The indefinite shutdown convened by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, fighting for a separate Gorkhaland state in northern West Bengal, began in the Darjeeling Hills on Monday evening with a call from the party chief that people should stock up on food and essential supplies for 45 days.
"The shutdown has started. Our workers are picketing several roads," GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told IANS over phone.
Tea gardens, cinchona plantations and school and college examinations have been kept outside the purview of the shutdown, that started at 6 p.m.on Monday in the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling district - Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong.
Giri said GJM president Bimal Gurung has asked the people in the hills to stock up food and essential supplies that could last up to 45 days.
"But that does not mean that we are calling a 45-day shutdown. Ours is an indefinite agitation," he said.
The GJM has exempted the plains areas of the district - Silguri, Dooars and Terai - from the shutdown, but a conflict seemed to be brewing between the party and the administration over the GJM's decision to conduct relay hunger strikes in these areas.
"The administration is trying to scuttle the hunger strike by banning assembly of more than four people in parts of Siliguri and Dooars. We will not be cowed down by these moves," Giri said.
Siliguri sub-divisional officer Smita Pandey said with the prohibitory orders in force in three police station areas in and around Siliguri, "Nobody will be allowed to participate in hunger strike".
"And nobody has sought permission for us for any such agitation also," she said.
Earlier in the day, people rushed to stock up on supplies and trucks snaked up the hills to carry essentials in readiness for the shutdown.
As long queues formed outside shops, the GJM, which Sunday renewed the call for an indefinite shutdown, also stepped up calls for the resignation of state Urban Development Minister Ashok Bhattacharya.
The GJM president called Bhattacharya the mastermind behind the attacks on pro-Gorkhaland activists June 8 at Siliguri and the Dooars and stepped up calls for his arrest.
"The CPI-M men beat up our supporters and ransacked their homes. And they also instigated some Bengali-speaking outfits to attack our workers. We called the shutdown not only to press for a separate Gorkhaland state, but also to force the administration to arrest Bhattacharya and others involved in such atrocities," Gurung told IANS from Darjeeling.
Gurung said he would lead a delegation of his party's senior central committee members to New Delhi in the last week of June to brief top national leaders, including those from the main opposition parties, on their demand for Gorkhaland.
According to sub-divisional officer, Kalimpong, P.T. Sherpa, prices of essential commodities have shot up after the last shutdown following a supply shortage.
Senior police officers held a meeting in Darjeeling town on Sunday night to discuss security arrangements and ways to prevent any breach of peace during the agitation.
"We are monitoring the situation closely. We don't think there is any need to deploy the Central Reserve Police Force in the hills now," said Inspector General of Police (North Bengal) Kundan Lal Tamta.
The GJM had last week on Tuesday called for the indefinite shutdown in the hills, but given a 60-hour relaxation on Wednesday to enable thousands of stranded tourists reach the plains.
The party then deferred the agitation to Monday evening.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has called an all-party meeting in Kolkata on Tuesday to discuss the issue, but the GJM has been kept out of the deliberations.
The chief minister separately invited the GJM for a dialogue on June 18, but the hill party turned down his request and instead called for tripartite talks with the central and state governments.
With the Gorkhaland demand triggering violence in the Darjeeling Hills, Siliguri and the Dooars in the past few days, tea and tourism - the bread and butter of the region - has been severely hit.
The GJM has been leading the movement in the hills for a separate state, besides opposing the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling district that ensures greater autonomy to the district's governing body Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.