In his home in eastern Bhutan, Thukten Wangchuk constantly fiddles with his smartphone, checking for news and social media updates about the situation in Darjeeling, where an indefinite shutdown in demand of a separate state of Gorkhaland has been in effect for close to a month now.
The 20-year-old – a final-year Bachelor of Business Administration student at Kalimpong Government College, located in Kalimpong town of this hill district in West Bengal – returned home on June 22. He was among hundreds of Bhutanese nationals, most of them students and Buddhist monks, to be evacuated from Darjeeling by Bhutan and Indian government officials after the Gorkhaland movement turned violent in mid-June, resulting in the death of three protestors in police firing.
Wangchuk does not know when he will be able to return to college, or if he wants to risk going back to such a volatile situation. He has heard from friends that the strike may be lifted by July 17, but there is no confirmation of it. “I have mixed feelings right now,” he told Scroll.in. “I want to return to college and continue my studies, but fear what if the situation worsens on our arrival.”
This is the dilemma facing the large community of Bhutanese students who attend boarding schools and colleges in the Darjeeling Hills.
Stranded without money, food
As the shutdown continued, many of these students, living away from home and in rented accommodation, ran short of food and money as shops and ATMs remained shut. With no transport available, they could not leave the hills.
“Everything was closed down and no place looked safe,” recalled Kinley Yangchen, a student of Rockvale Management College, a private institute in Kalimpong. The 21-year-old – who is also back home in Bhutan now – said she and her friends knocked on the doors of shops, requesting them to sell them food on the sly.
An internet shutdown made matters worse. “Our fear started to grow when both the internet and mobile networks went down, and we could not even contact our parents and the government,” she said.
Finally, over a week later, Indian government officials put the stranded students on buses and sent them to Siliguri, a town in North Bengal in the foothills of Darjeeling, under security escort. In Siliguri, they were handed over to Bhutan government officials and were escorted by Indian police personnel to Phuenthsholing, a town in Bhutan on the border with India. “We were overjoyed to see our country gate and representatives from the office of the Bhutan king waiting to receive us,” said Yangchen.
Another student who made the journey home added, “Our government paid the bus fares for everyone and arranged food for us.”
‘What of our studies?’
Safe at home, Yangden, who attends a private college in Darjeeling, said, “I like being here with my parents, but I am also worried about my studies as well as my future. If the Darjeeling row prolongs, it will affect many of us.”
This is Kinley Yangchen’s biggest worry too. With just a year and a half of her four-year tourism management course left, she said, “I could neither leave the course nor return to college in this situation.”
When the trouble started, Yangchen was in the middle of her exams. “Initially, we assumed the strike would end in a few days, like they do all the time in India, but when it continued for many days, we were stuck with fear,” she said, adding that she was lucky to complete her exams.
A lack of education opportunities at home drives thousands of Bhutanese students to Darjeeling – which borders not only Bhutan but also Nepal and Bangladesh – every year. While the majority of them hear of Darjeeling’s schools and colleges from education fairs or consultancies in Thimphu, many go by the recommendations of friends and seniors.
Thukten Wangchuk said he had heard of the Kalimpong Government College from his seniors in school and decided to give it a try. An affordable tuition fee of Rs 13,000 to Rs 16,000 clinched the deal. Wangchuk also said he considered Darjeeling among the safer places in India.
Yangchen has been studying in Kalimpong since she completed her Class 10 in Bhutan. Since she, like Yangden, attends a private college, she pay a higher tuition fee of over Rs 24,000.
But now the unrest in the hills, which shows no sign of abating, has put a question mark on their studies, at least for the near future.