A weak sun peeps out of a veil of clouds, casting a soft glow on the Gorkha Janamukti Morchas office in the working class neighbourhood of Patlabas in Darjeeling. This morning the party office seems deserted except for a handful of workmen busy roofing the front yard with clear plastic sheets.
Suddenly, one of the office doors flings open. A gaggle of young girls, draped in traditional Nepali wraparounds, skips out. A man emerges from another room with a boom box. A lilting mountain song starts playing and the girls break out into a dance.
As if on cue, a blue Bolero jeep, bearing the licence plate GL-A-02-5687 the acronym GL standing for non-existent Gorkhaland comes to a halt outside. Wearing a peacock blue Nepali kurta pyajama and an inky Gorkha cap, Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) boss Bimal Gurung hops out.
The music and the dance stop as abruptly as they had started. The uncrowned king of the hills who is leading an agitation for a separate state called Gorkhaland and whose writ now runs almost unchallenged in much of Darjeeling strides up the steps and disappears into his office. His room is labelled pahar ki rani or queen of the hills, an epithet so far reserved for Darjeeling.
A full-sized portrait of Sai Baba hangs above him in his small cluttered office. From a framed photograph atop a cupboard, Art of Living guru Ravi Shankar, too, stares at him. On arrival, he performs a puja, tinkling a small bell and paying obeisance to an idol of Lord Ganesha. I am on a fast, he says, handing me some sweets as prasad. God has created us and given us everything. You must show your respect to Him, he says. Clearly, Bimal Gurung, 44, has turned religious, even as he leads a not-so-peaceful agitation for Gorkhaland.
For Gurung, the road to becoming the GJM chief has been long and tough. At 11 he took up sledgehammers to break rocks on the roadside for a few rupees. He also carried heavy loads on his back to help feed his six-member, poverty-stricken family.
Much as he wanted to, he could never get past eighth grade in school. Both my parents worked in a tea garden and had no time to put the four of us two brothers and two sisters through school, he says.
Gurung was barely 20 years old when he got sucked into the bloody Gorkhaland movement in 1986, led by his mentor-turned-foe Subash Ghisingh, the leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front. Thats when he traded sledgehammers for guns.
Gurung says he felt let down when, after a 28-month-long violent agitation, Ghisingh settled for the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in a tripartite agreement he signed with the West Bengal and Union governments in August 1988. Gurung went underground, eventually turning himself over to the authorities in 1991.
He was jailed for 60 days. After his release, he spent the better part of the 1990s fighting a plethora of serious charges against him. As his lawyer-turned-confidant Amar Lama recalls, Gurung had to battle six to seven major cases filed against him, chiefly on charges of murder and illegally possessing firearms. All the cases against me have been dismissed for want of evidence, Gurung says.
Now, a gun or for that matter violence is the last thing on his mind. Or so he says. We want to achieve Gorkhaland through democratic agitation, without resorting to violence, he says repeatedly during a 45-minute-long conversation.
If anything, he says he is following Mahatma Gandhis non-violent ways. Yes, he has seen Lage Raho Munna Bhai and he liked the film. But with a sweep of his hand, he dismisses a question on whether he was inspired by the Bollywood blockbuster starring Sanjay Dutt.
We believe in Mahatmas ideals but Gorkhas have made so many sacrifices for the nation. The nation now owes us justice, and a state of our own, Gurung says.
However, though Gurung says that he believes in Gandhigiri, GJMs every move reflects a flexing of muscles. His boys have draped the hill town with computer printouts of Gorkhaland that are stuck everywhere, from shop windows to office doors.
Car owners and many cabbies have been forced to change their licence plates from WB (West Bengal) to GL (Gorkhaland). The party has also imposed a dress code of sorts on the Nepalis in the hills, asking both men and women to wear their traditional attire.
In the words of All India Gorkha League president Madan Tamang, Gurungs GJM has snuffed all political life out of the hills. They are tearing down our flags, not allowing the Opposition to hold any rally in the hills. They seized my house. This party is a threat to democracy, a threat to the nation, says Tamang, who supports the demand for Gorkhaland.
Gurung argues that laying siege to Tamangs house was not undemocratic and that his party launched the month-long cultural campaign which involves wearing traditional clothes and performing Nepali songs and dances in public to make a strong case for Gorkhaland. Unlike what the ministers from Bengal are saying, we want to prove that we not only look different but our language and culture are different too, he says.
For Bimal Gurung, Gorkhaland is as much a battle for Gorkha identity as it is a struggle to come to terms with personal grief. He lost his daju older brother Bijay to the first agitation for a separate state in the late eighties. That still haunts him. I simply cant get over it, he says, his eyes turning moist.
Gurung may have been born in penury but he now runs a thriving business supplying sand, pebbles and boulders for construction. At Gok, not very far from Darjeeling, he has a 70-acre farm, where he grows fruits and vegetables. Besides, he has some 20 cows and 90 lambs that produce milk, wool and meat. I employ 600 to 700 people. But I still go there and sometimes water the trees and milk the cows. I dont want to forget my humble background, Gurung says with a tinge of pride.
Besides using his own four trucks, he says he has a number of hired vehicles to transport the construction materials. All this is the fruit of my labour, he says, when asked how he has amassed the wealth.
With money no object, Gurung, needless to say, has put his two children through school. Both his son Abinash (19) and daughter Nanda (21) are in Bangalore, pursuing a degree in science and law, respectively. They are doing what I couldnt... he pauses. Then, he adds, almost as an aside, In this age of the computer and the Internet, we cannot ask our children to take up kukris (short, curved Nepali knives) as we did during the last agitation. They are too educated for that. You have to devise other means to achieve Gorkhaland.
His party leaders talk of the way Gurung has transformed himself from being a militant activist to an emerging leader of the Gorkhas in the hills. He has learnt to keep his temper and say and do the right thing at the right time, a longtime associate says.
Clearly, a lot has changed about him. The last time I met him at his party office-in November 2007 he was in fatigues, ΰ la an army man. With a wristband and a bandana, his swagger, then, was unmistakable. But now, with people making me a leader, he says he prefers to wear only traditional clothes.
Gurung may have driven Ghisingh out of the hills of Darjeeling for the sellout of the Gorkhas but he shares with him an interest in astrology and, some say, in the occult. He says the name of his party came to him in a dream. It has a deeper meaning, which I wont disclose, the leader says. His faith in numerology has prompted him to make GL stand for Gorkhaland on licence plates even though it is a single word. In much the same way, party leaders refer to Gorkha Janamukti Morcha as GJMM.
Little wonder that Gurung seems certain that Gorkhaland will come about in 2010. We have started negotiations. I will give it just two years, he says with an air of finality.
But what if his prediction goes wrong? He narrows his eyes, sets his jaws and flashes me a look the same wild look that I saw in his eyes a year ago. Clearly, some things about him havent changed.
Darjeeling had better prepare for a long winter.