- The TMC has made it clear that it is not in favour of a separate state of Gorkhaland
- The GJM is still fighting on the Gorkhaland plank in the Darjeeling hills, effectively making the people decide between development and a separate state
- Of the three constituencies - Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong - the latter is the TMC\'s best bet
- In 2011, all three seats had been won by the GJM
- What the candidates think about their chances in the polls
- Why Gorkhaland continues to be an emotive issue for the people of the hills
It's easy to think of the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and correlate that pristine beauty to a sense of calm and contentment among the people. But that's as far from the truth as can be.
The overwhelming sentiment among the people is of discontent: at being labelled 'outsiders', at not having a state to call their own.
Amar Singh Rai, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) candidate from Darjeeling, says: "People call us Nepalis, immigrants, foreigners, and that hurts our sentiment. We have made an immense contribution to the history of India; yet, we are not considered a part of this country. We need a separate state to safeguard ourselves, our community and our people."
It's a fact: even today, the Gorkhaland issue is front and centre on the minds of the people, and on Sunday, 17 April, they have a difficult choice to make.
While the TMC is promising improved infrastructure and basic facilities, the GJM is sticking to its promise to deliver a separate state for the people.
It seems the people of the hills once again need to make the unfair choice between development and Gorkhaland.
History of the Gorkhaland demand
The demand for Gorkhaland is one of the oldest demands for a separate state in Indian history. It is an appeal that has united the people of the hills in the past, and has seen electoral victories for several parties that have promised it. It has also seen violence and strikes over the years.
In 2011, the state government set up a semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) in the Darjeeling hills. The GTA has three sub-divisions - Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong - and some areas of the Siliguri subdivision under its authority. It is run by elected members of the GJM.
But though the GTA has been given certain administrative powers, these are not absolute.
The TMC candidate from Darjeeling, Sarda Rai Subba, feels that the GTA is the limit to which the state government is going to budge when it comes to Gorkhaland.
But many people feel that the implementation of the GTA and GJM's approval is contradictory to their demand for a separate state.
In 2015, it was the state government's alleged interference that led GJM chief Bimal Gurung to ask his MLAs to resign. The GJM had won all three seats in the hills, and it was this decision that changed hill politics.
Kalimpong: Will Chhetri's gambit work?
Dr Harka Bahadur Chettri, the sitting MLA from Kalimpong, quit the GJM after being asked to resign from the state government in 2015. He continued his tenure as an independent MLA. Chettri founded his own party called the Jan Adolan Party (JAP) in Kalimpong in early 2016.
Chhetri was initially nominated as a TMC candidate - Mamata Banerjee had announced his name in the TMC candidate list in February. But he quickly clarified, saying that he would fight on a JAP ticket. The TMC is backing the JAP chief, and has not fielded a candidate against him from Kalimpong.
The JAP manifesto also includes the demand for Gorkhaland. But in spite of Mamata's strong stance against the appeal for Gorkhaland, Chhetri's relationship with the state government seems quite good. He was instrumental in getting cabinet approval for district status for Kalimpong. The Bill, however, is yet to be passed in the state Assembly.
In spite of being a well-liked candidate, many question Chhetri's alliance with the TMC. "We do not trust TMC; they have tried to weaken the Gorkhaland issue by setting up various development boards from different communities in the hills, like for Lepchas, Bhutias and Tamangs," says Ranbir Tamang, a resident of Kalimpong. "This can be interpreted as a move to divide and rule."
Chhetri's opponent is GJM's Sarita Rai.
What's more interesting is that both the candidates were teachers in the same school, St George's Higher Secondary School in Pedong.
Rai is the first woman candidate from Kalimpong. "I know Dr Harka Bahadur Chettri as my colleague. He used to be in the same party as me, but he was unable to take responsibility and fight for the cause of the hill people. He is being backed by the TMC and the people of the hills won't support TMC because the party is against our fundamental demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland," says Rai.
Darjeeling: off-limits for TMC?
The GJM's stronghold - Darjeeling - will see two first-time candidates battle it out. GJM's Amar Singh Rai, chairman of the Darjeeling municipality and a member of the GTA, is confident of his chances against TMC's Sarda Rai Subba.
In an interview to Catch, he said: "Frankly, I haven't even heard of Sarda Rai. She is not a familiar face here in Darjeeling. I am not worried."
TMC's attempt to gain some ground in the hills doesn't seem to have many supporters.
"I would never want any Bengal-based party to win in the hills. As soon as they gain power in Bengal, they tend to treat us as second-class citizens. They tend to distort our history, threaten our culture, our unity and our identity," says Rinchu Doma Dhukpa, founder of Darjeeling Chronicles, an online news portal focussing on the Darjeeling hills.
Sarda Rai Subba, however, has a contradictory view. "People in the hills are very aware of what is happening and what is not. GJM has only been making a fool of people by repeatedly raising the Gorkhaland issue. BJP's SS Ahluwalia won the 2014 general election from Darjeeling solely on the promise of Gorkhaland. When GJM's own ally, the BJP, hasn't raised the issue of Gorkhaland in Parliament even after two general elections, it's clear that the formation of Gorkhaland is not going to happen anytime soon.
Development in the hills is far more important. We have to start from scratch," she says.
Interestingly, the Left Front has indirectly lent support to the GJM in the hills. Speaking to Catch, CPI(M)'s Ashok Bhattacharya, the candidate from Siliguri, said: "The reason we did not field any Left candidates from the hills is because we are very weak in the hills. We are not supporting the Gorkha Janmukhti Morcha (GJM), nor are we seeking support from them. But both the Left and the GJM are fighting against the Trinamool Congress. If GJM defeats TMC in the hills, we will welcome it. We don't want division of votes against TMC. We will welcome anyone who defeats the TMC."
Left leaders have encouraged their supporters and workers in the hills to vote for the GJM, without lending official support to the party. The Left, however, has openly opposed the GJM's appeal for Gorkhaland.
Kurseong: breaking away from the norm?
Once a stronghold of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), Kurseong is a constituency where the TMC has its best chance of winning a seat.
Shanta Chettri, the three-time GNLF MLA from Kurseong, is fighting on a TMC ticket this time around. Her induction into TMC is a big boon for the party in the hills.
Her popularity, along with the GNLF's official support to the TMC in the elections, may ensure a victory for the party.
Speaking to Catch, Shanta says she gives credit for peace in the hills to 'the relentless efforts of the Chief Minister'. "I have always worked for the development of the common people in the hills, instead of using the Gorkhaland issue as a vote bank," she claims.
Shanta's opponent is GJM's Rohit Sharma, who won the 2011 Assembly elections from Kurseong, but resigned as an MLA in 2015 under the direction of Bimal Gurung. This may hurt his chances.
"We elected him last time around, but he let us down by resigning as our MLA. How can you work for the people when you are no longer an MLA? He shouldn't be voted back this time," says Deepak Gurung, a resident of Kurseong.
What interesting is that of the three MLAs from the hills, Sharma was the only one who stayed with the GJM, with Harka Bahadur Chettri and Trilok Kumar Dewan resigning from the party.Edited by Shreyas Sharma