Siliguri, in Darjeeling district, is West Bengal’s third-largest city. Strategically located at the foot of the Himalayas, it functions as a node for tourists to the hill stations of Darjeeling town, Kalimpong and Gangtok in Sikkim.
For the past week, however, Siluguri, along with the rest of North Bengal, is suffering as a consequence of the latest agitation for Gorkhaland in the districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The violent agitation was launched by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, a Darjeeling-based political party, after the state government made the teaching of Bengali compulsory across the state. Although Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee later clarified that the Bengali teaching rule will not apply to the hills, the GJM continued its agitation, declaring an indefinite hartal, which entered its fifth day on Monday.
The party has claimed that three of its supporters have been killed in clashes with the Army, paramilitary forces and the state police. On her part, the chief minister upped the ante by claiming – without producing any proof – that the GJM has “connections with insurgent groups of the North East”.
Bijay Sahni is a taxi driver who ferries tourists between Siliguri and Darjeeling, Gangtok and Kalimpong. For the past week, however, he has been without work. “It is too dangerous to drive to Darjeeling,” Sahni said. “It is better to wait it out. The GJM protestors don’t look. They will first break my car and then break me.”
Outside the Tenzing Norgay Bus Stand in the city, taxi drivers without work mill around. Inside, Arun Tamang waits on a bench frustrated that even the state-run buses have stopped plying. “For three days now, I have been coming to the bus stand and going back,” Tamang said. A waiter at a restaurant in Darjeeling, Tamang is staying in a cheap hotel and each day here costs him a substantial amount of money.
At Siliguri’s famous street food point Momo Gali, Subrata Das is frying momos in a thick soya sauce. “My business has dropped by 40% after they started this hartal,” Das said, shovelling the Chilli Momos into a takeaway bag. “So many of our customers are tourists passing through from Kolkata to Darjeeling. That has completely stopped.”
Das pointed to the mostly empty Momo Gali and said, “Normally you wouldn’t get a place to stand here. But today, look at it.”
No tourists, no business
At the nearby Hong Kong Market, named so because it once traded in electronics smuggled from South East Asia, Tapan Roy runs a shop selling women’s clothing, now empty. “This agitation has killed our business,” said Roy. “I hardly sold anything yesterday and we don’t even know when it will end, meaning tourists will keep away for a long time.”
Arun Das, who drives an auto in Silguri town, is also seeing a lean run. “We depend on tourists for livelihood,” he said. “What is Siliguri without Darjeeling? This hartal has been harsh on me.”
Tai Wah, one of Siliguri’s most famous restaurants, is empty during lunchtime on Monday. Patrick Fan, the proprietor, blamed the Gorkhaland strike. “The strike means Darjeeling residents who come down to Siliguri to shop, or for medical reasons cannot make it anymore,” Fan explained. “They are our main customers. So, business has taken a hit.”
Fan is apprehensive about the agitation. “We know how bad it got in the ’80s,” he said, referring to the first agitation in the 1980s. “A new agitation will be bad for the restaurant business, for sure.”