Madan Tamang’s murder is just the tip. With the once peaceful dooars veering towards Gorkhaland as well, the region is poised for big trouble. Partha Dasgupta reports
SHANKAR PAL has been driving up and down the Darjeeling hills for the last 20 years. after the two-day bandh in mid-May imposed on the hills by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the 45-year-old taxi driver is back on nh-31a, the only highway connecting Sikkim and the rest of India — from Siliguri to kalimpong, a 70-km drive through breathtaking landscape. and Shankar justifies the 50 percent premium on the fare. “You never know when they will close the roads again. Plus, this is season time, sir. Pray that the rest of the season goes well for us.”
His prayers were not answered, though. In less than 24 hours, Madan Tamang, President of the akhil Bharatiya Gorkha league (ABGL) and the most vocal detractor of GJM President Bimal Gurung, was hacked to death with khukris and swords in broad daylight in Darjeeling by a mob that quite resembled an organised army.
Call it bad luck, because Tamang had promised to talk to TEHELKA soon after the ABGL’s May 20 anniversary celebrations, during which he was killed. Darjeeling once again was cut off from all sides. a day earlier, Gurung, sitting in the sprawling and exquisite Delo Tourist Bungalow atop the Kalimpong hills, told TEHELKA that the GJM movement was “absolutely democratic and non-violent” and that his detractors — who “could not muster even 200 supporters” — did not bother him. Indeed, if Gurung exuded confidence in his white nike T-shirt and matching sneakers, it is because he started out as an agent in the taxi stands of Darjeeling to eventually become a mass leader in the hills.
But Tamang’s murder has upset Gurung’s applecart. A dead Tamang now poses an infinitely more complex set of problems to the GJM leadership, which has already been accused of rampant corruption and autocracy. It has also lost a lot of the nationalist ground it had gained in the last three years by whipping up Gorkha sentiments, pillion riding on Prashant Tamang’s crowning as Indian Idol on national television in 2007.
Suddenly, Gurung’s own men are leaving him by the hordes, and his white T-shirt has blood-stains that he will find difficult to wash off. Already, Harkabahadur Chhetri, the suave Pro and Central Committee member, has resigned over the “lack of democracy” in the party and the “very unfortunate murder of a tall leader who genuinely felt for the people of the hills”. nine other leaders have followed suit.
West Bengal’s Urban Development Minister Ashok Bhattacharya, arguably the ruling CPM’s most powerful man in north Bengal, could not hide his glee at the political advantage Tamang’s murder has handed on a platter to the state. “The GJM has bluffed the people, it has lost its mandate and no longer represents the hill population. There is no point in holding tripartite talks with them any more,” says Bhattacharya.
THE GORKHALAND movement is at a crossroads now. It has been brewing in the hills for around a hundred years. It raised hopes among the Nepalis of a better future than to serve the Gorkha regiment of the Indian Army or to guard high-rises in the big cities. But they have been fighting among themselves. The once uncrowned monarch of Darjeeling, Subhash Ghising, was driven out of the hill station in 2008 by Gurung’s men and could not even organise his wife’s funeral there.
Senile and forlorn, Ghising now broods in the sleepy town of Jalpaiguri while Gurung and his folk keep grinding their ethnic axes for a bigger pound of the state flesh. “We will bring about development, not only for the Gorkhas, but for everyone else living here,” thunders Gurung. But the sizeable Marwari and Bengali community of the hills, who have endured enough animosity during Ghising’s era, are not buying his assurance. no wonder, all those that TEHELKA spoke to requested not to publish their names or photographs for fear of retaliation from ‘Bimal Gurung’s army’.
There is a history behind the current state of siege. Traditionally, the Dooars region of north Bengal was under the political umbrella of mainstream parties like the Congress, which controlled the tribes or the Adivasis. The tea garden workers, on the other hand, owed their allegiance to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), which surprisingly, enjoyed a clear supremacy over big brother CPM in this part of Bengal.
“All that has changed now. and all so dramatically,” says Suman Goswami, the alipurduar secretary of the association for the Protection of Democratic rights (aPDr). The resurgence of the Gorkhaland movement from 2007-end onwards, saw the entire Nepali population supporting it. The adivasis, historically repressed and ignored by the state, felt threatened a second time. So a renascent Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP) surfaced in the guise of an nGo. “A very interesting shift in the region’s politics started taking shape,” observes Goswami.
Biswaranjan Sarkar, the president of Jalpaiguri district Congress, is circumspect: “The GJM is trying to woo the entire tribal population here, promising them a Utopia that is not in keeping with the economic reality of the region. They will fail to deliver and will go.” Sarkar believes that a turnaround for mainstream parties can only happen through development. “This is an extremely sensitive region ethnically. The government needed to be extra cautious here. But the underdevelopment is so stark that divisive forces have a field day now,” he points out.
Concurs Ramkumar Lama, the Kalchini block secretary of the RSP. he ascribes last year’s loss of the Kalchini Assembly seat to the GJM-backed independent candidate from the Boro tribe to a long history of discontentment among the tribes against the state. “We could not meet the basic needs of the people. Being in power for 34 years, we are not in touch with the common man any more and have given up on all kinds of struggle,” confesses Lama.
“All the money is being spent on the plains. There has been absolutely no development in the tea gardens and forests,” echoes Tejesh Ghatak, an RSP trade unionist who has spent three decades organising the tea garden workers. “The GJM and ABAVP reaped electoral benefits by luring people with as little as a night of revelry with meat and wine,” lament the two leaders, who are steadily losing their foothold in the tea gardens.
Also, there are other perennial issues like corruption that has forever shortchanged the poor tea estate worker. Take the case of the Operative management Committees (OMC) that have come up in the last five years to help workers of closed tea gardens earn a livelihood. The OMCs comprise representatives from trade unions and the local administration and they organise workers from closed tea gardens to pluck leaves, which are sold to other gardens or individual buyers. The workers are paid rs 30-40 — against the normal wage of rs 67 per day. “These committees have naturally turned into contracting hubs for NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) work. These are fertile grounds for middlemen and the tea mafia,” says neela Chhetri, who runs Lok Kalyan parishad, an NGO working with tea garden workers and forest villagers.
Sitting in his small office in Nagrakata, 70 km from Alipurduar, rajesh Lakra, the regional secretary of the ABAVP, asserts with finality: “No more lollypops for the Adivasis. We do not trust anybody any more.” And then, he explains, “Our forefathers made this region prosperous through their toil and in return we have only been exploited as a vote bank. We have no assets, no education. So we had to take up the cudgels ourselves.”
The ABAVP, true to the tradition of Bengal politics, believes in bandhs, the last of which was from May 19 to 21 in protest against a skewed policy of reservation for Adivasis in the recruitment of primary school teachers in Jalpaiguri district. The GJM hurriedly supported the bandh in a show of ethnic solidarity. “We have formed trade unions in 90 percent of the tea gardens. Our only objective is the development of our community,” says Lakra, who is supposedly in close touch with the local Congress leadership to aggravate the problems for the Left parties.
But nabin Kerketta, 25, a political science graduate and treasurer of the North Bengal Dhumkuriya Academy Trust, a social institution of the Oraon tribals, concedes that this trust, in the long run, could become an ethnically divisive force. Perhaps he sums it up for all the ‘black tribes’ when he says, “I will feel insecure to be part of Gorkhaland, but I support the cause, because if it materialises then the mainstream political parties cannot squeeze us any more.”
UNDER THE tonnes of newsprint detailing the sorry state of affairs of the tea gardens of Dooars lie buried the sorry plight of the forest villagers. Early morning on April 18, 2009, Radha Rava, 38, and Pabaneswari Rava, 30, went to fetch firewood from the Poro jungle of the Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) which is 200 km from Siliguri. Forest guards took them for ‘timber smugglers’ and fired their shotguns. Both were hit waist-down. The small pellets are still embedded in their legs. They can neither squat nor pick heavy loads anymore. “The forest department paid for the treatment during the one month I was in hospital and has opened a bank account for me, but has not given a single penny as compensation thereafter,” says Pabaneswari.
Satyen Rava met with a similar fate on the ight of November 29 last year. Badly injured with pellet wounds on his face, chest and shoulder, Satyen was arrested and hospitalised by the forest guards who shot him. “My husband regained consciousness after four days, cannot move his right limb any more and is now trying Ayurveda in distant Mendapara,” says his young wife Santwana Rava, who could not appear for her Class 12 exams this year because of the incident.
“None of the forest guards involved has been arrested till date,” says Lal Singh Bhujel, convener of the National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) Central committee. “The Forest Department looks after deforestation and illegal felling, is hand in glove with the timber mafia, and kills at will,” alleges Bhujel.
“Show me a complaint of forest department atrocity and I will book my people,” challenges RP Saini, the field director of Buxa Tiger Reserve. “No innocent person has been killed by us. We are just protecting the assets of the tribes only. If we are enforcing anything, it is the law of the land,” says a miffed Saini, whom the forest villagers portray as the villain of the piece. To be fair to him, manning an increasingly populated forest land, spread over 761 sq km, is not easy with the thin contingent that Saini has at his disposal. But the atrocities are real. In 2009 alone, three tribals were killed in fake ‘encounters’ by the forest guards.
“The existence of the forest is threatened,” warns Sekhar Bhattacharjee, the eco-tourism guide at Jayanti hills, 210 km from Siliguri. Dolomite mining and boulder lifting were banned in the jayanti hills by the end of the 1980s, rendering almost 90 percent of the local population jobless. These people then turned to the forest and exploited its resources. As a result, the wildlife lost its habitat.
“It is ironical that the last tiger spotted here was before the BTr was declared a tiger reserve on February 16, 1983. The World Bank and WWF are pumping in millions of dollars here but all that is embezzled. Isn’t it funny that they bring people from Kolkata to train the local people, who have been living with elephants for ages, on how to handle elephants?” says Bhattacharjee, more agitated than bemused.
North Bengal, with its pristine hills and huge expanse of virgin rainforest, has been a lure for tourists for a long time. The poverty and misery of the locals has also been a reality, which the mainstream political parties have been able to keep under wraps till very recently. But the rapid growth of ethnic and sectarian politics, a first in the political history of the generally secular state of West Bengal, is set to change the fabric of harmony that has been woven for long by the peaceful co-existence of the 50-odd tribes and the native Bengalis in this region. That fabric could now be ripped apart for good.