“Do we have the travel passes? Will there be trouble on the way?” I asked my brother-in-law as I boarded the Toyota Innova taxi outside Bagdogra airport, in the foothills of Darjeeling, on July 29, minutes after flying in from Delhi. I was headed home and my heart was heavy – my maternal uncle, who had regaled me with stories of thieves and ghosts through my childhood, had died the day before. But it wasn’t just sadness that weigned heavy on me: there was the worry of going back to a place where an often violent agitation raged for a separate state of Gorkhaland.
My fear grew as my brother-in-law, there to pick me up, told me of a clash between pro-Gorkhaland agitators and security forces in Sukna, a village in the plains on the way to the hills. There were rumours that three protestors had been shot, that the violence was spreading to the lowlands. I was reassured somewhat when the driver – who agreed to ferry us only because he knew my family – said he would take a detour to avoid Sukna.
“And we have these,” said my brother-in-law, holding up the all-important passes for travel in and out of Darjeeling, where a shutdown that began in mid-June is closing in on 70 days.
Over a month ago, the strike and the internet ban that followed had forced me to cut my trip to Darjeeling short as I was unable to do my work as a copy editor for Scroll.in. I had fought my way onto a crowded state bus (which no longer runs) and reached the plains of Siliguri – the gateway to the rest of the country – after a 12-hour journey that usually takes less than three hours.
This time round, we had four travel passes to Darjeeling – one issued in Siliguri by a leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which runs the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration hills and is leading the agitation, another from the municipal councillor of the area where I live in the hills, a third from the president of the neighbourhood society, and the fourth from our parish priest. These had the names of all those traveling, including my sister and niece who had taken the flight from Delhi with me, and my cousin whom we picked up from Siliguri, where he is a university student.
For added protection, a large hand-written note pasted on the rear window read “funeral”, while a white khada (white scarf used in weddings and funerals) fluttered from a rear-view mirror.
We set off, looking out for picketers on the road. Halfway through the journey, as we neared Kurseong town, we were stopped by a truckful of angry looking men – they carried khukris, knives and even a Bhutanese short sword. Close to 10 of them got off the pick-up truck and surrounded our car. One menacingly drew out a match box. “You shouldn’t be out and about,” he said. “Maybe we should set fire to the car.” Another tied a khada around the driver’s neck. “Is this the time to be plying your taxi and making money?” he asked, his hands slowly tightening the scarf around the driver’s neck. When the driver said we were a funeral party, he replied, “Then use a private car.”
My brother-in-law silently offered the passes to the men. “This is all in English,” one of them complained. But to our relief, another remarked, “These seem to be in order. Let them go.” The Morcha’s pass with the party logo seemed to have done the trick.
As we climbed the hill, we heaved a collective sign of relief. But 10 minutes later, we ground to halt again. Ahead of us, in the main square of Kurseong, a meeting was in progress and a huge crowd had gathered to listen to fiery speeches. The men we had encountered earlier were on their way to Sukna to “teach the police a lesson”, an old man standing close to our car told us. Other pick-up trucks full of young men were heading out too. A few women picked up rocks from the roadside and passed these to the men.
Thirty minutes later, an ambulance went past us and the crowd parted to let it through. We quickly followed suit and made it out too. On the way, we saw numerous street-corner meetings, burn marks on the roads where vehicles had been set afire. But to our relief, we were not stopped again.
However, the fear we experienced during the journey stayed with us for all the 20-odd days we were in Darjeeling. In fact, it got worse as we heard reports of picketers looting and burning cars – not sparing ambulances, relief trucks full of food and even the odd newspaper van. Rumours that the political leadership would lift the strike on Independence Day gave us hope, but no such order came. In the meantime, we scrounged around for passes for the journey back. We tried the Darjeeling MLA Amar Rai but were told he was out of town, and that other authorities had gone underground. After a wait of several days, we finally managed to get passes from the Morcha’s sub-divisional committee president, a ward commissioner (who was arrested shortly after we left), the neighbourhood society’s president and from a convener of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, which is also part of the statehood movement.
My paternal uncle’s neighbour in Sonada, a village 10 km from Darjeeling town, agreed to drive us – a group of nine – to Siliguri. We started before 5 am to avoid the picketers and, luckily, the journey was uneventful.
On August 16, as I reached the safety of Delhi, I wondered when I may be going home next, taking a taxi at the airport and stopping for a pot of Makaibari tea on the way, swinging by Mall Road for a late breakfast and some shopping. All of that seems unreal in the Darjeeling of today.