Late night, sometime in the hours before dawn, Rajen Lama* of Kurseong, a town in the West Bengal’s mountainous Darjeeling district, drives down to Siliguri, about 35 km away in the foothills.

The first thing he buys when the shops open is formula milk. Next, he picks up some vegetables and rations for his family and neighbours. Then, he waits for the darkness to come.

For 45 days now, an indefinite general strike in the Darjeeling hills in support of the demand for a separate state called Gorkhaland has crippled normal life. The strike, called initially by the dominant hill party, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, and later endorsed by the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee, a newly formed consortium of 14 hill parties, shows no sign of ending.

During the day, pro-Gorkhaland picketers restrict travel in the hills, while in the plains, the Bengal police reportedly check vehicles and disallow those carrying food to travel uphill. Many pro-Gorkhaland leaders have accused the Bengal government of blocking the supply of essentials to the hills.

“My brother’s eight month old baby does not breast feed and is dependent on formula,” said Lama, who drives a taxi for a living. “With everything closed here, we are forced to travel to Siliguri to get the baby food in the dark of the night.”

Lama has been out of work for 38 days now. “There’s no money at home,” he said. “Sisters and other relatives are helping, but for how long will they be able to do that?”

Expressing his frustration at the strike, Lama said: “Who is suffering? Us. No one in Delhi or Kolkata is suffering. It is us, our people who are suffering.” But in the same vein, he added: “The dream of Gorkhaland has always been lodged inside me. I support the movement. The loss in income that I have suffered and the problems that I am facing because of the strike – these are my contributions to the movement.”

Lama’s is not an isolated story. The ordeal notwithstanding, the general strike enjoys popular support. For most people in the hills, this is the “last fight” for Gorkhaland and they are ready to stake everything for it.

Food shortages

Sandhya Mukhiya*, a homemaker in Kalimpong, panics every time she sees her shrinking sack of rice. “Let’s hope there is a solution before the sack gets empty,” she said. She had stocked up two sacks of rice before the strike began. Vegetables – mainly squash and pumpkin shoots – have been coming from her kitchen garden.

Not everyone is as lucky. With food shortages in the hills becoming severe with every passing day, many people, especially in the far-flung villages, are forced to make long treks to forage for bamboo shoots and ferns in the forest. While there are reports of opportunists selling foodstuff at exorbitant prices, there are also instances of social and political organisations distributing ration for free. But these are far from enough.

In the absence of transport because of the shutdown, people trudge long distances with vegetables balanced on their heads. Photo Credit: Passang Yolmo.

Mandira Sarki of Kurseong is desperately waiting for news of the next free ration distribution. She just heard that local leaders will bring supplies for the needy in her area soon. She cannot afford to miss it. Her husband who makes a living by painting homes has been out of job for almost 45 days and her family of three, including a 12-year-old son, have long exhausted the three kilos of rice distributed two weeks ago. The last time the family had a proper meal was “sometime in early June”, before Darjeeling hills plunged into political turmoil that has resulted in eight deaths so far.

“We have been managing somehow with loans and aid from neighbours and friends,” she said. “Food is mostly rice and some vegetables.” Forget the occasional meat and fish, their menu has long done away with “extras” like tomato, onion, ginger, garlic. “My only indulgence is the cooking oil, which I use very, very sparingly.”

Despite the hardship, Sarki is steadfast in her support for the strike. “Nothing short of Land,” she said, using the short-form of Gorkhaland that is commonly used in the hills. “No other compromise. They can withdraw this strike only when there is pukka news of Gorkhaland.”

The last fight?

On July 18, the fourth meeting of the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee was held in Kalimpong, with hundreds of people waiting outside the venue. After the meeting, Kalyan Dewan, the coordinator, announced the committee’s decision to continue with the strike, saying it was in respect of “people’s sentiments”.

“The leaders were under tremendous pressure,” said a reporter covering the event. “They could not decide otherwise. The people gathered there, and the general public elsewhere, would not allow them to withdraw the strike without any concrete achievement.”

The demand for a separate Gorkhaland state, comprising parts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts of West Bengal, has been a long-standing one. In the 1980s, the firebrand Subhash Ghisingh and his party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, led a violent movement that had culminated in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988. In 2007, he was ousted by his protégé Bimal Gurung, who floated his own Gorkha Janamukti Morcha party to launch another agitation that saw the formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2011. It had greater powers than the Council, but people say it has failed to achieve its stated goal of development.

Not that the demand for a separate state centres around development alone. Nepali-speakers of Indian origin, commonly referred to as Gorkhas, have never taken kindly to them being mixed up with Nepali-origin people. Those living in the Darjeeling hills find little in common with the Bengali-speaking majority of the plains. While most Bengalis oppose Gorkhaland, their cultural hegemony has come in the way of integrating hill people with the mainstream. Preference of Bengali over other languages has led to systemic exclusion of Nepali-speakers from government jobs, especially at the high levels. The recent salvo came in the form of a state government proposal to make Bengali a compulsory paper in government-run schools, including in the Nepali-dominated hills. Though the hills have now been exempted from the government’s plan, the announcement ended up fuelling a full-fledged agitation for a separate state.

Gorkhaland is every Gorkha’s dream, said Lama: “It is the question of our identity in India, our development.” For Sarki, Gorkhaland is the means to a better future for the next generation. “I dream of a better future for my son. I am hopeful that a separate state will make lives better for our children.”

What if, say, an empowered Gorkhaland Territorial Administration or something else on those lines is offered and the leaders accept it? This question only evokes anger. “Etti sajilo? [Is it that easy?],” quipped Sarki’s friend, who accompanies her to the daily demonstrations that continue to be held in the town. “The janata will not let that happen. This time there is no way for the leaders to get away like in the past,” she said.

Sarki pointed out that people gather on the streets even when it rains heavily. “And they are not party supporters alone. Many people who do not support any political party also come to the mass meetings,” she said. Despite a ban on internet and local cable television, messages continue to spread through word of mouth, and sometimes through posters and text messages.

Her friend emphasised: “We are ready to make all sacrifices, do everything for this antim yuddha [ultimate fight]. The people, the janata, will get Gorkhaland.”

People clog Darjeeling roads amid heavy rain to listen to the outcome of the second all-party meeting held at the Darjeeling Gymkhana Club on June 29. Photo Credit: Passang Yolmo.

‘It’s different this time’

A common refrain in the hills is: “This time it is different.”

Miriam Wenner, senior research and teaching associate at the Georg-August-Universitat Gottingen, Germany, whose PhD research on the statehood movement was published in 2016, explained the difference. “Both Subhash Ghisingh and Bimal Gurung tried to project the party-political movements of their times as mass movements, but they were hardly so,” she said. “Each were guided by their political goals, and each tried to set up semi-authoritarian regime, and instead of people’s movement they become a platform of different interests. Not surprisingly, the movements achieved nothing worth the while.”

She added: “This time, there might be something different in that a lot of apolitical people’s voices are being heard. The civil society is very active. This, despite the lack of leadership in the hills.”

Politicians are only too aware of it. “This movement is now a people’s movement, not a party’s movement,” said Harka Bahadur Chhetri, president of the Jan Andolan Party who was earlier with the Morcha. “This movement has for the first time emotionally integrated the people of Gorkha origin all over the world.”

Said Neeraj Zimba Tamang, legal advisor and spokesperson of the Gorkha National Liberation Front and a legal cell member of the Morcha: “The people are the leader. It is the movement of the people. Leaders are in fact very scared” of the public.

“This is our final match,” said a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post by CK Kumai, a self-employed man originally from Kalimpong and now a resident of Sikkim. The post sums up the current mood in the hills. “We lost the first match due to a suicide goal,” Kumai said, referring to Ghisingh’s acceptance of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988. “We lost the semi-final to match-fixing,” he continued, referring to Gurung’s signing on the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration deal in 2011. “We’ve got this chance to play in the final. If we lose this match we will never get such a golden opportunity.”

The post concluded on a note of optimism: “We shall win the match. This time the match-fixers stand no chance.”

*Names changed on request to protect identity.

This is the first part in a series on the turmoil in the Darjeeling hills.