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Darjeeling unrest: 50 days on, no end to protest demanding Gorkhaland

In this period, 87 tea gardens that produce some of the world’s most aromatic and expensive tea have also shut down, rendering thousands of impoverished workers unemployed.

india Updated: Aug 03, 2017 07:04 IST
Pramod Giri
Pramod Giri
Hindustan Times, Siliguri/Darjeeling
Gorkhaland supporters take part in a mass rally at Mirik in Darjeeling.(PTI Photo)

No tourists. No internet. Dwindling food supplies and scores of shops and buildings gutted.

A prolonged strike fuelled by a statehood demand has crippled Darjeeling and other parts of the north Bengal hills since June, flushing out thousands of tourists and devastating the local economy.

Thursday marks 50 days since the strike began but no political rapprochement appears in sight: The agitators are steadfast on their demand to carve out a separate state of Gorkhaland, the state government has ruled out any concessions. Caught in the middle are the locals and the “Queen of the Hills” that now resembles a ghost town.

“This is the longest spell of shutdown in the country and must be one of the longest in the world,” remarked Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) general secretary Roshan Giri.

In this period, 87 tea gardens that produce some of the world’s most aromatic and expensive tea have also shut down, rendering thousands of impoverished workers unemployed.

Government and private properties worth crores have been burnt and vandalised. This includes vehicles, office buildings, tourist lodges, two railway stations of the Unesco world heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and five hydro power generation projects.

Daily loss at the hydel projects is estimated at about Rs 3 crore while that in public property damage is pegged at Rs 15 crore. The strike has also nearly exhausted ration and fuel supplies in the hills as poor people are forced to forage for food. Local television channels are off the air.

The unrest began in June when the government made Bengali compulsory in state schools, including in the hills – setting off a fierce round of protests that turned violent on June 15 when police raided the office of GJM chief Bimal Gurung. Eight deaths and dozens of injuries later, there is no end in sight.

Experts point out the Gorkhaland demand is more than a century old and long shutdowns aren’t unheard of -- a 40-day one in 1988 and a 44-day one in 2013. But both offered short breathers for locals to shop for essentials. There has been no such reprieve this time.

“During the 40-day strike in 1988, there was no unity among the people and the police were successful in making arrests. But this time the hill people are united. The administration has failed and people are freely taking out rallies and organising demonstrations,” said Binay Tamang, assistant general secretary of GJM, the principal force in the north Bengal hills.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has already alleged that the agitators have links with insurgents from the North East and even foreign countries. She has also blamed BJP for instigating the movement.

Many others fear the violence could swiftly take a turn for the worse. “The movement has all the potential to surpass the violence of the eighties unless the centre intervenes and find out a solution,” said Rudra Newar (name changed), a resident of Kurseong who was arrested twice in 1986 and 1988. More than 1,200 people died in the 28-month-long agitation between 1986 and 1988.

The BJP holds the local parliamentary seat but the central government has shown no signs of brokering peace. As for the state government, it has stuck to its stand of blaming the agitators. “It’s not the people of the hills who are creating trouble. Some political leaders are bringing in goons from outside to create law and order problems there,” Banerjee said on Tuesday.

First Published: Aug 03, 2017 07:04 IST