On Monday Gorkha leaders of a two-month strike that has shut down the tea industry in Darjeeling showed the first signs of reducing tensions by agreeing to talks scheduled for Aug. 29 in Nabanna.
Kalyan Dewan, a leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and head of the co-ordination committee representing striking workers, met with Union home minister Rajnath Singh over the weekend. Singh insisted that the standoff could only be resolved through discussions with the West Bengal government as national leaders will not intervene. He called for an end to the disruption and hunger strikes.
“To honour the home minister’s appeal, we are ready to hold talks with the state government,” said Dewan. He made it clear he was speaking both as the leader of the movement and as a spokesperson for (GJM) president Bimal Gurung according to press reports. Dewan did not voice any specific demands.
“People are growing restive. We are looking for a middle path. The two questions of identity and livelihood have to go together,” Gorkha National Liberation Front GNLF leader Mahendra Singh told the Times of India.
The letter asked state government to “initiate talks at the earliest so that peace and normalcy can be restored in our region at the earliest.” Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called the letter requesting the meeting “constructive.”
Striking tea workers shut down gardens and factories, local transit, and commerce in June. Several deaths followed in clashes with national police. Gorkha leaders had hoped the national government would intervene and eventually split West Bengal into two states, establishing Gorkhaland for the Nepalese descendants who make up the majority in the northern portions of West Bengal.
The Gorkha remain firm in their desire to establish a separate state carved from West Bengal. Banerjee strongly opposes a split.
The death over the weekend of a police volunteer from a grenade in Kalimpong and the explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) in Darjeeling near the Chowkbazar signaled an escalation after a period of peaceful protests. In discussions Gorkha leaders must now demonstrate some progress stemming from the costly shutdown.
Banerjee pledged to renew its “relationship of trust” with the hills people.
The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration and other semi-autonomous bodies were established in the 1980s to provide local governance including road projects. The Times of India noted that West Bengal recently resumed construction of a critical bridge. “The work was taken up under the MP’s Local Area Development program 10 years ago, but came to a standstill because of a dearth of funds. The Center has now promised 1.5 million rupees for continuing the work and the north Bengal development department will release the money soon,” said a state official from Darjeeling. The concession is an attempt to send a message to the Hills people that the chief minister was committed to upgrading hills infrastructure.
Resolution of the strike will not lead to the immediate resumption of tea. During the past two months tea bushes have become overgrown with weeds, the tender leaves used to make tea are no longer usable and the stems require trimming before new leaves will sprout. Renewing the region’s 87 gardens will take several weeks, making it unlikely there will be a fall harvest.