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KOLKATA: From the son of poor tea garden workers to the most dominant contemporary Gorkha leader in the Darjeeling hills, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung has come a long way.
The talent to hit the nail on the head was a crucial factor in that passage. It allowed him to seize the leadership of the Gorkhaland movement and revive the dormant agitation for a separate state.
Forced to drop out of school due to poverty, Gurung, in his teenage years, had to sustain his family by doing odd jobs. In 1986, when Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader Subhash Ghising called for total commitment for a separate state of Gorkhaland, Gurung, then a young man of 22 years, answered the call by joining the Gorkha Volunteer Cell (GVC). There was no looking back after that.
After two years participating in the violent agitation for Gorkhaland against the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front government in West Bengal, Gurung was disappointed when the GNLF made a truce with the state government and the Centre in 1988, which led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).
He quit the GVC and in 1992 formed an organisation for unemployed youngsters and silently built a base among the masses. The big break came for Gurung when he won a DGHC seat from Tukvar constituency as an independent candidate. His popularity and passion landed him the sports and youth affairs portfolio in the Darjeeling administration.
This marked the beginning of camaraderie between Subhash Ghising and Gurung. He closely followed Ghishing's every move, attending meetings and taking part in discussions and learnt the ways of a leader.
However, Gurung was not really happy with the way the Gorkhaland statehood demand was swept under the carpet and was frustrated that Gorkha leaders were content with the semi-autonomous DGHC, which he believed was nothing but a compromise.
He was desperately looking for an opportune moment to revive the Gorkhaland movement. That opportunity came from an unexpected quarter: Indian Idol Season 3, 2007.
The reality show saw Kolkata police constable and Gorkha youngster Prashant Tamang capture the national imagination, the first time for a Gorkha youth. The participants’ qualification in the show depended on the number of SMS votes they got besides their performance. Raking up the issue of ‘Gorkha pride’, Bimal Gurung launched a massive campaign in the hills to ensure that Prashant Tamang got the needed SMS votes. For this, he established a large number of voting booths throughout the hills. The Gorkhas' en masse votes helped Tamang to emerge as the winner in the show, and Gurung established his leadership skills in the hills.
Gurung’s speeches soon switched from assertion of the Gorkha identity to the deprivation suffered by Gorkhas in West Bengal and the unfulfilled dreams of the martyrs of the 1986-88 rebellion for Gorkhaland. After a public spat with GNLF leader Subhash Ghising, Gurung floated his own party Gorkha Janmukti Morcha on October 7, 2007, and started a violent agitation for Gorkhaland, thus reviving a statehood movement that had remained dormant for 19 years.
Since then, hill residents have been obeying Gurung like a ‘godfather’. While his call for bandhs are observed religiously, nobody protests when another influential Gorkha leader Madan Tamang was killed in broad daylight, allegedly by Gurung’s men, and when veteran Gorkha leader Subhash Ghising was shunted out of the hills to Siliguri.
His violent agitation led to the formation of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) on March 14, 2012, with nearly 59 departments including education and agriculture, significantly up from DGHC’s 19. Such has been Gurung’s aura that GJM won all 45 seats of the GTA elections in 2012, 28 of which GJM won unopposed.
However, Gurung’s fragile truce with Mamata Banerjee, which was agreed upon after GJM swept the GTA elections, began to crack when Banerjee introduced ethnic development boards in the hills. Gurung called it 'Bengal’s conspiracy' to break the unity of the hills. Yet he could not oppose it because of the development boards, through its various schemes, provided monetary benefits to the minorities.
But, Gurung’s insecurities intensified when Trinamool Congress won the Mirik municipality and bagged a few seats in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong in civic polls held in May, 2017.
With GTA elections slated for July, TMC’s foray into the hills brought up serious questions about the future of Gorkhaland statehood. The party got an opportunity to consolidate its base when Mamata Banerjee expressed her desire to make Bengali compulsory in all schools of West Bengal. Since then, Bimal Gurung has spearheaded the Gorkhaland agitation and managed to keep his credentials intact among the hill people.
The father of two, a Nepali actor son and practising lawyer daughter, Gurung is a fitness freak and a teetotaller. His wife Asha Gurung is also a GTA executive member and Nari Morcha leader. The 53-year-old starts his morning with a strict exercise regimen before going ahead with daily chores. He is currently in hiding after police raided his residence and seized a large number of contraband goods, including cross-bow, night-vision goggles and huge amount of crackers.