No vehicles on the roads, dipping essential commodities in the kitchens, no schools, no entertainment, no Internet – the indefinite bandh that rolled on to its 30th day in Darjeeling have turned the hills into a land of nothingness.
The picturesque hill station is perhaps the only area in the country where residents are no stranger to month-long blanket disruptions. Darjeeling has witnessed a 40-day bandh in 1988 and a 44-day one in 2013. Yet, they reckon the current one to be the hardest.
So far seven people have been killed, allegedly by police bullets, in the agitation that started on June 8.
“During the 40-day strike called by the Gorkha National Liberation Front in 1988, hill people used to get occasional breathers and used those windows to stockpile the essentials that would have last for weeks. But this time the parties are just not allowing any relaxation,” said Rita Gazmer (67) a homemaker in Sukna.
“He would keep himself busy by playing games, or watching videos on the Internet. Now all that is gone,” said Reena Chettri, the mother of Ribhav, who is three years and eight months old.
And bored kids, in turn, have become virtual pests for mothers. “When he used to go to school, I used to get time for other works for at least three hours a day. Now he is home all day and consumes my entire time,” said Reena Chettri.
“Though I am somehow managing to run the kitchen, my relatives who stay in far-flung areas like Rangbhang and Pokhriabung are in real trouble,” Gazmer pointed out. The poor people of the hills, who are mostly dependent on subsidised rations supplied by the PDS outlets, and the daily wage earners are suffering the most. The PDS outlets are all closed for a month, and for the daily wage earners, there is simply no work.
Tea gardens workers – there are 87 gardens in the hills – are also suffering. They get weekly payments, with work stoppages and no cash supply, they are not being paid.
There seems to be a bright spot compared to the earlier bandhs. The current disruption is low on violence. During the 28-month struggle between 1986 and 1988, as many as 1,200 persons died.
“I still vividly remember the midnight knocks by police and CRPF personnel raiding houses in search of agitators,” said Gazmer.
“During the 40-day-long strike, people were even not allowed to participate in funeral processions of those killed by the police and the CRPF,” said a leader of Gorkha National Liberation Front that spearheaded the agitation in the eighties.
“In 1987 even water supply was stopped for long period,” said Tashi Bhutia (53) a smalltime businessman and a resident of Gumbahatta in Kalimpong. Bhutia and his associates used to sleep in the forests fearing CRPF arrest and torture during the 40-day-long bandh.
Despite the low intensity violence this time, there are concerns. “The ongoing movement has all the potential to surpass the violence of the eighties unless the centre intervenes and find out a solution,” said Rudra Newar (name changed), a resident of Kurseong who was arrested twice in 1986 and 1988 during the 40-day-long bandh.