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Photoblog: Fire In The Mountain

Inside the Darjeeling agitation for Gorkhaland.

13/07/2017 8:30 AM IST | Updated 13/07/2017 2:02 PM IST

The usually tranquil hills of Darjeeling are burning. There have been many reports of violence for several weeks, as the protest for a separate state of Gorkhaland escalates day by day. I spent one week in Darjeeling to document the movement, which was revived when the state government notified that it would be mandatory to reach the Bengali language in schools up till standard 10.

On 8 June, the Government of West Bengal held their cabinet meeting in Darjeeling in almost 45 years, at the Raj Bhavan. Petrol bombs went off, public buses burnt just few metres away from the Raj Bhavan when Mamata Banerjee was announcing developmental projects for the hill-town inside. More than 10 police vehicles were set on fire by supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). GJM chief Bimal Gurung said, "Mamata Banerjee does what she wants, I will too. If she is the Chief Minister of Bengal, I am also the Chief Minister of Darjeeling."

On 12 June, the GJM called for an indefinite shutdown in Darjeeling, even as the government ruled out a compromise with separatists using "bombs and stones". The situation has remained volatile since then, with several people losing their lives and buildings being set ablaze. Here is what I found on the ground.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
The idyllic hill station of Darjeeling has long been a site of simmering tensions. On the basis of differences in language and culture from the Bengalis, those of Nepali- Gorkha ethnic origin have been demanding a separate state called Gorkhaland. In 1949 All India Gorkha League launched a movement for a separate state. Major protests erupted during 1986-88 led by Subhas Ghising; since then, protests have been flaring up every few years.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
Except for pharmacies, all shops, schools and colleges remain closed and internet services have been suspended.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
As the movement escalates, the police have increased security in all areas of Darjeeling, the army and paramilitary forces have also been deployed.
Tanmoy Bhaduri
Children playing at the deserted Chowrasta Mall.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
Gorkhaland supporters burnt several public buses plying from Siliguri to Darjeeling, cutting off connectivity between the hills and plain.
Tanmoy Bhaduri
Paramilitary forces are posted everywhere, with several rallies and protest marches being held in various parts of Darjeeling every day.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
There are 87 tea gardens in Darjeeling district, employing around 60,000 people. All have been closed since 15 June.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
People in worker colonies are facing shortages of water and rations. Gita Rai, a worker of Happy Valley Tea Estate says, "It is peak production season and we are facing losses due to the indefinite strike. We have to buy vegetables from the black market for double the price. As it is we are poor. No one seems to care—neither the government not the company. We get ₹132 per day—how can we live?"

Tanmoy Bhaduri
Children are being used in the protest marches, raising ethical questions. Ananya Chakraborty, chairperson for the state child right's body says, "We have already sent the GJM a show-cause letter last week for making kids participate in such a volatile. The kids are not safe on the streets."
Tanmoy Bhaduri
Children are suffering due to the strikes. Schools are closed and even the necessities are hard to get hold of. I found a child crying for biscuits and his father unable to source them from anywhere.
Tanmoy Bhaduri
With most shops remaining shut, non-governmental organisations are stepping in to distribute food to the people in Darjeeling.
Tanmoy Bhaduri
Recently Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appealed for peace and said that the government was ready for talks with the hill parties. But the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha said the doors for talks with state government are "closed forever". They are asking for central government intervention.
Tanmoy Bhaduri
At the time of writing, six people had died during this movement. Yet everyday Gorkhaland supporters continue to risk life and limb by marching on the streets, sometimes bracing teargas shells as they do so.
Tanmoy Bhaduri
The GJM and other hill parties have lodged a complaint accusing the police of killing a youth. As news of his death spread, hundreds of Gorkhaland supporters came out on the streets and raised slogans against "police atrocities".

Tanmoy Bhaduri
I met Prakriti Rai, a 17-year old-college student, when she was shouting slogans at Chowkbazar. She says, "This movement is for our identity, if we get our own state our generation will not be deprived like our forefathers."

Tanmoy Bhaduri
A Gorkhaland supporter protesting at Sadar police for the release Dhanmaya Tamang who was arrested the during protest and shifted to Siliguri after developing health complications.


Tanmoy Bhaduri
A station of the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railways, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was set on fire. Protesters torched the waiting room and also vandalised furniture at Sonada station.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
Almost everyone in the hills supports a separate state of Gorkhaland, although some do not believe that violence and an indefinite strike are the way to go about it.

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