The shocking slaying of Madan Tamang, the main opposition leader of Darjeeling, in the centre of town on the morning of 21 May, plunged politics in the Hills to a new low, deepening the political crisis that has pummelled the area in recent years. The political leadership of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Gorkha People’s Liberation Front, GJMM), until recently riding a popularity wave for challenging the aging satrap Subhash Ghisingh and the Kolkata politicians, is suddenly being reviled by the local populace. Most critically, the situation threatens the legitimacy of the ongoing tripartite talks in New Delhi regarding the Hills’ political future.
Sixty-two-year-old Tamang was overseeing preparations for a public meeting to mark the foundation day of the All India Gorkha League (AIGL), a party that he headed, when a mob, believed to be made up of GJMM supporters, attacked him with khukuri knives. He was hacked to death in full view of office-goers, local residents and tourists – and a whole contingent of police expressly deployed to the spot to maintain order during the public meeting. The killing of the veteran leader stunned the Hills and sent shock waves through the Gorkha diaspora around the world, even leading some senior GJMM leaders to resign from the party. Most of these resignations were later taken back, however, indicative more of duress than desire.
In Kolkata, Tamang’s many well-placed friends, including actor Victor Banerjee, expressed their anguish in a long public letter. Although admitting he did not know Tamang well, the former governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, wrote in The Telegraph: ‘Like all children of those hills, Tamang had courage. But his courage had a distinctive feature. It was the courage of a Gorkha among the rest, but also of a Gorkha among the Gorkhas. It was the courage of the daring bushel on a hill that is used to only one tree at its crest.’ In contrast to the outpouring of grief and outrage, however, the governments in Kolkata and New Delhi stirred only slightly, perpetuating the public belief that Darjeeling and its residents continue to be seen by policymakers as dispensable.
Tamang had been an outspoken opposition leader for three decades, the bulk of that time railing against the long time autocrat of Darjeeling, Subhash Ghisingh. The latter had ruled the area with an iron first for two decades, but he and many of his colleagues in the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) were finally hounded out in March 2008 by a popular movement led by the GJMM and its leader, Bimal Gurung (see Himal July 2008, ‘Whither now Darjeeling?’). Prior to that point, Tamang was essentially the only, but certainly the fiercest, critic of Ghisingh’s autocratic rule. However, he refused to join the GJMM wave, questioning the credibility of Gurung who had, after all, been Ghisingh’s top henchman. Now, it looks as though Tamang’s opposition was deemed an unavoidable nuisance by Bimal Gurung, the new satrap of the Darjeeling Hills. Since the rise of the GJMM, Tamang’s party office had been ransacked twice and his personal property damaged, which Morcha leaders described as ‘acts of the janata’.
On the morning he was cut down, Tamang was determined to hold a public meeting, though the GJMM had been regularly thwarting his attempts to speak publicly. The original meeting venue, which he had been granted permission to use by the authorities, was forcibly reserved by the Morcha for its own meeting. Tamang and his supporters therefore began setting up chairs and microphones in another space nearby. The public had a sense of expectation regarding Tamang’s speech, especially due to curiosity about the talks taking place between the GJMM, Kolkata and New Delhi over the Darjeeling Hills’ political future – including the longtime demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.
The last round of talks, on 11 May, had ended abruptly, which the GJMM had put down to the other parties refusing to accede to their demand for the inclusion of additional areas (Siliguri as well as other areas in the Dooars and Tarai) in the proposed ‘interim autonomous authority’ for the Darjeeling Hills. This was the first time that the territorial aspect was being discussed, and Tamang’s views were important. Although presenting itself as playing hardball in Delhi, back home the GJMM was seen to have already compromised on the demand for Gorkhaland. The GJMM was now anxious for a face-saver, and extremely desperate to snuff out any opposition on its turf.
Since its inception, Tamang had gone after the GJMM relentlessly. Over the last year, he criticised the party for ‘compromising’ on the issue of Gorkhaland, and made accusations of corruption, wherein development funds running into crores of rupees for the area in general were reportedly being channelled through the party, with only projects endorsed by the Morcha supported. This, of course, was Kolkata’s chosen strategy to keep the GJMM ‘engaged rather than disaffected’, so to speak. Denied the chance to hold public meetings by the GJMM, last year Tamang began to bring out a series of DVDs containing recordings of his speeches, in which he ‘exposed’ the party for its mistakes and nefarious deals. The DVDs became popular. (Interestingly, in mid-June the state government instituted an inquiry into the malfeasance of funds in the Hills.)
Despite rising tension, it was not expected that Tamang’s vociferous opposition to the GJMM would eventually claim his life. Braving reprisals, Darjeeling residents nonetheless came out in droves for a candlelight rally to honour Tamang and call for peace the day after the killing. ‘This is a dark day for the Gorkhas,’ said Ratan Tamang, a schoolteacher who participated in the peace rally. ‘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.’ The shock and the grief gave way to anger. During Tamang’s 24 May funeral, which saw a massive and spontaneous turnout, people were seen tearing down GJMM flags and posters.
For its part, the GJMM vehemently denied that it was behind the murder, instead throwing blame in every direction, including at the Maoists of Nepal. In one particularly preposterous claim, GJMM leader Gurung alleged that the murder was ‘a conspiracy hatched by the AIGL and the state government to defame’ his party. But in a revealing slip, Roshan Giri, another top GJMM leader, subsequently suggested that his party’s supporters had been injured by shots fired by Tamang’s state-provided bodyguard, a policeman, at the attackers. As Himal goes to press, the police have arrested seven people in connection with the murder. Barring Sudesh Raimaji, a contractor with connections to the Morcha, the rest of the arrested are little-known youths. The FIR filed by the AIGL, however, names of several top GJMM central leaders, including Gurung.
While the GJMM protested its innocence, the state government too maintained a hands-off approach, adding to the local frustration. High-level government officials made placatory noises but showed little action. Governor M K Narayan, for instance, who happened to be visiting Darjeeling at the time of the murder, did term the killing ‘an attack on democratic forces … a state of affairs that will not be allowed to continue.’ The inspector-general of police for north West Bengal, K L Tamta, did categorically blame the GJMM. In contrast, however, following a meeting with Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya in Kolkata after Tamang’s killing, Home Secretary Samar Ghosh said about the assassination, ‘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.’ The government of West Bengal was, once again, obviously not planning to uphold the law when it came to Darjeeling. Its concern is the tripartite talks, and the worry that arresting the GJMM leaders would jeopardise those negotiations. Even the response from New Delhi has been far short of what would seem to be warranted. Although admitting that normality had to return to Darjeeling before talks could go forward, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee affirmed that negotiations with the 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,’ was all he would say.
The frustration among local authorities has been reflected in the statement released by K L Tamta, the inspector-general of police, on the day of Tamang’s murder. When asked why armed policemen at the spot did not respond by firing, he replied: ‘You should direct that question to the state government.’ As expected, the response on the part of both Kolkata and New Delhi amounted to little more than cold politicking. The fact of the matter is that the stalling of the current talks would prolong a political crisis that began back in March 2008, when Subhash Ghisingh was ousted. New Delhi and Kolkata are both now extremely keen to hammer out an agreement, though as of now there are no new dates for talks.
On 30 May, a week after Tamang’s killing, the Morcha held a massive rally in the outskirts of Darjeeling town. It was a show of strength directed at quelling the animus building locally against the party, and at the same time reassuring Kolkata and Delhi of its predominance in the hills. Upping the ante, Gurung declared that his party would no longer participate in talks for the interim authority. He said they could agree to talks only on statehood, whose proposed nomenclature was changed to ‘Gorkha Adivasi Pradesh’ to placate the large Adivasi community in the Dooars and Tarai plains, where there was resistance to the idea of Gorkhaland as a hill-dominated entity.
Darjeeling is faced with an unenviable situation, where the option in terms of political leadership is the GJMM. Today, each of the rival parties in the Hills enjoys pockets of influence, lacking a general mandate despite the growing unpopularity of the GJMM. If the GJMM were suddenly to implode, there would be a clear leadership vacuum in the area. Despite the fact that the current absence of independent governance in the Hills is highly dangerous, the district administration, including the police, continues to function as little more than a handmaiden of the GJMM.
In all this, the historical parallels are difficult to ignore. This is, after all, exactly the same approach that Kolkata took for decades with Ghisingh, wherein his absolutist regime was appeased so long as he kept pro-Gorkhaland demands at bay. (Further, none of the political murders that took place during Ghisingh’s tenure, even though investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, were ever brought to a clear resolution.) Emboldened by this approach, the GJMM has become a law onto itself, much as Ghisingh’s outfit had: in addition to the assassination of Tamang, two other political murders of local GNLF leaders took place during April and May. GJMM supporters were suspected to have carried out both the murders.
While the investigation into the killing of Tamang continues, with very little hope of a clear outcome, the GJMM has to bear the moral responsibility of it all. The party has created a climate of intolerance in the Hills, conducive to political violence of the kind that took Tamang’s life. Kolkata is legally responsible for abdicating its responsibility to govern; the administration, including the police, functions as GJMM’s fronts, while basic services remain at pitiful levels and unemployment is rife. Meanwhile, New Delhi, though claiming to have the strategic location of Darjeeling in mind, indulges in a highly undemocratic local force that will only lead to more long-term instability in the area. For the moment at least, there appears to be no satisfactory resolution in sight for the common citizens of the Darjeeling Hills.
~ Niraj Lama is a political commentator on the Darjeeling Hills and a former correspondent for The Statesman.