(Left) Darjeeling Trinamul candidate Bhaichung Bhutia at Badamtam on Sunday; the small cluster of supporters at the meeting. Pictures by Suman Tamang
Darjeeling, April 6: Hardly 100 people were present today at a public meeting of Trinamul Darjeeling candidate Bhaichung Bhutia near the town, prompting the state’s ruling party to allege that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha scared away its supporters.
Bhaichung, dismayed by the turnout at Badamtam where he had got a big reception last July when he went for a local football tournament, said: “In this 21st century, politics is changing but this is such a sad development. If we win the election and if the Morcha wants to hold a public meeting at this same venue, I will personally guarantee that these shops will not be asked to close down.”
The shops Bhaichung was speaking about are in the heart of Badamtam at its Chowrasta, which is 16km from Darjeeling town. The area has a Goodricke tea estate.
Today, all the shops at Chowrasta were shut. Local people refused to say why no store was open.
Many of the 100-odd people present at Chowrasta had come from areas neighbouring Badamtam.
The Morcha denied it had any hand in keeping supporters away from Bhaichung’s meeting.
Bhaichung has held at least five public meetings across the hills. The crowds at those venues were much larger than today’s. The former Indian soccer team captain, however, has concentrated more on door-to-door campaigns.
The footballer said that during his election campaigns he is frequently asked by the media about the problems of people in the hills.
“There are so many problems in the hills, from lack of drinking water to development. But I feel the biggest problem is the lack of honest politics,” he said.
Sources said there are 13,605 voters in the Badamtam-Lebong constituency of the GTA.
Trinamul also alleged that the Morcha disrupted power supply at the meeting venue and party supporters were forced to arrange for food for Bhaichung and other leaders from another village in Badamtam, Lamas Gaon, about 5km from the venue.
“We, however, had water with us,” a Trinamul leader said, when asked about food.
Rajen Tamang, the vice-president of Trinamul’s Darjeeling district committee who is known as Appa Rajen in the Darjeeling hills, said the Morcha leadership had threatened the people of the area.
“We got permission to hold the meeting here at Badamtam only yesterday. We have information that the local people were threatened that the shops would be burnt if they were kept open today and people would be beaten if they came out to listen to the speech,” Rajen said.
The Trinamul leader had loudly protested when Bhaichung had said earlier that Trinamul would seek the Morcha’s support for the election.
On March 7, days after being named the Darjeeling candidate, Bhaichung had said at a news conference: “I personally want the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha to support us. Bimal daju (the Gorkha word for dada) shares very good relations with me and I want him to come forward and support us in the Lok Sabha election.”
Rajen, who was at the news conference, shouted: “This is not right, we will not negotiate with GJM.”
At today’s public meeting, Bhaichung took potshots at the Morcha-backed BJP candidate S.S. Ahluwalia.
“He will never be able to come to this place, and even if he were to come he would be scolding the Morcha leadership for lack of development. Look at the condition of roads across the villages,” Bhaichung said.
“They might try to buy your votes, but remember you will be selling the future of our children. We want to promise a bright future for the youth of the hills,” he said.
Told about Trinamul’s allegation that the hill party threatened shopkeepers at Badamtam, Jyoti Kumar Rai, the Morcha assistant secretary, said: “Bhaichung is moving around the hills and he is holding public meetings. People are also coming out to hear him speak. We have never stopped our people from attending his meetings in other places and why should we only ask the people of one place not to attend a meeting. The allegation is baseless.”
Rai added: “Badamtam-Lebong areas are our strongholds and if people do not want to listen to someone speak, we have nothing to say. After all, Bhaichung Bhutia is now being seen as someone opposed to the Gorkhaland demand and people might not have wanted to hear his speech.”
The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which is supporting Bhaichung, today held an election meeting in ward 16 of Darjeeling municipality. GNLF sources said they would reopen their Darjeeling branch party office in Darjeeling after a gap of almost three years within two days.
The GNLF has said it would support Trinamul in the Darjeeling seat.
● Darjeeling votes on April 17