If it had been anyone else, you could have said he was hamming it up. But when it comes to Bimal Gurung, chief of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), it seems perfectly natural: Before making his way to the podium to give a speech, he takes off his shoes, kisses mother earth and climbs up the stage to deliver a fire-and-brimstone speech in Gorkhali, the very sound of which brings tears to the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Gorkhas living in various parts of India.
His friends confess that they are a bit frightened of him — they say his speeches are Hitler-like with a bit of George Bush thrown in. He is utterly self-possessed and apparently utterly ruthless as well.
The West Bengal police says it has found a GJM connection in the killing of Madan Tamang, leader of rival Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, in Darjeeling earlier this month. A contract killer, by the name of Kayla (a Gorkha from Sikkim involved in other killings as well) is supposed to be on the run. Tamang was a big critic of Gurung. And the stakes in Darjeeling are very, very high.
Everyone knows Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supremo Subhash Ghisingh was evicted from power in 2007. It was Bimal Gurung who did this –— and he understood the meaning of the word mobilisation when he saw the Great Gorkha Unification behind Prashant Tamang.
Those who are not so familiar with the musical programme Indian Idol can be forgiven for asking “Prashant who?”. Tamang was a Gorkha policeman who featured in the third season of Indian Idol, a vote-based programme where people, through exorbitantly-priced text messages from their cell phones, vote for a singer. Quite understandably, community plays a big part in this. Prashant Tamang symbolised the coming together of all Indian Gorkhas and helped them discover their common identity. Indian Gorkhas are distinct from Nepalese Gorkhas, and are scattered all over the country, notably in J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, north Bengal, Sikkim, Dooars and North East, and like Israelis once, are in search of a homeland. Perception, differences and government policy have simultaneously blurred and accentuated the identity crisis.
Gurung used this mobilisation against the West Bengal government as well as the central government to further integrate the Gorkha opinion and revive the demand for Gorkhaland. Other organisations like the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh under former MP Dil Kumari Bhandari of Sikkim and Dehradun-based Gorkha Democratic Front, despite the physical separation of organisations, strive for a national identity. Indian Gorkhas united to showcase Prashant Tamang as an Indian idol and secured a Gorkha victory.
The largest concentration of Indian Gorkhas is in north Bengal in the hill district of Darjeeling comprising subdivisions of Kurseong, Kalimpong, Darjeeling and parts of Dooars. It has a Gorkha population of nearly 22 lakh compared to six lakh in Sikkim, which became a state in 1975 following Indian annexation. The region is of great strategic value. It is contiguous — or nearly contiguous — to Nepal, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The vulnerable Chicken’s Neck and Siliguri Corridor and the National Highway 31A to Sikkim along with the only road and rail links to the North East along the Tiger and Sevok bridges lie in this area.
The demand for Gorkhasthan was made much before independence and even accepted by the undivided Communist Party of India. Although Ghisingh started the Gorkhaland movement in the late 1980s, he left behind a legacy riddled with corruption and tarnished with the charge of sleeping with the enemy — West Bengal. Ghisingh secured the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988 and by 2006, its inclusion in the Sixth Schedule, incorporating the status of a tribal area. The struggle for statehood got lost in the politics of survival till a new leader, a Ghisingh protege, Bimal Gurung was born.
Gurung thrives on maximalism.“Ghisingh betrayed the Gorkhaland cause by accepting the Sixth Schedule, an option we have rejected outright. There can be no alternative to statehood,” he said in an interview. The organisation adopted Jaswant Singh and stuck by him when his own party deserted him. Bulk of Singh’s Lok Sabha speeches are about the injustice done to the Gorkha people.
Madan Tamang, till he was alive, showed there were Gorkhas who didn’t agree with Gurung’s politics, and that he has no time for them. His wife Asha heads the GJM’s women wing. As is the case with family politics elsewhere, here too, it is bound to have its critics.
Right now, however, the priority is the performance of the GJM in north Bengal in the forthcoming West Bengal assembly elections. An independent backed by the GJM, Wilson Champamari won the Kalichini by-election last year in the Jalpaiguri district of north Bengal. This was a shock for the Left Front, but it also illustrated the trend.
Bimal Gurung and the GJM are here to stay. The Left Front’s neglect of north Bengal is the subject of another essay. But watch out for the khukuris (knives).