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Darjeeling looks to shake off unrest, but fear looms

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-09-2017 Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar

Kolkata: Things may have started to look a little different in Darjeeling, with stores opening and workers returning to some tea gardens, but people still fear reprisals from hardliners in the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) for undermining the indefinite general strike.

Conflicting claims over normalcy are abound. The district administration of Darjeeling claimed 80% of stores in the town’s main markets had opened on Sunday. Joyoshi Dasgupta, the district magistrate, went out urging traders to open their stores. But on Monday, traders were again reluctant to open their stores for fear of retribution.

Hardliners owing allegiance to fugitive GJM president Bimal Gurung claim only a handful of stores had resumed business and that a vast majority of Gorkhas still support the indefinite strike, called to press for a separate Gorkhaland state.

But moderate leaders such as Anit Thapa, who was recently expelled from the GJM, said the first step toward restoring normalcy had already been taken, and that popular support for the strike had dissipated.

“But yes, people are still scared of Gurung,” said Thapa. “His reign of terror has run for at least 10 years. What else do you expect?” He has reared a youth wing of the GJM, which is violent, and it acts only at his command, he said. People will take some more time to emerge from Gurung’s shadow, according to Thapa.

The state government has started several criminal cases against Gurung, forcing him to flee his home in Darjeeling. The district administration is of the view that he is hiding in neighbouring Sikkim.

The last known meeting of the GJM that Gurung had convened was in Sikkim. An arm of the West Bengal police had reached the spot, but couldn’t nab Gurung. In a skirmish between GJM supporters and the police, one person was shot dead. A police officer has been charged with murder in Sikkim.

“It is almost impossible to restore normalcy without taking Gurung into detention,” said a key police officer, who asked not to be identified. Gurung has secured refuge in Sikkim, and it is almost impossible to get to him immediately, he added.

The state is following intelligence inputs that Gurung continues to receive funding from outside the state, and that money is being routed to his followers in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts through a handful of traders, said the police officer.

Meanwhile, union home minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday issued a statement saying the centre will intervene to resolve the crisis in Darjeeling.

“I have asked the home secretary to convene an official level meeting in the home ministry within a fortnight to discuss all related issues,” the home minister said in his statement.

Singh appealed to the GJM and Gurung to withdraw the general strike so that normalcy could return to Darjeeling ahead of the festive season. Darjeeling is facing a shutdown for over 100 days.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has spurned the demand for Gorkhaland, saying that it wasn’t within the state’s jurisdiction to decide on creating a separate state. Instead, she last week tried to revive the defunct Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), an autonomous body helmed by moderate leaders to end the standoff.

Meanwhile, Darjeeling Tea Association secretary general Kaushik Basu said on Tuesday that only nine to 10 of Darjeeling’s 87 tea estates had managed to resume operations, contradicting Thapa’s claim that workers had reported for work at almost all the gardens.

Attendance is thin, at 30-40% at these gardens, according to Basu. Some gardens have started to pay festival bonuses as agreed last week, but a majority of estates will not be able to pay bonuses until after Durga puja, he added.

Soumonty Kanungo in Kolkata contributed to this story

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