Amid 'normality', fear lurks in Darjeeling

The smell of burnt wood hung heavy in the Patlebas air on Tuesday afternoon as a police team collected evidence from a site where four homes once stood before they were torched, metres from a locked Gorkha Janmukti Morcha office.

By Devadeep Purohit in Darjeeling
  • Published 18.10.17
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Darjeeling: The smell of burnt wood hung heavy in the Patlebas air on Tuesday afternoon as a police team collected evidence from a site where four homes once stood before they were torched, metres from a locked Gorkha Janmukti Morcha office.

The team from Sadar police station was looking for local people to take their account, but had a hard time finding witnesses in the neighbourhood that has the home of Morcha chief Bimal Gurung, who is on the run.

The eerie silence in the area - nestled on bushy hillocks along the road connecting Darjeeling and Jorethang in Sikkim - bore signs of a fear and uncertainty.

But at the Singamari crossing around the Morcha headquarters, about 2km from Gurung's home, it was all about noise - cars honking, school-going boys and girls talking aloud and people trickling in and out of shops.

Life seemed normal about 15km away at Bloomfield Dali too, the village of rebel Morcha leader Binay Tamang.

On a sunny October afternoon, the shops in the area were doing brisk business, kids were returning from schools and elders in the village were busy chatting. The only discordant note was the heavy presence of policemen.

Twenty one days since the lifting of the 104-day strike, Darjeeling is a town of contrasts except on the issue of Gorkhaland, which remains an emotive demand.

But it's a divided house otherwise. On the question of whether peace and normality has returned, the residents remain divided. Asked who among Gurung or Tamang they support, the citizenry didn't have a clear answer.

One cannot deny the fact that Darjeeling has recorded a few signs of normality - schools have opened, the cacophony of students back in the Mall area, cash tills at shops have started ringing (albeit mildly) and no major acts of violence - in the past few days. But no one is confident enough to claim that things will improve steadily from hereon.

Both the eerie silence at Gurng's village and the heavy presence of security guards in Tamang's home indicate there is a fear in the air.

"Things may look normal from outside.... But people know that everything is uncertain here and anything can happen any time," said a lawyer sitting in his chamber.

During the conversation, he got distracted by some commotion nearby and peeped out murmuring "something must have happened".

He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw a posse of policemen accompanying DGP Surajit Kar Purakayastha down the road along the Motor Stand, the main business area. His reaction, however, indicated that he was expecting something worse.

This fear of the unknown still persists in the Darjeeling hills though the Mamata Banerjee government has launched a slew of initiatives to give the residents a sense of peace and normality - taking up pending infrastructure projects to augmenting the presence of the men in uniform.

"Unless they can neutralise Gurung, this uncertainty will prevail," said a Darjeeling resident.

Police sources said they were working on a plan to restrain the Morcha president and bring an end to this phase of fear and uncertainty. But there are doubts whether it will work.

"The police action has made Gurung a hero and people are sympathetic towards him.... You never know how the hills will react if action is taken against Gurung," said a young man.

It is this fear that is keeping tourists away from the Queen of Hills and affecting local business.

"I had a forced three-month-plus leave and it seems to be continuing... And that's why I am sitting here in the evening and enjoying my tea," said a woman, the owner of a garment store, while sipping Darjeeling tea at Glenary's on Monday evening.