Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

An Essay written to make sense of the situation in Darjeeling after the grusome daylight murder of an opposition leader Madan Tamnag. It was first published in Sikkim Now, a english daily published from Gangtok, Sikkim on 26th May 2010. The essay is also available at Darjeeling Times .

Photo from Outlook India

It has been four days since the assassination of the All India Gorkha League (AIGL) President Madan Tamang. There have been some developments in the Darjeeling hills which are being interpreted as anti-Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) mood by commentators. The candle light vigil, the mass of people who joined the funeral procession are but welcome signs of a civil society that has been shaken awake.

In the opinion of this commentator, it would be pre-mature to read more into these developments as they are a result of the shock and dismay at the barbarism of the act. As much as all discerning observers wish to see such developments, it would be recommended that one wait for the dust to settle to see the evolving situation.

There are many ways in which the situation in Darjeeling could evolve. One is the path of escalation. With the naming of GJM leaders in the First Information Report (FIR), the resignation of the ‘intellectuals’ and the general resistance of the common folk, a cornered GJM would make efforts to raise the bogey of the ‘threat’ to Gorkhaland, the ‘West Bengal government to gain’ conspiracy to reiterate their relevance and spread rumors, conspiracy theories which thrive in a charged context. And the observed lack of any alternative leadership being thrown up either by the opposition or from within the GJM ranks will prompt the GJM to regain the lost space. This trajectory might result in violence due to resistance by the police, people and the opposition parties.

The other option is that the confusion and the dissociation in the GJM ranks, over the allegations of the brutal slaying of the AIGL President, sinks the party. In such a situation, the Gorkhaland movement would need time to re-group and build momentum. The United Front of opposition parties can take leadership to capture the momentum and take it forward. But these are all estimations which might fall short owing to the sheer complexity and unpredictability associated with human affairs and the number of actors involved in the conflict. However, there are a number of lessons to be learnt from the developments and dynamics of the past three years of the GJM led movement.

The vital issue over which the tensions in the hills were raising is over the leadership of the movement. When the talks continue, who will be at the table? This is a key issue and has determined the trajectory of GJM’s politics in the past three years, with their exile of Ghising and then the efforts at brow-beating AIGL. In simple terms, the GJM is unwilling to share the leadership of a movement they had captured with their imagination and fortitude. But what is also true is that the GJM’s claims to represent the people of Darjeeling is a trifle doubtful having never participated in the electoral process. If there was one party which could claim such legitimacy it is the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which will of course not be acceptable to most of the people of Darjeeling. In such a situation, it makes sense to have an all party group participate in the talks, which was exactly the point being made by Madan Tamang repeatedly.

The heart of the matter for those grieved by the turn of events for the fate of Gorkhaland should not be the lost time or momentum. The crux of the matter should be about the inability of the leaders to come together and form a united front for achieving the goal of statehood and to achieve the objectives without giving into the politics of violence. It has been observed all over the world, that movements which are violent, intolerant of dissent and undemocratic, practice the same politics after their aims have been achieved. The struggle mode of dictatorial politics is explained away by the non-negotiable nature of their aims of ‘independence’, ‘identity’ or statehood in this case. But it is difficult to imagine a social group or organization to turn a new leaf after they have achieved their objectives and they continue to not let go of power. These are the reasons why methods of struggle become vital as they create a culture which becomes institutionalized.

The legitimacy of a movement is also judged on their means and methods of struggle. In both instances 1986-1988 and the current phase, the Gorkhaland movement falls short in terms of democratic modes of struggle and the GNLF was accused of intolerant politics and we see the same with the GJM. While the GJM led movement carried out their struggle via ‘Gandhian’ methods, there were enough bursts of violence against the dissenting, social ostracization (of GNLF members) and consistent use of threats. The diktats on traditional attire, the harassment and browbeating of the Naari and the Vidyarthi Morcha, the school students on hunger strikes were a few examples where the GJM was treading the fine line between people’s support which was voluntary or support gained by the fear of reprisals. The illegal alcohol ban also falls into the same category of controversial methods. It is tempting to compare, rhetorically, these methods which are meant to invoke the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement but they fall flat owing to their vigilante imposition. There might have been a delicate balance on some issues where the party could claim a certain level of people’s consent but the case of the Gorkhaland Personal (GLP) was an outright case of holding out the threat of violence to those who disagreed or did not toe the GJM line. The GLP is illegal and threatening despite the GJM claims of innocence.

It was the success of the GJM owing to people’s support which turned the party into their arrogant posturing. It was the people’s tolerance and connivance at the earlier instances of coercion which brought the matter to such an impasse. As has been mentioned before, journalists and intellectuals ceased to be non-partisan participants and became sloganeers for the GJM. This is where Shri Madan Tamang became very important through the course of the struggle, as the sane voice, fighting for democratic space, speaking for his right to disagree despite GJM efforts to hound and scare him away from the hills as was done to the GNLF leadership.

In the headiness of the movement, a number of issues started fading as people became short sighted and the logic suggests that such sacrifices are necessary to achieve their aims. One need not be a puritan for non-violent methods to sense the coercive undertones of the supposed ‘Gandhian’ demeanor. There are other greater sacrifices that a movement aims to achieve in its struggle rather than the ones forsaken by civil society in the hills. One is reminded of Gandhi’s tolerance of his critics, Ambedkar, Jinnah without resorting to the sort of tactics the GJM indulged in and Gandhi also called off the Non-cooperation movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura. However, to expect such bravado from the leaders our societies throws up in these times, maybe a trifle too high a moral. In order to take lessons from the recent events, it is of foremost importance that no group, organization seeks to banish and exile the GJM leadership. It is a matter of the law and order agencies to pursue that agenda, which of course, is not the most reliable option. However, it goes without saying that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. To expect the rule of law to function, we need to respect the rule of law and amidst the events in the past three years during the GJM led agitation, none of us even bothered to raise question regarding the rule of law. Shri Madan Tamang was a victim of such an anarchic context.

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