On a damp monsoon afternoon in July, a clutch of children were playing cricket in a lane in a residential area in Siliguri. Usually fond of football, which is more popular in the Darjeeling hills from where they had come, they had just discovered the joys of gully cricket – one of the ways in which they were adjusting to their new lives in the North Bengal plains.

It has been more than a month now that these children moved here with their families as political refugees. They live in a community hall in the town. Their homes in the hills have been either razed to the ground or badly damaged. Their fault: their parents are supporters or leaders of Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in the state, not the right party to belong to in the Darjeeling hills in the current atmosphere. Since June 8, the hills have been reeling under a general strike in support of the demand for a separate state with sporadic violence claiming eight lives.

“Our supporters in the hills have been threatened and intimidated by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha,” said Goutam Deb, senior Trinamool Congress leader and state minister for tourism. The Morcha, the dominant party in the hills, has been spearheading the statehood movement for a decade now. “As many as 60 homes were either broken or set on fire,” said Deb. “More than 200 of them have come down to Siliguri fearing for their lives. Many landed here with nothing but just the clothes they were wearing. They are traumatised and fear for their safety. Students are not able to study and are worried about their future.”

As many as 137 people – including 16 children and 52 women – have been accommodated in the community hall, said Sanjay Tibrewal, a local Trinamool Congress leader who manages the “camp”, as the temporary accommodation is referred to. They have come from different parts of Darjeeling, including Bijanbari, Mirik and Kalimpong. Several other hill people are staying with relatives and friends in different parts of Siliguri.

As many as 10 children from the camp have been admitted to a school nearby; one is in a college. “Children are much stressed,” said Tibrewal. “They have come here with their fleeing parents. They have seen a lot for their age. They have seen their houses burn; they have seen a lot of violence.”

Calling the attacks “undemocratic”, Rajen Mukhia, president of the Darjeeling district hill Trinamool Congress asked: “What was the point in attacking us when no party in the hills, not even the hill TMC [Trinamool Congress], opposed the renewal of the Gorkhaland demand? After all, are we also not Gorkhas? What purpose does attacking your fellow brothers and sisters really serve if the fight is for a larger goal?”

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha dismissed the allegations of violence against it as baseless. “Our party has not been involved in any case of violence whatsoever,” said Rohit Sharma, the Morcha’s central committee member and Kurseong MLA. “This is a people’s movement and so many parties are involved in it. It is unfortunate that the Morcha gets the blame no matter who commits a crime. We have not intimidated or threatened anyone from another party. We condemn the violence.”

The ransacked and burnt Darjeeling office of Trinamool Congress. Photo credit: Passang Yolmo

Terror tales

Present in the community hall was a woman in her fifties. She and her husband were grassroots-level leaders of the Trinamool Congress from Bijanbari, near Darjeeling. She recalled her surprise at seeing her neighbours turn against her family in the third week of July. “Dinner was over and we were about to go to sleep,” she said. “Suddenly a huge crowd gathered at our house. They were armed with khukris and were hurling abuses at us. Some of the people in the crowd were our neighbours, people we had always known. I had never expected that they would ever turn against us like this, just because we support a different party.”

She said that her family of seven managed to escape from the back door as the crowd started sprinkling petrol all over. They joined some of their neighbours who were also being targeted for being Trinamool Congress supporters. The group trekked through forests for over 12 km to a place from where Trinamool leaders from the plains rescued them. “They burnt our whole house down. There is nothing remaining now,” said the woman.

A 23-year-old woman from the same village made her escape while in an advanced stage of pregnancy. She is now the mother of a two-week-old boy.

Two other women in their mid-30s joined the conversation with Scroll.in at the community hall office. Both belong to the same village. They said it is “near [Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief] Bimal Gurung’s village”, but did not want it to be identified.

“We are very few TMC [Trinamool Congress] supporters there. It will be easy to identify us the moment it is known where we are from,” said one of the women, who came to Siliguri with her family of five, including a 12-year-old mentally-challenged son. The woman said that several people came to her village and started threatening the families of Trinamool Congress supporters in the area “on the day Bimal Gurung’s house was raided by the West Bengal Police”.

“It began at around 4 pm and went on till night,” she said. “It was an endless evening. First there were only about 10 to 12 people who were only threatening and verbally abusing us. Then they came by the busloads, and in very little time brought down our semi-permanent house.”

The other woman said: “It was easy to identify our house – we had a TMC [Trinamool Congress] flag flying on top. It was easy to bring our house down – it was a kutcha house made of local materials [hay, bamboo and mud]. They broke it down with their khukris in no time and left. They did not spare a single TMC supporter’s home in our area.”

Around 10 pm that day, she and her family joined her neighbour who had met a similar fate, and left for Siliguri. “My mother is still there, staying at neighbour’s place,” said the woman. “I am worried about her.”

Mass exodus

As the Gorkhaland agitation broke out in the hills on June 8, several Trinamool Congress leaders resigned and many of the party’s leaders and droves of supporters switched overnight to the Gorkha National Liberation Front or the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. The Front had spearheaded a violent agitation in 1986, which brought about the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. The council was replaced by the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2011, after an agitation by the Morcha.

According to Rajen Mukhia’s estimates, more than 50,000 supporters have left the party out of fear and after being intimidated by members of the Morcha. “I was worried for my children, my old parents,” said a block-level leader from Kurseong, who resigned from the Trinamool Congress but has chosen to remain independent. “After all, I have to live here. I did not want to invite their wrath.”

TMC supporters join Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the presence of Bimal Gurung, the Morcha chief. Photo credit: Passang Yolmo

Siliguri saw a large number of political refugees during the agitation of the 1980s as well. During that agitation, hundreds were killed in clashes between members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which then ruled West Bengal, and the Gorkha Volunteer’s Cell, the militant arm of the Front. “We still have those memories, so we did not offer any resistance to the GJM [Gorkha Janmukti Morcha] attackers,” said Mukhia. “We don’t want a bloodbath.”

Trinamool Congress in the hills

The Trinamool Congress’ story in the hills is quite anti-climactic. Following Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s sustained efforts over the past five years, the party saw a sharp rise in its popularity in the hills, emerging as a credible opposition to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.

Less than a month before violence first broke out in the Darjeeling hills, the party made history when it won the Mirik Municipality in the civic elections held on May 14. It also managed to send one representative to the Darjeeling municipality and two to the Kalimpong municipality. With these victories, the Trinamool Congress became the first non-hill party to have an electoral win in the hills in over 30 years. The personal popularity of Mamata Banerjee was soaring.

However, the Trinamool Congress’ gains soon evaporated.

On May 15, West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee announced the government’s decision to make Bengali a compulsory paper in all schools, including in private English-medium schools, in the state. Though Banerjee later clarified that hill schools would be exempt from this rule, the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha had been handed an issue to take up. What began as a language protest soon snowballed into a full-fledged agitation in demand for a separate state.

“We did not see it coming,” said Trinamool Congress’ Deb. “Our reading of the situation was wrong. We couldn’t fathom the deep rooted conspiracy that was being cooked up.”

‘Want home’

Back at the camp, children and their parents were glued to a television for news of the unrest in Darjeeling. They wonder when peace will return to the hills so that they can go back home. “Will life ever be the same again,” asked the woman from Bijanbari whose neighbours had turned against her.

A little girl at the camp is now attending Class 1 at a local school. “I like it here. I have made a friend too,” she said. “But I also want to go back home…my home.”

This is the third part in a series on the turmoil in the Darjeeling hills. Read the first two parts here and here.