Almost three months since the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and other hill-based parties announced an indefinite strike that paralysed Darjeeling and the adjoining hill areas, they have agreed to suspend the bandh temporarily. The impasse was broken following a meeting with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, which proved to be more than an ice-breaker. While the hill parties reiterated the demand for a separate state, Ms. Banerjee kept the dialogue open, even as she refused the demand, by calling for further talks in Siliguri on September 12. It is heartening, therefore, that on Thursday the GJM has withdrawn the bandh until the talks take place. This breakthrough has come not a day too soon. A degree of solidarity and cooperation among the residents has mitigated the crisis in the hills, but there is no doubt that normal life has been severely affected. There are other political considerations that must bother the GJM. Far from hurting its political standing, the crisis in the hills has in fact helped the Trinamool Congress consolidate political support in the rest of West Bengal. It has successfully managed to tap into a vein of Bengali chauvinism following the unrest, something that helped it bag the lion’s share of seats in the recently concluded municipal polls in the State. With the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre balking at the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state, despite having sympathised with it in the past, the hill parties must now realise that a maximalist position will not earn them any dividends notwithstanding the popular appeal in the Darjeeling hills.
The demand for a separate state has been a longstanding one, a reflection of some legitimate grievances of the ethnic Gorkha population in the hills. The statehood option, however, is not going to be easily granted despite the recent success of a similar demand in Telangana. Geopolitical concerns and the fact that the district contributes a major chunk to West Bengal’s revenues will be factors in considering any federal reorganisation. Previous agitations for statehood had led to the creation of a semi-autonomous Hill Council, and later the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2011. The lack of substantive decentralisation of promised powers and a lackadaisical administration rendered both these institutions — the Hill Council and the succeeding GTA — weak. The thaw between the hill parties and the State government should be used for substantive talks to ensure genuine empowerment of the GTA. They should address the concerns of both the parties and the people. The State government must continue to engage with the hill parties and demonstrate that it is genuine about greater devolution.