Darjeeling, a travesty of democracy

The shocking daylight slaying of Madan Tamang, the main Opposition leader of Darjeeling, in the heart of Darjeeling town on 21 May, has plunged hill politics to a new low. It has deepened the continuing political crisis in the hills by snuffing out the most recognizable moderate voice in the hills. The current political leadership is suddenly reviled as a murderous lot by the local populace. Worse, this act threatens the legitimacy of the on-going tripartite talks in Delhi regarding the hills' political future.

62-year-old Tamang was overseeing preparations for a public meeting to mark the foundation day of All India Gorkha League (AIGL), a party which he headed, when a mob, believed to be supporters of the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM), attacked the venue with khukris and swords. He was hacked to death in full view of office-goers, local residents and tourists, and, worse, a whole contingent of police expressly deployed to the spot to maintain peace and order during the public meeting.

A wealthy contractor, with a fine taste for art, books and flowers, Tamang was first visible nationally when he single-handedly opposed the Gorkhaland movement led by Subash Ghisingh in the 1980s for its espousal of violence. He was a staunch supporter of Gorkhaland himself but believed in a democratic movement towards its achievement. His refusal to play proxy to Delhi and Kolkata ensured his political marginalization. His uncompromising attitude was also a liability in local electoral politics: AIGL could never make a significant dent in local elections.   

The killing of the veteran leader stunned the hills and sent shock waves through the Gorkha diaspora around the world. It even led some of the senior GJMM leaders to resign from the party. In Kolkata, Tamang's many well-placed friends, including actor Victor Banerjee, expressed their anguish in a long public letter. In contrast, the governments in Kolkata and Delhi stirred ever so slightly, perpetuating the belief that Darjeeling and its residents remain a dispensable lot.

Tamang first became nationally visible during the 1980s when he single-handedly opposed the Gorkhaland movement on account of its espousal of violence. He himself survived several attacks during the agitation. Although a staunch supporter of Gorkhaland, Tamang was not willing to be part of the violence and corruption rife in the hills politics. 

On the morning he was cut down, Tamang, a fearless and an outspoken Opposition leader for three decades in the hills, was determined to hold a scheduled public meeting. GJMM had constantly been thwarting his attempts to publicly speak in the hills. The original public meeting venue, for which he had been granted permission by the authorities, had been forcibly occupied by Morcha supporters.

Unaware of the impending trouble, Tamang and his supporters, ousted from Chowbazar, came uphill to Clubside and began setting up the chairs and mikes for the public meeting. Commercial establishments were beginning to open up and were looking forward to a good day of business with the tourists in town. A recent spell of strikes had hit local businesses hard.

The public did have a sense of expectation regarding Tamang's speech. People were curious about the on-going tripartite talks between GJMM, Kolkata and Delhi. The last round of talks on 11 May had ended abruptly. The GJMM claimed the talks failed because the other parties refused to accede to their demand for inclusion of Siliguri and additional areas in Dooars and Terai to the proposed 'interim autonomous authority' for the hills. Although playing hardball in Delhi, back home GJMM was seen to have already compromised on the demand of Gorkhaland. They were now anxious for a face-saver and extremely desperate to snuff out any Opposition on its turf.

Tamang had relentlessly gone after the GJMM, mainly for its 'compromise' on the issue of Gorkhaland and 'corruption,' wherein the development funds were veritably being channeled through the party. This of course was Kolkata's chosen strategy to keep GJMM 'engaged rather than disaffected.' Denied the chance to hold public meetings by GJMM, Tamang had last year brought out a series of DVDs containing his speeches, wherein he 'exposed' the party for its nefarious deals and mistakes. The DVDs became popular.

That Tamang's opposition to violence would eventually claim his life was least expected. The public outpouring of grief was widespread in the aftermath. Fear and tension enveloped the hills at the same time. But braving reprisals, Darjeeling residents came out in droves with a candle light rally to honor Tamang and call for peace. The spot where Tamang was felled – a narrow parking lot – became a shrine, where many tearful people came and lit candles.

'This is a dark day for the Gorkhas. Madan Tamang, may not have been politically popular, but he always spoke the truth. In times of political oppression he was the only one who dared to speak out. Now the people have been left voiceless … This way we will finish ourselves off,' said Mr Ratan Tamang, a school teacher, who participated in the peace rally.

However, the shock and the grief soon gave way to outrage. During Tamang's funeral, which saw a massive and spontaneous turnout of locals, people pulled and tore down GJMM flags and posters. They accused the GJMM of being behind the killing. The mourners raised slogans condemning the party and its leaders.  

Cold Politicking
The GJMM on its part denied the party was behind the murder, and blamed almost everybody including Nepal´s Maoists. In a preposterous claim, GJMM president Bimal Gurung alleged that the murder was 'a conspiracy hatched by the AIGL and the state government to defame Morcha.' But revealing a slip, Roshan Giri, another top GJMM leader, said his party supporters had been injured in the police firing. He was referring to the shots fired by the personal bodyguard of Tamang.

The GJMM feigned innocence while the state government continued its hands-off approach towards the hills, much to the locals' frustration. It was not enough that the West Bengal Governor, M K Narayan who was actually visiting Darjeeling at the time had termed the killing 'as an attack on democratic forces … a state of affairs that will not be allowed to continue.' Even Inspector General of Police, North Bengal, K L Tamta, categorically blamed GJMM for the murder of Tamang.

In contrast, home secretary, Samar Ghosh, said in Kolkata after meeting the Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya on the matter: 'Strict vigil has to be maintained so that clashes or killings do not occur. But we also have to make sure the police do not do anything that can be termed excesses. After all, the situation in the hills is sensitive. We are treating this incident simply as a case of murder. So, only the standard operational procedure will be followed.'

Measure the difference between 'an attack on democratic forces' and 'simply a case of murder'. It is obvious that the government of West Bengal is once again not going to uphold the law when it comes to Darjeeling. Their 'bigger concern' is the tripartite talks. To arrest Morcha leaders including Gurung, who was included in the complaint filed by AIGL to the police, would jeopardize the negotiations.

Even the response from Delhi was far short of what was warranted. Although admitting that normality had to continue in Darjeeling before talks could go forward, senior Congress leader and Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee affirmed that the talks with GJMM would continue. 'Our main priority will be to keep the national highways which pass through Darjeeling district open as they are vital to our security… they connect Sikkim and Bhutan,' he said.

The response of both Kolkata and Delhi, as expected, is cold politicking: The stalling of the talks in Delhi will prolong a political crisis that began when Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader Subash Ghisingh, was ousted from the hills in March 2008. Ghisingh who had ruled the hills with an iron first for two decades was hounded out of the hills along with many of his party colleagues by a popular movement led by GJMM. During that entire time Tamang was the only and most fierce critic of Ghisingh's draconian rule. Delhi and Kolkata are keen to hammer out an agreement. To their satisfaction, GJMM has acquiesced to continuing regional autonomy, short of a separate state.

Darjeeling too is faced with the reality that aside from GJMM there is hardly any other option. Each opposition party has a small sphere of influence and lacks a mandate despite the growing unpopularity of GJMM. If GJMM was to implode on its own, there would indeed be a crisis of leadership in the hills.

The total absence of independent governance in the hills is an unacceptable situation. The district administration, including the police, is presently reduced to being a handmaiden of the GJMM. It is exactly the same approach that Kolkata had with Ghisingh, wherein his absolutist regime was appeased, as long as he kept the demand of Gorkhaland at bay. Emboldened by the government's soft approach, GJMM has become a law onto itself.

Even as recent as the past month, two political murders took place in the hills. Both the deceased were local GNLF leaders – one in Darjeeling sub-division another in Kalimpong. GJMM supporters were suspected to have carried out the killings. As expected there were no notable arrests.

The frustration among local authorities was reflected in the IGP Tamta's statement on the day of Tamang's murder. When asked why armed policemen at the spot did not respond with fire on the attackers, he replied: 'You should direct that question to the state government.'

Six days after the murder of Tamang, Gurung returned home to Darjeeling (he had been away in Kalimpong) with a massive show of strength. In a convoy of nearly 100 vehicles and heavy police protection, Gurung returned like a triumphant hero. There was no regret or remorse for the death of the veteran leader in that arrogant display. The locals seethed with anger and disgust but were helpless. 'If the police are going to protect instead of arresting leaders who have been named in an FIR for the murder, what can we simple citizens do?' asked a resident, withholding his name in fear of reprisal.

Niraj Lama is a political commentator on hill affairs and former Darjeeling correspondent for the daily The Statesman.

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