Chandra Chhetri’s 75-year-old mother at her house in Jalpaiguri, unaware of his death. (Biplab Basak)
Feb. 16: The Darjeeling hills are getting ready to welcome home 13 of its warriors, or rather, their remains packed in wooden caskets — the maximum number of coffins in recent memory to make their way up on a single day.
The bodies are expected tomorrow, two days after the policemen were killed in a Maoist raid in West Midnapore.
The strike was powerful enough to kill 24 cops of the Eastern Frontier Rifles, 19 from the predominant hill communities. Thirteen of the 19 were residents of the hills itself while the rest lived in Jalpaiguri and West Midnapore.
Most of the families — except perhaps for the relatives of Chandra Chhetri — who came to know about the deaths were unwilling to believe it at first, until formal confirmations came through the local police stations at 4pm.
Chandra, 37, was talking to his wife Hema over the mobile phone when the camp in Silda was attacked. “He was talking casually but suddenly his voice changed, Abruptly, he told her to take care of the two children and the line got disconnected. Even after repeated attempts his wife Hema could not contact him. She felt something was wrong,” said Ganesh, Chandra’s elder brother and a police driver, at their house at Subhas Unnayan Pally in Jalpaiguri town.
The couple have two children, 11-year-old Pratibha and six-year-old Kunal, who along with Chandra’s 75-year-old mother Kharkakumari, have not yet been told about the tragedy.
Surya, another brother of Chandra, had a message for the Maoists. “Those who died were government employees discharging their duties. They did not go to attack the Maoists but were at the camp. Why was the attack organised on them which ruined 24 families?”
At Selimbong tea garden, 40km from Darjeeling town, Gita Pradhan, wife of rifleman Pradip Pradhan, 45, had been praying throughout the morning so that her worst fears did not come true.
“His friends had called me up in the morning but I did not want to believe them. My husband had last visited us during Diwali and had spoken to me six days back. I just cannot believe he is no more,” mumbled Gita.
Pradip’s eldest son, Gagan, is a first-year student at Ghoom-Jorebunglow Degree College. “We did not sleep last night. We heard Pradip was missing in action on the cable network last evening and even though his friends called up in the morning, none of us believed them. He was a very warm friend,” said Binod Maskey, a neighbour.
Pradip is survived by his wife, three sons and daughter, Roshini.
Across the hill at Nagri Farm tea estate, 7km from Selimbong, the scene was no different.
Mourning villagers gathered around the wooden house of Mikmar Tamang, 41, who had joined the force in 1992. “Our life has come to a complete halt in a single evening,” said wife Gita. Mikmar’s daughters Palmu and Wangmu and son Puran, all school-going children, could hardly speak.
Mikmar’s death was confirmed when one of their relatives called up the EFR officers early this morning.
However, unlike the others, Ajay Thapa, a resident of Durgamandir in Kadamtala, 10km from Siliguri, had taken his family with him to Salua in West Midnapore where the EFR is headquartered.
The deaths in the hills are likely to stoke the fire of the Gorkhaland movement as those spearheading the agitation have been saying that the only way the Centre can do justice to Gorkhas sacrificing their lives for the country is by giving them a separate state.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which has been leading the movement, has appealed to people in the hills to close shops and clear the routes to “welcome home the warriors”. Morcha central committee member Amar Lama said the bodies would be kept at Darjeeling Motor Stand, Kalimpong Mela grounds and Kurseong railway station for people to come and pay their homage to the departed.