Darjeeling: Even as the indefinite strike here entered Day 7 on Sunday, some businessmen in the hills say they are willing to wait longer and support the agitation led by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, or GJM, that wants a separate state for Gorkhas carved out of West Bengal.
No backing down: Women activists of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha at a protest rally in Chowrasta, Darjeeling.
“We don’t mind the loss if, at the end of it, we get our own state,” says Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce president Brij Mohan Garg, who hails from Haryana and has developed a mall in the hill town. His mall houses a multi-screen theatre and a Big Bazaar store.
“Look at how neighbouring Sikkim has progressed while we are languishing where we were 20 years ago. The only way to improve infrastructure, standard of living, and trade and commerce in Darjeeling is by creating a separate state of Gorkhaland,” he says.
While he Brij Mohan is not willing to comment on the politics behind the demand, another chamber office-bearer, Himanshu Garg, is more vocal. “The time has come to fight till the end. The people of Darjeeling have been making this demand (for a separate state) for over 100 years now,” he says.
“The impact is being felt by shopkeepers and wholesalers only. But they clocked bumper sales before the shutdown and will recoup their losses once it’s lifted,” said a trader, who did not wish to be named.
While most businessmen support the GJM-led movement, and the forced shutdown, some are unhappy about it. “These people (the Gargs of Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce) are mouthing the GJM line to protect their interests,” says a businessman from northwest India whose forefathers settled here some 100 years ago. He declined to be named. “Those complaining are the Bengali businessmen, who have taken budget hotels on annual contracts,” he added. “For them, every day lost costs dearly. They are the worst-hit. Businessmen are leaving, and will continue to leave Darjeeling if such unrest continues.”
The 400-odd hotels in Darjeeling aren’t losing much, say hoteliers, since the tourist traffic normally slackens by the end of June. “The losses are nothing compared with the benefits once we get our own state,” says Sangey J. Bhutia, secretary of the town’s hotel owners’ association and owner of Sanderling Hotel.
Tea, the other important business in these hills, has been kept out of the purview of the shutdown. Although moving processed tea to the plains is difficult, garden owners are not complaining yet. The support might, however, weaken once the tea gardens run out of cash, fuel and rations.
There is no sign of the standoff ending soon, as the GJM continues to refuse discussing the matter with state chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee till the Union government is involved, as well. The Centre, on its part, has ruled out forming a separate state.
The worst sufferers are perhaps the porters, waiters and drivers who make a living by serving tourists. “Some of us have been hired by journalists like you but the vast majority are sitting idle,” says Prakash Lama, who has been making a killing ferrying mediapersons.
The GJM has promised to help “anyone in genuine hardship because of the shutdown,” but its general secretary maintains, “All people and communities in Darjeeling will have to make sacrifices to achieve Gorkhaland — the only permanent solution to the hills’ woes.”