Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hills shut down as fear closes in

Darjeeling, Nov. 23: People here are bracing for a rerun of violent incidents and general strikes 21 years after the Gorkhaland agitation set the hills on fire.

The administration’s decision to keep the army on standby suggests that the government is not taking chances either.

Initial signs confirm the fears. “We will not tolerate lawlessness and attacks on our leaders. We have decided to call an indefinite strike in the hills from tomorrow,” said Deepak Gurung, the president of GNLF Darjeeling Branch Committee.
He was referring to the khukuri attack on party leader Kul Bahadur Gurung in Darjeeling this morning.

Kalimpong subdivision is already under a GNLF-sponsored 108-hour general strike since yesterday. That shutdown was called to demand that the bill granting Sixth Schedule status to the Darjeeling Hills be immediately tabled and passed in Parliament.

If the bill is indeed tabled in Parliament during the ongoing winter session (it is in the list of business), it could spark fresh trouble in the hills. For, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, a party launched by expelled GNLF leader Bimal Gurung, is ready to oppose the status and instead demand a separate state, leading to a stand-off with Bimal’s former party.

“We will oppose the Sixth Schedule status and fight tooth and nail for Gorkhaland,” the Morcha president has declared.

The new party has already announced an agitation that includes forced closure of all DGHC offices till the end of the winter session. It also plans to gherao Lal Kothi, the administrative headquarters of the DGHC, after school examinations end.

The Morcha has attracted a lot of support from many areas of the hills, especially Singmari-Tukvar, the home constituency of Bimal. Unlike in the mid-80s, when the GNLF had near-total backing of the hill people, this time around the support is getting polarised, making the situation tense.

Over the past few days, there have already been sporadic incidents of violence in some parts of the hills, culminating on the attacks on Kul Bahadur and a Morcha supporter in Kalimpong today.

As the stand-off between the GNLF and the Morcha continues, neither is willing to blink first. Deepak has demanded that Morcha leaders Bimal, Nima Lepcha (Sanu) and 20 of their supporters should be immediately arrested for the attack on Kul Bahadur.

Morcha leader Binay Tamang struck back by saying the administration should arrest Deepak and other GNLF leaders for tearing his party’s flags in Darjeeling today.

“We have been saying in various public meetings that the GNLF will attack its own leaders to malign our image and today’s incident has proved us right,” said Tamang.

“If the GNLF leaders are not arrested, there could be law and order problem in the hills,” he warned.

During the Gorkhaland agitation, the Darjeeling hills saw general strikes lasting up to 40 days.