Mamata Banerjee with her cabinet colleagues and Morcha chief coordinator Binay Tamang (extreme left) at the news conference in Nabanna. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Calcutta, Aug. 29: The Mamata Banerjee government and prominent hill-based parties today broke the ice after a 78-day standoff, displayed sensitivities to each other's compulsions and set the atmospherics for a fresh round of talks in a fortnight.
There was no clarity on when the hills would return to normality with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung issuing a statement hours after the talks in Calcutta that the strike was not going to be withdrawn immediately.
The statements issued by the participants in the talks at Nabanna - the state government, the Morcha, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, the Jana Andolan Party and the Trinamul Congress - after the meeting suggested they were trying to be accommodative.
While chief minister Mamata Banerjee said the demand for Gorkhaland was not discussed because the state government was unwilling, she repeatedly stressed that the hill-based parties brought it up, it was an emotive issue for them, it was their prerogative and "we cannot bulldoze".
"We are very grateful that they have come for this meeting, which Mann Ghisingh of the GNLF had requested, then Binay Tamang of the Morcha had also sent a letter.... Two others, the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League and the CPRM, did not want to come and that is okay.... The meeting was positive and cordial," Mamata said.
"The process of dialogue has begun after 78 days, a dead-end for so long.... Ja hoye gyachhey, ta hoye gyachhey (What has happened has happened). The discussion was good. The process is continuous and the next meeting will take place at Uttarkanya (the secretariat in Siliguri) on September 12 at 3pm," she added.
Knowing that the hill-based parties are answerable to their constituency on Gorkhaland, Mamata said the three parties from the hills wanted to raise the issue.
"It's their prerogative. But we also said that it is not something we can discuss, there are constitutional bindings and this is not in our jurisdiction," the chief minister said.
"We cannot bulldoze. It is the freedom of democracy.... Let's be a little sensitive. It is an issue that is close to their hearts. They love it and are passionate about it. The movement sees resurgence every 10-15 years," she added.
The hill parties took care to give a patient hearing to the chief minister. They unanimously condemned the violence that took place during the ongoing unrest and said the withdrawal of the strike - the main demand of Nabanna - would be discussed at the meetings of their central committees and the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee (GMCC).
But the Morcha, echoing what its chief Gurung had said earlier, demanded that the recent blasts in the hills be probed by the NIA, and a CBI-led inquiry be conducted into the deaths of eight Morcha supporters and injuries to 45 others. Morcha chief coordinator Binay Tamang demanded compensation for the relatives of the dead and the injured, besides withdrawal of cases - "old and new" -slapped on the protesters.
Yesterday, Gurung had said if the leaders discussed anything but Gorkhaland, they would not be allowed back into the hills. Today, Tamang did echo Gurung's concern.
"All parties in the hills share the century-old sentiment of Gorkhaland. Everyone stands united for a lasting and permanent solution. We requested the state government to consider the demand while we discuss the rest," said Tamang.
Nabanna has been rooting for the rise of Tamang - perceived to be flexible in comparison to Gurung - in the Morcha. Sources said the government had a role in ensuring Tamang led the Morcha delegation for the dialogue.
"Now, some concession was necessary for the Tamang lobby to hold its head high. That was the reason for her patience with the subject of Gorkhaland," said a source.
Mamata wanted to underscore the state's priority of restoring normality in the hills. "We sincerely request them to withdraw the strike, restore peace and normality. Everything has been hit, including schools, hotels, tourism, transport and tea," she said.
However, the jury was out on whether the Tamang lobby would succeed in convincing the Morcha, the GMCC and the supporters of the movement to withdraw the strike.
Questions remained on when the state government would, if at all, initiate tripartite talks involving the Centre, a demand the hill parties have made repeatedly. Mamata said the hill parties wanted a bipartite dialogue but several leaders who attended the meeting said that tripartite talks were needed.
"We know that the state cannot give us what we want, but let this be debated in the Assembly. The state can then send its recommendation to the President to pave the way for talks in Parliament," JAP chief Harka Bahadur Chhetri said, seeking a "permanent, political solution".