Both sides told journalists that tomorrow’s strike had been put off because the government was willing to allow meetings and rallies by the Joint Action Co-ordination Committee, which has the Morcha and the rebel faction of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad among its 26 constituents. The committee wants the Dooars and the Terai to come under the jurisdiction of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA).
The government said strikes were not welcome as they hampered economic growth but said other form of protests like rallies could be held. It also agreed to ask garden owners in the Dooars and Terai to declare a holiday on Karam, a tribal festival held in September-October.
“We were not being allowed to conduct meetings and rallies even in areas where we command strong support. That was not acceptable to us. The government has agreed to let us conduct such programmes in areas we dominate. That is primarily why we are deferring the strike,” said Sukra Munda, an adivasi leader who led the delegation that met north Bengal development minister Gautam Deb at the Writers’ Buildings today.
The Darjeeling administration had refused to give permission to the committee to hold a meeting in the Hanskhowa tea garden on Saturday. Two of its processions were also stopped by police on Sunday near Siliguri, one at Bagdogra and the other near the Bhaktinagar.
The committee had called the strike in response to a two-day shutdown announced by a forum of outfits on April 10 and 11 to protest the demand to bring the Terai and Dooars under the GTA. However, the anti-GTA forum scaled down the strike to one day (April 10) at the request of industries minister Partha Chatterjee.
“We have told the government that the inclusion of the Dooars and Terai in the GTA is our primary demand for the long overdue development of the region. But we were told that the government would have to wait for the high-powered committee’s recommendations according to the GTA agreement,” said Munda.
Minister Deb later said the government was in “no position” to make any commitments till the high-powered panel set up to look into the territorial demand submitted its recommendations.
“Under the terms of the GTA agreement and Act, the government cannot make promises,” said Deb.
The forum was also “pleased” with the government’s decision to ask tea garden owners to allow a day’s leave for Karam festival in north Bengal.
“It’s an important festival there and we are going to ask tea garden owners to declare it a holiday. There shouldn’t be a problem,” said Deb. Till now, a day’s wage was deducted if garden labourers skipped work on Karam.
The minister added that the government was “really keen” on doing away with strikes as they hampered work on development projects. Tea planters and tour operators had appealed to the government to intervene when the two rival outfits declared almost back-to-back bandhs stretching to 96 hours.
More than 2 lakh tourists are expected in north Bengal, which includes the Darjeeling hills and the Dooars and Terai, and Sikkim in the next two months, a tour operator had said earlier.
“We cannot have disruptive activities in the region. We are going to dissuade every organisation from calling strikes. A disruption-free environment is imperative for the long overdue economic growth of the region,” said Deb.
“They can hold rallies and meetings as forms of protests but not any disruptive activities,” added the minister.
The committee’s rivals, however, claimed today that fear of retaliation by the common people and the absence of a support base prompted the Barla group to withdraw their strike.
“The meeting with the state government acted as face-saver for those who had called the 48-hour strike starting tomorrow. They tried to imitate us but forgot that they lack the minimum support base in the Dooars and Terai, where people are vehemently against the inclusion of even an inch of land in the GTA,” said Birsa Tirkey, the state president of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Parishad that has expelled Barla.