Stirrings of defiance in hills

Business was poor for Bhusan Bhagat today. But the stationery seller in Panighata, a hamlet 35km from Mirik town, seemed happy at just being able to open his store after 82 days.

By Our Bureau in Siliguri
  • Published 5.09.17
  •  
Shops open at a market in Panighata near Mirik on Monday. Picture by Passang Yolmo

Siliguri, Sept. 4: Business was poor for Bhusan Bhagat today. But the stationery seller in Panighata, a hamlet 35km from Mirik town, seemed happy at just being able to open his store after 82 days.

"This freedom counts more than the earnings; I'm hopeful that things will become normal in a few days," the middle-aged trader said in his shop this evening. "I've had enough of this strike."

The sentiment was echoed by many others in Panighata who too had opened their shops this morning on their own, defying the strike that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has been enforcing across the hills since June 15.

Unlike other parts of the hills, life was almost normal today in Panighata, a hamlet of 5,000 people about 30km from Siliguri. Shops were open, buses plied to Siliguri and Bagdogra with police escorts - signifying the administration's encouragement - and people stepped out to buy food and other essentials.

"There was relief in the air," a senior district official said.

Until the strike began, Panighata residents earned their living as petty traders, transport workers or day labourers - the nearby tea estate that employed well over 1,000 people from the village has been closed for two years. Some commuted to Siliguri for work.

"The strike stopped our earnings. There was no transport, no work. We couldn't endure it any more," said a worker of the closed tea estate, who left for Siliguri to find a day labourer's work today.

The statehood agitation has left the entire hill economy in a shambles - from tea to tourism. "We wanted to get out of the rut, so we opened our shops today," said Md Kabir, a tailor at the local market.

A grocer who didn't want to be named said it was pointless persisting with a movement that was going nowhere.

He said: "We were hopeful when a senior Morcha leader like Binay Tamang admitted the people's plight and suspended the strike. But with the shutdown still continuing because of differences within the Morcha, we decided it made no sense to go on suffering."

Several residents admitted to encouragement from the ruling Trinamul. Last evening, a Trinamul peace rally in Panighata had attracted hundreds of participants, providing a portent of what was to come today.

"This was necessary to break the deadlock. From tomorrow, the situation will be normal," said Rajen Mukhia, president of Darjeeling district (hills) Trinamul.

Today, Trinamul held a successful rally in Mirik town. Party sources said peace rallies would continue to be held in areas relatively close to Siliguri.

Morcha sources said that if the boldness shown by Panighata spread across the hills, the party would be faced with a new challenge.

A senior Morcha leader said the party had anticipated such "spontaneous defiance".

"With (Morcha chief) Bimal Gurung reviving the stalemate after the strike was called off (by Tamang), it's natural that people would react. There's a possibility of similar defiance in other areas," he said.

An observer said: "If villages and towns start resisting the strike, it'll raise a question about the support the Morcha enjoys."

Additional police were deployed in Panighata today in case the Morcha tried violent methods to re-impose the shutdown, an administration official said.