Feb. 6: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has called a 12-hour general strike in Darjeeling and adjoining areas on Saturday, the first large-scale shutdown in the hills since Mamata Banerjee became chief minister and piloted the peace agreement.
The dawn-to-dusk bandh call in the three subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, is the latest salvo in a spiralling game of oneupmanship the state government and the Morcha have been playing since the chief minister's speech touched a raw nerve in the hills last week.
One of the key objectives of the peace deal was to avoid disruptions like shutdowns ' once a recurring feature that would extend for days and cripple the hill economy.
The last marathon strike in the hills on the statehood demand had started on January 12, 2011. Since the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) agreement was signed in July 2011, there were no bandhs, barring a limited strike in the Terai and Dooars last year.
The immediate provocation for the strike is a decision by the state government to form a development board for Lepchas, regarded as the original inhabitants of the hills and who account for around 20 per cent of the population.
The Morcha views the decision as part of an alleged divide-and-rule policy activated by the chief minister since the backlash at Chowrastha last week.
Mamata today held two meetings that are expected to rub more salt in the Morcha's wounds. She spoke to John Barla, the leader of a breakaway faction of an Adivasi group that is opposed to the Morcha.
The Morcha was trying to penetrate Terai and Dooars with the help of Barla. It is certain to see today's meeting, apparently meant to discuss development projects, as an attempt by the government to confine it to the hills.
Mamata also met Bharati Tamang, the widow of slain Gorkha leader Madan Tamang, at Writers'. Bharati has been seeking an appointment with Mamata since she took over as chief minister but it was granted one only now. "The timing is important. It is now clear that the chief minister wants to bring all possible forces together to counter the Morcha," said a Writers' official.
The GTA Sabha today passed a resolution rejecting the government's decision to set up the Lepcha development board under the backward classes welfare department. The resolution said the department was a transferred subject and the state government had violated the GTA Act.
Mamata had initially talked of forming a Lepcha development council. The Morcha had wanted the nomenclature to be changed to the Lepcha Development Board and the body to be brought under the GTA's purview.
Binay Tamang, assistant secretary of the Morcha, said: "We have decided to call a 12-hour general strike across the GTA area on February 9 to protest the state government's move to divide our community on community and religious lines. The government is also thinking of setting up a Buddhist development council, which is against the Constitution as such a move will harm the secular fabric of not just the hills but also the country."
Bimal Gurung, the Morcha leader who has threatened to resign as GTA chief executive, said: "The government has violated the GTA Act. How can there be a parallel administration over a department that has been transferred to the GTA? We will send our resolution which has rejected the board and if the government does not take appropriate steps based on our resolution, we will go to the Supreme Court."
He said: "It looks like Mamata Banerjee is inviting us to start an intensified Gorkhaland agitation.... It seems she has no intention of normalising the situation and is hell bent on disturbing the harmony."
"Our agitation will be peaceful but the government will try and make it violent," Gurung said.
The Sabha also passed a resolution not to consult the present GTA principal secretary, Saumitra Mohan, on any issue related to the authority. "The Sabha has decided to entrust the responsibility of the principal secretary to Don Bosco Lepcha, who is currently heading the establishment department," said Gurung. "We want a senior IAS officer as the principal secretary."
An official said Group A officers, such as Mohan, were not under the purview of the GTA. According to the GTA Act, the state government will forward a list of officials and the chief executive can choose one name.