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Darjeeling protests: As Gorkha Janmukti Morcha agitators advanced menacingly, we hid, switched off phones | First person account

The demand for a separate Gorkhaland state turned violent in Darjeeling on Saturday. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee attacked the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha for fuelling the clashes.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2017 07:57 IST
Bikram Sashanker
Bikram Sashanker
Hindustan Times, Darjeeling
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha,Darjeeling,‪Gorkhaland
A supporter of the separatist Gorkha Janmukti Morcha fires a slingshot during clashes with security forces in Darjeeling on Saturday. (AFP)

It was around 11 in the morning on Thursday when I reached the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) office at Singamari, about 2.5 km from Darjeeling. Hundreds of party supporters from nearby areas had gathered for a march to Patlaybas, about 3 km downhill which houses the office of GJM president Bimal Gurung.

The GJM’s agitation had intensified over the past week, starting as a protest over alleged imposition of Bengali in schools and later scaled up to revive the old demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.

Violence had been raging in Bengal’s hills since June 8 and angry protesters were torching government buildings and vehicles across the picturesque region, a semi-autonomous administrative set-up called the Gorkha Territorial Council.

But there was no loss of lives. Till Thursday.

It was stones and bottles versus lathis, tear gas shells and guns in Darjeeling on Saturday. (Bikram Sashanker/HT )

As the protesters gathered, police set up barricades to stop them. Armed security personnel, including CRPF and RAF, were ready on the other side of the barricades.

The agitated GJM supporters were shouting pro-Gorkhaland slogans.

The clashes broke out soon after, as stones began raining down on the forces. Then there were bottles.

The police retaliated with tear gas shells, and when the crowd dispersed, they started wielding the sticks.

A tear gas shell landed near me. My eyes were stinging from the fumes. I was in a group of reporters, photographers and journalists covering the unrest.

But as the agitators were advancing menacingly, we knocked at the door of a nearby house, and even as a woman opened the gate, we barged in without even asking for her permission.

We went inside a room, put our phones on silent mode and kept quiet. We could hear the sounds of the the battle raging outside. We could also hear sounds of gunfire.

Soldiers patrol near a burning vehicle after clashes with supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in Darjeeling on Saturday. (AFP)

We later heard how the GJM supporters, who were in an advantageous spot, targeted security forces with missiles relentlessly from a higher level. The security personnel were forced to fall back, though they kept on firing tea gas shells.

The sight of forces retreating encouraged the agitators to torch a police vehicle parked near the Singamari outpost.

The situation soon went out of control and the forces retreated. I saw some women police personnel crying.

We could come out of the house only after army personnel reached the spot. The GJM claimed four supporters were killed in police firing.

Blood, it appears, is flowing again in the hills; which would have been otherwise buzzing with tourists savouring the serenity of one of India’s most popular hill stations.

(The writer is a photojournalist based in Siliguri)

First Published: Jun 17, 2017 18:05 IST