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What’s brewing in Darjeeling? Buzz in the hills as NSA Doval, Mamata & Himanta all visit

VIPs Make Beeline To Darjeeling As New Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Headed By Anit Thapa Takes Over Following Poll Victory. Bengal, Assam CMs Have 'courtesy' Meeting Over Tea.

West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar with Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma at Raj Bhavan in Darjeeling Wednesday | Twitter | @jdhankhar1

Kolkata: The Darjeeling hills are heating up, politically. From National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar — a host of VIPs reached the hills this month.

While Doval’s visit was said to be “personal”, the two CMs — who met over a tea party hosted by Dhankar Wednesday evening — cited different reasons. While Mamata said she was there to win the hearts of the people, Sarma said he had been invited by the governor to “experience the commonality and uniqueness of life” in Darjeeling. Their arrival coincided with the oath-taking ceremony of newly elected Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) chairman Anit Thapa.

Doval and his family landed at North Bengal’s Bagdogra airport on 2 July; he was received at the airport by the BJP’s Darjeeling MLA, Neeraj Zimba. The NSA and his family stayed at Makaibari tea estate near Kurseong for five days. On 4 July, Doval and his wife visited a primary school and spent time with students. While the NSA’s official engagements were not known, the tour came three days after the GTA election results and two months after Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s political rally in North Bengal’s Siliguri.

“Mr Doval was here on a personal trip. There were no talks held, either political or otherwise. He was spending time with his family,” Zimba told ThePrint.

In 2021, during a political rally in Darjeeling, Zimba had claimed Doval held two meetings with Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) president Mann Ghising during the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation

Darjeeling MP Raju Bista, however, claimed Doval’s visit was of national importance. “Darjeeling lies in the heart of the sensitive Chicken’s Neck region, so the Government of India has a natural interest in ensuring the wellbeing of the people from here. I believe the National Security Advisor would not be spending time in a region if it weren’t important from our national security perspective,” he told ThePrint.

Mamata’s second visit in 3 months

While en route to Darjeeling on 11 July, Mamata stepped out of her vehicle to wave the victory sign along with Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) chief Anit Thapa — the newly elected GTA chief executive. Taking part in the oath-taking ceremony, Mamata said she had called Thapa to Kolkata to discuss development projects with the chief secretary. Thapa had gone to Nabanna, the state secretariat, on 6 July to invite Mamata for the GTA oath taking ceremony. He also met Abhishek Banerjee, the second-in-command of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), at his office in Kolkata.

The GTA elections were held on 26 June, after a decade. It was a violence-free election, and the oath-taking ceremony held Tuesday saw Thapa share the stage with opposition leader Ajoy Edwards of Hamro Party.

Back in 2010, Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League president Madan Tamang was hacked to death in broad daylight, minutes before he was to address a political rally. At that time, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung was ruling the hills of North Bengal. The region has remained peaceful since, barring the Gorkhaland agitation in 2017.

Mamata, on stage during the oath-taking Tuesday, said she had invited her “friends” for the ceremony. She also remarked that she wasn’t in Darjeeling to capture power but to win hearts. This was her second visit to Darjeeling in three months.

The TMC has never won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, which comprises seven assembly segments — Matigara-Naxalbari, Siliguri, Chopra, Phansidewa (plains), Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong (hills). The BJP has been winning this seat since 2009.

“Our only aim is to ensure there is peace in the hills, I don’t want any confrontation. We will not come here to capture the hills but to win the hearts of the people. If the hills are peaceful, the economic progress of Darjeeling will rise,” Mamata said at the oath-taking ceremony. She announced a slew of development projects, including an industry hub that the West Bengal government plans to set up in the hills of North Bengal along with an IT-sector for employment of the youth.

“You see how peaceful Darjeeling is. But the BJP cannot fathom it. We welcome everyone to the hills, be it NSA Ajit Doval or CMs of BJP-ruled states. Even Bollywood is choosing Darjeeling. Kareena Kapoor Khan shot a film here,” TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh told ThePrint.

Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, meanwhile, arrived in Darjeeling on 13 July to administer the oath to GTA chairman Anit Thapa. In the evening, he sprang a surprise by inviting his guests for tea. Both the Assam and West Bengal chief ministers went to Raj Bhavan. “At the invitation of the Hon’ble Governor of West Bengal Shri Jagdeep Dhankar — visiting Darjeeling for a day. Looking forward to experiencing the commonality and uniqueness of life in the land famous for its tea — Darjeeling (sic),” Sarma tweeted.

Later, Mamata spoke to the media outside the Raj Bhavan. “There was no political discussion. How can we speak about presidential elections when our parties are different?” she said when asked if NDA candidate Droupadi Murmu’s name came up during the tête-à-tête.

“It’s important to keep the communication channel open. There are many Assamese in Bengal and many Bengalis in Assam. So if there’s ever a need, we should be able to pick up the phone and talk. That’s why it was a courtesy tea meeting,” she added.

The political implication

The Trinamool Congress’ ally, the GJM headed by Bimal Gurung, had opposed the GTA polls. Gurung sat on a hunger strike but failed to create any political ripples. With Gurung’s popularity diminishing, the Trinamool is said to be keen on keeping the new players — Thapa and Edwards — in good humour ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP and its allies including the GNLF, too, had boycotted the GTA elections.

Launched less than a year ago, BGPM clinched the GTA elections by winning 26 of the 45 seats and 45 per cent of the total vote share. For the first time, the Trinamool Congress won five seats in the GTA elections with a 5 per cent vote share. The Hamro Party and the Independent candidates registered 23 and 27 per cent vote shares, respectively.

But the BJP isn’t silently watching. With the twin visits of Doval and Sarma, the party and its ally GNLF are also at work in Darjeeling. BJP MP Raju Bista told ThePrint: “Anit Thapa has been working for the TMC since 2017 and perhaps even before. We have since then contested two elections — the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2021 Assembly election. The TMC was not only defeated, but also trounced.”

“The TMC could not even win a single assembly seat in Darjeeling, because people are aware of its discrimination, duplicity, and hypocrisy against the region and people. The BJP, the only national party in Darjeeling, is concerned about the welfare of the people from the region,” he said.

However, the TMC claimed that Mamata was always focussed on Darjeeling. “Mamata Banerjee doesn’t want to assert power in the hills. The TMC doesn’t want to fight other hill parties to capture power. She wants to ensure that the local parties who are emotionally connected to the Gorkhas rule while Trinamool will cooperate,” TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh told ThePrint.

“Mamata Banerjee’s only aim is to revive the economy in the hills of West Bengal. Ever since her days in the railway ministry, she’s remained focused. When no leader could go up to Darjeeling because of violence, Mamata used to. She has restored democracy in Darjeeling, and today that’s been proven,” he added.