune) for setting up the Lepcha development board for the socio-economic development of the marginalised community.
Although the government played the main role in organising the programme — from ferrying Lepchas from the faraway Dooars and Terai to organising their food and accommodation and even decorating the venue with Mamata’s favourite blue and white — the enthusiasm among the community could not be missed.
Despite the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s ghar bhitra janata call — which has created a curfew-like situation in the hills — and inclement weather, Lepcha women turned up in their traditional and colourful dumvoom while men teamed up dumpra with thaktak (traditional headgear).
“At last the Lepchas see a silver lining in the horizon…. No previous chief minister has ever thought of the downtrodden Lepchas. You have given us dignity and honour,” said Lyangsong Lepcha, the ILTA president.
Mamata looked pleased with the turnout and the traditional welcome accorded to her. A band of boys escorted her to the podium by performing a traditional war dance (fenalok) before she was greeted with pious Lepcha garlands.
The Lepcha programme gave the impression that the community was resting its hope of socio-economic development on the chief minister.
Regarded as the original inhabitants of Darjeeling, the Lepchas now live in areas that suffer from lack of education facilities and basic amenities. The Gorkhas say that they came with the land.
“For years, there have not been any development for the Lepcha community…. We have at least started,” Mamata said before rolling out a slew of measures for the community. (See chart right)
The promises were greeted with deafening claps and whistles and in some instances, the male members took off their headgear to hail the measures she announced.
For a mass leader like Mamata, it was easy to understand she had won the confidence of her audience. After that, she launched an offensive against her friend-turned-foe, the Morcha leadership, for the unrest in the hills.
“There is an education hub in Kalimpong, Kurseong and Darjeeling…. But schools are closed because of the strike. If people send their children for studies abroad, how will they realise the pains of those who may have to lose a year for this unrest?” she asked.
Gurung later said in a Facebook post that neither his son nor his daughter had ever studied abroad.
“The government had sent rice and all other food items, but the ration shops remained closed…. Why?” Mamata asked. She wondered how the hills could survive without food supplies from the plains.
The analysis was followed by veiled threats as she requested the Morcha leadership to tomorrow elect someone to run the GTA.
“If someone is elected, it’s fine, else I will tell GTA principal secretary R.D. Meena to start 100 days’ work for the people…. If ration shops don’t open, we will get a new set of people to run ration shops,” Mamata said.
“People make leaders… And then they throw them out as well. Remember (Subash) Ghisingh…. He has gone,” she said.
“There will be no division, no separation of Bengal,” the chief minister summed up.