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Bimal Gurung’s waning political popularity reflects the economic struggles of Gorkhas

19 May 2021
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On 14 April, after spending three years underground, Bimal Gurung addressed a mammoth gathering in Darjeeling. Gurung is one of the most recognisable faces of the Gorkhaland movement, which has long agitated for a separate state to represent the Nepali-speaking community along the northernmost reaches of West Bengal. He is the founder of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the primary political vehicle of the Gorkhaland movement, and was previously the chairperson of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, an autonomous administration representing Gorkha majority regions. In the recent West Bengal assembly elections—the fifth phase, which included all regions of the GTA, was held on 17 April—Gurung’s GJM suffered a serious loss, losing all three hill seats in the Gorkha majority region to a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party and a breakaway faction of his own party. In the two seats the BJP won, the two factions of the GJM polled higher if their votes were added, indicating that the election was more a loss for Gurung himself rather than the Gorkhaland movement.

In 2017, Gurung led a 104-day bandh calling for the territories of the GTA to be made into a full state. The protest started following the West Bengal government’s decision to make Bengali mandatory in schools across the state. Gurung’s face was omnipresent, urging the protest on through videos on WhatsApp and Facebook that every youth seemed to be watching on their phones. In comparison, his speech on 14 April was a far more toned-down affair. Instead of emotive calls for the creation of state of Gorkhaland, Gurung instead asked for the extension of the GTA to the lowland Terai and Dooars areas, and for the inclusion of 11 tribes under the Scheduled Tribes category.

Biplab Dewan, a former tea-estate worker, at Chowk Bazaar, on 14 April 2021. Dewan has been unemployed for months. He felt that the Gorkha movement needed some kind of permanent solution. Amongst other things, he wished for better roads and infrastructure in his village. . Biplab Dewan, a former tea-estate worker, at Chowk Bazaar, on 14 April 2021. Dewan has been unemployed for months. He felt that the Gorkha movement needed some kind of permanent solution. Amongst other things, he wished for better roads and infrastructure in his village. .
Biplab Dewan, a former tea-estate worker, at Chowk Bazaar, on 14 April 2021. Dewan has been unemployed for months. He felt that the Gorkha movement needed some kind of permanent solution. Amongst other things, he wished for better roads and infrastructure in his village.

The agitation in 2017 marked the height of Gurung’s popularity in the region. Despite it being the zenith of a nearly-century-old struggle for statehood, even senior members of the GJM told me they were surprised by the crowds of passionate youth that thronged to join the strikes and protests. Acts of wanton violence by the West Bengal police and paramilitaries against protestors, which left 11 Gorkha youth dead, also added to public anger and support for the GJM in the hills.

Bimal Gurung attends a rally at Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling on 14 April 2021. Gurung had been at the forefront of a months-long struggle in 2017 to win statehood for Gorkhaland. He spent the next three years underground. By the time he resurfaced, people in the region had grown deeply disillusioned with the young leader. Gurung also displeased many by hurriedly joining a pre-poll alliance with the All India Trinamool Congress, who many Gorkhas see as responsible for violence against civilians in 2017.. Bimal Gurung attends a rally at Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling on 14 April 2021. Gurung had been at the forefront of a months-long struggle in 2017 to win statehood for Gorkhaland. He spent the next three years underground. By the time he resurfaced, people in the region had grown deeply disillusioned with the young leader. Gurung also displeased many by hurriedly joining a pre-poll alliance with the All India Trinamool Congress, who many Gorkhas see as responsible for violence against civilians in 2017..
Bimal Gurung attends a rally at Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling on 14 April 2021. Gurung had been at the forefront of a months-long struggle in 2017 to win statehood for Gorkhaland. He spent the next three years underground. By the time he resurfaced, people in the region had grown deeply disillusioned with the young leader. Gurung also displeased many by hurriedly joining a pre-poll alliance with the All India Trinamool Congress, who many Gorkhas see as responsible for violence against civilians in 2017.

Nishal Lama is a multimedia journalist who works in Siliguri and Bengaluru. He enjoys doing long-term documentary projects.

Keywords: Gorkha Janmukti Morcha Gorkhaland Darjeeling West Bengal assembly elections 2021
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