Feelers on lips, Deb bound for hills

Siliguri, Feb. 8: North Bengal development minister Gautam Deb today said he would be in Darjeeling during the strike tomorrow to stand by the people in the hills when they "need the state government beside them".

However, Deb suggested that he was willing to hold talks with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which declined to comment on the minister's statement.

But Morcha leader Bimal Gurung appealed to "our Lepcha brothers" to withdraw their fast.

The Morcha has called the dawn-to-dusk strike to protest the government's plan to form a Lepcha development board under the backward classes welfare department. It is the first shutdown the party has called after the GTA agreement was signed in July 2011.

Asked if he would meet Morcha leaders, minister Deb told journalists in Siliguri: "No meeting is scheduled with Morcha leaders yet but such meetings can be held any time. Since the time we formed the government, we never expressed any reservation on holding talks with them."

Deb added: "We must appreciate the Morcha leaders who have acted responsibly in the past two years and helped our government maintain peace in the hills. The party's role in taking up development in Darjeeling cannot be undermined. Whatever activities the state government takes up in the hills would be done in consultation with the GTA as we know our jurisdiction."

Deb said there were "critical gaps that can be resolved through talks".

"I will head for Darjeeling this evening and stay there tonight. There had been some critical gaps which can be resolved through talks and we don't feel it is wise to sit in Siliguri at a time when the hill people need the state government beside them," he said.

Asked about the specifics of his trip, the minister said he had no "hidden agenda".

"I am going to the hills not with any hidden agenda but (I) simply want to pass the message to residents there that the state government is keen on carrying out development (work) and wants to keep peace... even if somebody shows me a black flag or stages a protest, I will not leave Darjeeling and stay there tomorrow," Deb said.

Morcha assistant secretary Binay Tamang said: "We will not comment on the issue or the remarks of the minister."

Writers' sources in Calcutta said Deb had sought permission from "higher authorities" to go and "make his presence felt" during the bandh.

"He was allowed to go, but he will be on his own. The government understands that he must remain conspicuous in the district now, in order to stay relevant, but he has been warned against doing anything that could aggravate the situation," the source said.

The fresh round of trouble started in Darjeeling on January 29 after Mamata Banerjee referred to the sensitive statehood issue, and Morcha chief Gurung complained of the state government's interference in GTA affairs.

Mamata also held two meetings on February 6 that may rile Gurung ' one with John Barla who is a tribal leader in the Dooars and Terai, the other with Bharati Tamang, the wife of ABGL leader Madan Tamang who was murdered allegedly by a Morcha mob. Deb was present at the meeting with Barla.

Gurung, who today spoke to Lepchas at Sibchu in Kalimpong, said the chief minister's intention to form the Lepcha board was divisive.

Gurung urged the Lepchas, who yesterday started a fast unto death for the sake of peace, to call off their protest.

"From the very bottom of my heart, I would request our Lepcha brothers to withdraw their strike. We will send a delegation to meet the Lepcha leaders and explain our position. We are not opposed to the Lepcha development board (under the GTA). On the contrary, along with the Lepcha board, we also want similar boards to be set up for Tamangs, Yolmos and Bhutias," Gurung said.

N.T. Lepcha, co-ordinator of the Lepcha Rights Movement, asked about Gurung's appeal, said: "We will first have to discuss the matter in our executive committee and then form an opinion."

Gurung said he would announce the launch of the final agitation for Gorkhaland at a meeting in Sukna on March 10. "It will be our last agitation, and also the last (chapter) in the political career of Mamata Banerjee."

Sikkim transport

Sikkim will not run its state and private buses as well as taxis along NH31A during the strike hours tomorrow.

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