Gorkhaland protests: Driven to despair by indifferent govt, Hill people find solace in famed Darjeeling spirit

It has been 54 days since Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars have been shut in support of statehood for Gorkhaland. People in these north Bengal towns are stretched to the limit, but they refuse to call off the strike, saying relenting now would be akin to giving in to the indifference and apathy on the part of the central and state governments.

In addition to the shutdown imposed by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), the Bengal government has also imposed a virtual embargo on food items in the region to prevent food from reaching the people. Their logic seems to be that by starving the people, demand for Gorkhaland will die down.

The situation is so grim that Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh announced the party would send food to the hills. But much like their promise to "sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the demand for Gorkhaland", even this assurance of sending aid to the hills is yet to be fulfilled.

Notwithstanding all of this, the true "Darjeeling spirit", which encompasses solidarity in times of need, support in times of grief, and kindness to everyone, is in full display in the troubled area. And exemplifying this spirit over the last 54 days are people from Manjayjote, near Naxalbari in the foothills of Darjeeling.

Relief goods being distributed from a pick-up truck in Darjeeling. Firstpost/Upendra Mani Pradhan

Relief goods being distributed from a pick-up truck in Darjeeling. Firstpost/Upendra Mani Pradhan

On 28 July, they had come with two pick-up trucks full of relief material and distributed this to the tea gardens in Dhotrey-Balasun and Toongsung. Once they reached Gorkha Basti near Rangbull, they realised that the road was too steep and too rough for a normal vehicle to pass, so they requested vehicles to be sent from Dhotrey to be sent down to pick up the relief material. As they waited for these vehicles to arrive, a kind lady offered them tea and spoke of how difficult it had been for them as well. The man leading the relief team, Anand Subba, was in a quandary: The relief material was to be distributed to remote villages, and they hadn't accounted for the residents of Gorkha Basti and Rangbull.

But, in what could have only been a sign from providence, after they finished distributing the relief material to 310 households, there was enough material left for them to go back to Gorkha Basti. "We told the lady at Gorkha Basti that our next group will come and take care of their needs, but we felt guilty about not giving them anything. But after distributing ration to 310 families, we were still left with 24 bags of rice, 60 kgs of dal and 15 litres of cooking oil. We knew exactly what to do with it, and we returned to Rangbull Gorkha Basti and donated it to the 'samaj' there. We hope it was of some help," Subba said.

"After coming back, a few of our friends who had been collecting donations for a while told us about a village named Quillen Bari, which falls on the way to Bunkulung. This village, comprising 17 households, would be cut off every year during the monsoon, every time the Khola river rises," he added.

The Gorkha Muslim Association distribute food material in Darjeeling. Firstpost/Upendra Mani Pradhan

The Gorkha Muslim Association distribute food material in Darjeeling. Firstpost/Upendra Mani Pradhan

In fact, this village is so remote that the nearest town is a four-hour walk away. Children start going to school only after they are 10-years-old, because there is no school in the village and they need to cross a flooded river to get to the nearest school.

"We knew this was the place we needed to get rations to. So our team, led by Nirjala Anand, undertook a perilous journey through the river to get to Quillen Bari. Thankfully, the villagers built a mini ropeway so the relief material could be ferried across," he said, discussing how they ensured relief material reached one of the most remote villages of Darjeeling district.

And they aren't the only ones reaching out to the people in times of need. Numerous individuals, groups, NGOs and organisations are all hard at work, trying to provide relief and support. Arbin Angla Subba was one of the first people to start relief work in the hills. "I'm from Mirik and we are surrounded by 16 tea gardens. As the indefinite strike continued, I could see how people were suffering, so I started to collect donations from friends. Some of my friends donated Rs 5,000 and some even Rs 20,000. Once I had arranged some funds, I went to Siliguri to buy food items," he said.

But collecting funds was just the beginning of an uphill battle he had to fight. "Mahabirsthan is a wholesale market for food items, but we had to buy relief material from Salbari, because political goons had warned shopkeepers in Mahabirsthan against selling food to hill-bound people. We faced lots of difficulties, and so bad was the situation that even in Salbari, shopkeepers were scared to sell us things, because they were afraid of being targeted by political goons and the police," he added.

"However, we still managed to load a pick-up truck full of relief material and distributed the food from Okayti tea estate. We had made a list of needy families from the local 'samaj' (village body), but we realised that there were far more people than what we had anticipated. So we could only reach around 250 households, which was nothing more than a drop in the ocean. Thankfully, restaurateur Ajay Edwards donated an entire truck full of rice, and local youths from Salbari donated 100 kgs of dal, and 100 litres of oil. After that, we kept getting donations and we kept reaching out to more people," Subba said.

The group has started an unofficial alliance of everybody who wants to distribute relief, called the 'Darjeeling Initiative'. They have thus far donated 10-12 trucks of relief materials and have reached over 3,500 households. In Kalimpong, the relief is being led by two teams — Team WHO Cares, and the Mani Trust — two organisations that have worked with economically marginalised sections of the community for a long time.

Aaron Yonzon of Team WHO Cares said, "From our organisation, 13 branches spread all over Darjeeling and Kalimpong have conducted 21 relief camps, and we have been able to reach close to 4,000 families."

When asked how are they managing to donate, he explained further: "Initially, we collected donations from our own members, but once we started, many other people joined us. Many have already donated food items and we are being given the responsibility of reaching it to remote villages."

In addition to relief material, many organisations have also come forward and offered to run community kitchens, so that nobody goes hungry. In Kalimpong, the United Social Organisations — a group formed by several local NGOs — ran the community kitchen, while in Darjeeling, similar initiatives have been taken up by numerous organisations including the Gorkha Muslim Youth Organisation.

It's becoming clear that the central and state governments are treating the demand for Gorkhaland statehood with disdain, and it's ultimately up to the people of this region to display resolve. Nobody has enough, but everybody is doing their bit to help each other out. This time around, people from the region seem determined to go all the way, do whatever is needed to ensure they get a state of their own. And the earlier the central government realises this, the better it will be.

Updated Date: Aug 08, 2017 13:14 PM

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