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Gorkhaland stir: Bengalis of Darjeeling feel alienated after burning of historic hall in Kurseong

The Raj Rajeswari Hall was the permanent venue of the town’s only Durga Puja, which was once patronised by the families of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2017 11:06 IST
Pramod Giri
Pramod Giri
Hindustan Times, Siliguri
Gorkhaland movement,Darjeeling hills,Subhas Chandra Bose
Charred remains of historic Raj Rajeswari Hall in Kurseong, the permanent venue of the town’s only Durga Puja that was once patronised by families of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore(HT PHoto )

Arun Mohan Ghosh, secretary of the Kurseong Bengali Association, attended all the rallies Gorkhaland supporters had organised in the hill town until Tuesday.

But burning of a community hall later that night deeply affected Ghosh and the town’s dwindling Bengali population, who for the first time now feel alienated.

The 87-year-old stone and wood structure was the symbol of their presence in the Darjeeling hills and was the permanent venue of the town’s only Durga Puja, most important festival of the Hindu Bengalis. It’s now reduced to ashes.

The puja was once patronised by the families of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose and poet Rabindranath Tagore and it had turned 100 last year.

For residents of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, arson and violence have been a part of life ever since Gorkha National Liberation Front founder Subash Ghising launched a movement in the mid-80s to take forward the century-old demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

Durga Puja celebration in Raj Rajeswari Hall (HT File Photo )

“I felt so bad that I stopped attending pro-Gorkhaland programmes,” said Ghosh who, like other residents of Kurseong, never missed a rally. He was just echoing the general feeling of the community.

Although a number of British-era buildings were vandalised or gutted in these 35 years, the Raj Rajeswari Hall was never touched by anyone. Its destruction this week was apparently a message to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. She wanted to see the single-storey structure restored and even sanctioned Rs 40 lakh for the job.

“Renovation of the hall was going on in full swing. Nearly 40 percent of the job was done when the bandh started on June 15. The work got stalled,” said Ghosh.

The Bengali Association was formed in 1908 and the Durga puja was started by its members in 1915. The association wanted a permanent venue for the puja and the help came from an unexpected source.

Rai Bahadur Sashi Bhusan Dey, a rich zamindar, had set up a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Kurseong in memory of his son who died of the disease. When the Rai Bahadur visited Kurseong, local Bengalis sought his help. A philanthropist, he built the Raj Rajeshwari Hall in 1930. A conventional pandal were never again needed for the puja.

Last year, the association decided to have a theme for the puja for the first time to mark the centenary celebration. Mahishasura, the demon goddess Durga slayed, was made out of plastic carry bags to spread awareness about the effects of the chemicals on the fragile ecology of the hills.

The biggest hurdle the puja organisers faced in recent years was lack of manpower as Bengalis now have a minuscule presence in the Darjeeling hills.

“There was a time when families of eminent Bengalis such as Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, music composer Salil Chowdury and thespian Shombhu Mitra were associated with this Puja. All these families once had houses and bungalows in Kurseong,” said Ghosh.

Shanta Chhetri, former Kurseong MLA and Trinamool leader said, “Raj Rajeswari Hall was a heritage property. Its destruction is a huge loss for all the people of Kurseong. The government sanctioned fund for its renovation after I took the initiative. Now it’s gone.” lamented Chhetri.

Dr Sekhar Chakraborty, a physician based in Siliguri said, “Nobody can accept this kind of arson. The hall was a legacy. No sane person from any community will support this.”

First Published: Jul 23, 2017 11:06 IST