Darjeeling, Jan. 29: Disbelief and anger washed over Mamata Banerjee today as the chief minister ran into a chorus of "We want Gorkhaland" slogans minutes after declaring that "Darjeeling is a part of Bengal" at Chowrastha Mall.
The well-intentioned but ill-timed assertion left a blot on one of the few achievements of the chief minister: peace in Darjeeling, which Mamata tomtoms frequently by saying "the hills are smiling".
The chief minister could have easily steered clear of the thinly concealed references to statehood at a time the Telangana debate is back on the boil. In any case, today's event in Darjeeling was a festival inauguration where statehood was never on the agenda.
So taken aback was Mamata by the backlash from the audience that she left the venue 15 minutes after cultural events commenced. The chief minister, whose partiality to events cultural is well documented, did not wait to listen to even Anjan Dutta singing.
The unparalleled events unfolded after Mamata underscored repeatedly during her 10-minute speech that Darjeeling was a part of Bengal.
"Darjeeling hamara hissa hai. GTA kaam kar raha hai, (Darjeeling is part of us. GTA is doing its job)," Mamata said. GTA stands for the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, the autonomous body that runs the hills.
"Darjeeling should remain peaceful. Anything that can stop the development of Darjeeling should not happen. We have reached here after much hardship. I have been hearing certain things for the last few days. I want Darjeeling to remain peaceful," she added.
As soon as she finished, the slogans rent the air and at least two persons raised placards with references to Gorkhaland.
Turning livid, Mamata grabbed the microphone and chided the 2,000-strong audience: "This is a government programme. It will send a wrong message that Darjeeling is going for something else. This is not your party programme, this is not my party programme. I am rough and tough."
Few can contest Mamata's ' or the overzealous state police's ' skills at "crowd management". Shiladitya Chowdhury, the villager who was arrested in West Midnapore for asking the chief minister uncomfortable questions last August, should know.
But in Darjeeling this afternoon, the slogans didn't die down as more people joined the chorus with some holding aloft posters and waving the green-white-yellow flag of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM).
Mamata looked stunned initially. Then she tried to calm the audience of GTA office-bearers, members and the general public.
"This is a political slogan. You have the right to raise it in your party programme. Not here," she said.
Mamata turned towards Bimal Gurung, the GJM leader and GTA chief executive. Gurung tried to control the crowd and Mamata took the microphone again but didn't get the desired result, following which she stepped off the dais.
Trinamul insiders said the situation could have spun out of control had the chief minister not controlled herself and left the dais. "In Darjeeling, it is the GJM which calls the shots. We had no way out but to leave the matter there despite the sloganeering," said a senior Trinamul leader.
Sources close to Mamata said the episode was the most embarrassing moment for her after she became chief minister.
"She was very upset… she has supported the GJM and co-operated with them at all levels. This was not expected," said another Trinamul leader.
After stepping off the dais, Mamata took a seat to watch cultural programmes arranged for the seven-day festival. Fifteen minutes into the events, she got up, bid goodbye to Gurung and other GTA functionaries and headed to Algara in Kalimpong.
Later, Gurung said Mamata should have been "sensitive to the hill people's aspiration" in spite of her "political compulsions". "When the chief minister says Bengal will not be divided, sentiments of the people in the hills are hurt," Gurung said.
He said Mamata should have restrained herself. "She told our people not to raise the Gorkhaland issue since it was not a political programme. By that logic, she should not have talked about no division of Bengal as that is a political issue," Gurung said.