Siliguri, Sept. 12: The Bengal government and the hill parties conceded some space to each other at the second round of talks that did not yield any immediate breakthrough but the indefinite strike appeared to have become a millstone that everyone wants to shed but has not yet figured out how.
After the bipartite talks at Uttarkanya in Siliguri, the following factors stood out:
• Expelled Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leader Binay Tamang said he would go to the hills and appeal to the people to withdraw the strike.
• Morcha president Bimal Gurung said he was in favour of continuing with the strike unless tripartite talks start on Gorkhaland but sought to distance himself from the ownership of the shutdown.
• Chief minister Mamata Banerjee accepted some demands made by the hill parties. They include special admission facilities for hill students who could not get admitted to colleges because of the statehood agitation, a high-level inquiry into blasts that had hit the hills, compensation for the families of the deceased and the injured and allowance to teachers so that they can hold classes during the winter months. The chief secretary will take up with the planters issues vexing tea garden workers.
• The next round of talks will be held in Nabanna, the Bengal secretariat in Calcutta, on October 16, when the demand for tripartite talks involving the Centre would also be discussed.
• No clarity on the key issues of ending the shutdown that has dragged on for 90 days and restoring normality. It is to be seen whether the pre-Puja pressure becomes so intense that the hill parties are forced to suspend the shutdown.
Representatives of the hill parties hailed Mamata's gesture while the chief minister seemed content as the hill parties, especially Morcha leaders, dropped hints that they would not let the strike continue any further.
But some Morcha insiders said Gurung's stand after today's meeting might complicate things. "We will continue our demonstrations. As police are not allowing us to hold rallies, we are thinking of announcing a new programme of ' janta curfew' in the next few days," Gurung said. He did not elaborate what "janta curfew" means.
At the meeting, the chief minister urged the hill parties to take a joint initiative to restore normality in the hills.
"We want the hills to continue as an integral part of Bengal. All of us should stay together with peace and amity. The state is ready to extend all possible help to the hills. I would request the hill parties to take an initiative together so that normality is restored," said Mamata.
However, after the meeting, the representatives of the other hill parties said the onus lay with the Morcha so far as withdrawal of the strike was concerned. "And that's the main reason behind all the confusion," said a Morcha source.
First, Gurung has adopted the same strategy of countering Binay Tamang as he had done after the first rounds of talks and advocated the continuation of the strike.
Second, the leaders of the Binay lobby are not confident whether common people who had not responded to his earlier call to withdraw the strike will respond this time.
"The only new thing Binay has to say this time is that the state has accepted some of their demands, which, however, does not include the demand for tripartite talks. The absence of any commitment from the chief minister on tripartite talks has come up as a principal hurdle for the rebel Morcha leaders who will have to think of a new strategy to coax people," said an analyst.
Finally, it is unlikely that the other hill parties would appeal to the people or make a joint initiative.
"They have passed the buck to the Morcha, a party which has split on several issues. There are no immediate indications that the situation would improve in the hills," the observer said.
The Morcha president has held Binay responsible for the strike. "This strike was unilaterally called by Binay Tamang once my party office (at Patlebas) was raided (on June 15). After the strike was called, I even chided him for calling the strike without proper consultations in the party. Had proper discussions taken place, the public would not have faced such harassment. He (Binay) must take responsibility for this (harassment)."
Binay, when told about Gurung's allegation, said: "When the raid was taking place, I called Gurung's mobile. His phone was switched off. I started getting calls from party leaders on the need to take a firm stand. Even Roshan Giri, who was in Delhi, asked me to take a decision and this is why, I called the strike."
He posed a counter-question at Gurung. "If he was against the strike, why did he not call it off earlier? Why did he not raise this issue till this day and when I asked the public to lift the strike from September 1, why did he oppose it and issue a counter-statement. I will again appeal to people to withdraw the strike," Binay said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY OUR CALCUTTA BUREAU