Stressing that a “permanent political solution” is the need of the hour in the Hills, Raju Singh Bisht, the BJP candidate from Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, has said he would strive to ensure smooth implementation of NRC in the region if his party is voted to power in Bengal. Bisht, however, remained non-committal on the long-standing demand of a separate statehood. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) aims to separate genuine Indian citizens from illegal migrants.
Noting that the election in the Hills will be a fight to restore democracy, Bisht said people are vying to “give a befitting reply to the TMC government for the atrocities it committed on the Gorkhas”. “People here will vote for restoration of democracy in the Hills. They haven’t forgotten the atrocities committed by the TMC during the 104-day-long agitation (over statehood),” Bisht told PTI in an interview.
Asked if he would take up the issue of a separate Gorkhaland if voted to power, Bisht said, “We would work towards a permanent political solution, benefitting all people in the Hills.” The BJP, which is eyeing a third term in the constituency, has made no mention of Gorkhaland in its manifesto. It has, however, promised Scheduled Tribe tags for eleven Gorka sub-communities. “I am with the aspirations and sentiments of people (on Gorkhaland). But my priority is restoration of democracy in the Hills. Our agenda is to ensure safety for the people in the Hills in the face of violence,” the 33-year-old entrepreneur from Manipur insisted.
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Bisht, who has the support of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Bimal Gurung faction of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), iterated that he will work to esnure that eleven Gorkha sub-communities are identified as Scheduled Tribes. For the first time in about three decades, the demand for a separate Gorkhaland has not figured in the list of poll issues in Darjeeling, as parties, including the indigenous GJM and GNLF, have sought development and democracy in the region. The statehood demand and implementation of the sixth schedule of the Constitution had been major poll planks in the Hills at various times since the beginning of the protracted Gorkhaland movement in 1986.
This time, the issue has not found favour with the main opponents, the TMC and the BJP, and also the regional parties, the GJM and the GNLF, who are not in the fray but are nevertheless deciding factors in the Lok Sabha seat. Altogether 16 candidates are in the fray from Darjeeling, including TMC candidate Amar Singh Rai, who has the support of the Binay Tamang faction of the GJM and other smaller outfits in the Hills. Bisht and Singh are pitted against Saman Pathak of the CPI(M) and Shankar Malakar of the Congress.
Talking about his plans for development in the region, Bisht said, “I would work to ensure smooth implementation of NRC in the Hills to stop the demography from changing. People from outside have been settling down here, causing problems to the original residents.” While replying to the query on how he would tackle the anger directed against sitting BJP MP S S Ahluwalia, who was nowhere seen during the agitation in the Hills in 2017, Bisht praised the parliamentarian for his initiatives to bring about development of the region.
“This may have been exaggerated by the media. I have travelled across the length and breadth of Darjeeling; nowhere did I find people angry on the BJP. He might not have been present in the Hills, but he was wary of the situation. “As a parliamentarian, he has taken many initiatives to develop the region, but his efforts were stalled by the TMC government,” he said. Darjeeling had sent BJP leaders Jaswant Singh and Surinder Singh Ahluwalia to the Parliament in 2009 and 2014 respectively. This time, Ahluwalia is contesting from the Burdwan-Durgapur Lok Sabha seat in the state.
Asked about his reactions to people calling him an “outsider” in Darjeeling, Bisht said he was born and raised in Manipur, but that does not make him any less of a Gorkha. Bisht also reasoned that his wife hails from Siliguri. “I have been working for the people here for several years. Those who are making my place of origin an issue, I want to ask them what all have they done for the development of the Hills,” he said.
Bisht, whose victory would have been smooth had there been no split in the GJM, felt that the people of the hills still support Gurung as the leader of the regional party. The 104-day-long strike in the Hills over a separate statehood demand had led to a split in the GJM, with Binay Tamang, his deputy, taking over the reins with support from the TMC.
Gurung and his loyalists were expelled from the party soon after. “The fact is some people have left the GJM and joined the TMC, but people of the Hills are still with Bimal Gurung. Apart from that, we have the support of GNLF and other small hill parties. I am confident about my victory,” he said. Darjeeling, which goes to polls on April 18, is a picturesque hill town, ethnically dominated by the Gorkhas. The place, known for its world-class tea, is also inhabited by the Lepchas, the Sherpas and the Bhutias among other communities.