The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Strike forces GNLF shift in stand

Darjeeling, Feb. 26: The GNLF opposition to the 12-hour strike called by labourers of the Chungthung tea garden today did little to prevent residents from extending spontaneous support to the bandh.

As a result, the near total strike forced Subash Ghisingh's party to hunt frantically for a face-saver later in the day.

Sixty-two year old Baburam Dewan, a social activist from Chungthung, had committed suicide yesterday on the garden premises, 25 km from here, to press for stringent action against Ajit Agarawal, the proprietor of the estate.

The suicide note left behind had said five other 'like-minded' residents of the area were ready to sacrifice their lives to protest against the management's highhandedness in locking up the estate. This led to an uproar with workers calling a 12-hour bandh in Darjeeling today.

However, the Darjeeling branch committee of the GNLF had in posters ' plastered across the town this morning ' maintained that Darjeeling would remain open while only the Chungthung area would remain closed.

The GNLF decision to oppose the strike gave rise to a controversy with the Opposition slamming the party for its 'double standards'.

'The GNLF's refusal to extend support to workers only exposes the party's double standard. Today it even refused to stand by the workers' struggle. Is the GNLF pro-management or pro-worker' asked R.B. Rai, the general secretary of the CPRM.

The incident, the first-of-its-kind in the history of the Darjeeling tea industry, has not only created a furore but has also shocked hill residents.

Dewan, who retired as a garden worker in 2001, is already being looked upon as a martyr.

In such a situation, the GNLF's only way out was to launch a damage control exercise. 'This was a case of suicide and we do not want to politicise the issue. We also did not want the public to be harassed,' said Deepak Gurung, the president of the GNLF's Darjeeling branch committee.

Not only that, the party has also started demanding the arrest of Agarawal.

'I am going down to the Pulbazar police station to file a complaint and demand Agarawal's immediate arrest,' said A.R. Dewan, councillor of Chungthung-Risheehat and general secretary of the Darjeeling branch committee.

Later in the day, the Himalayan Plantation Workers' Union (HPWU), the labour union affiliated to the GNLF, too shifted its stand. It maintained that Agarawal 'should be held responsible for everything'.

'He is delaying the reopening of the garden,' said N.K. Kumai, president, HPWU (central committee).

The garden has been closed since January 13 after workers refused to accept the management's decision to pay only three days' salary for six days' work. The management also wanted to increase the working hours from eight to nine.

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