DARJEELING: Through much of 2017, the picturesque Darjeeling Hills, once a dreamy tourist gateway, simmered with violence over the revived demand for a separate Gorkhaland state.
The agitation that started against the alleged imposition of Bengali language on the locals snowballed into an intense movement for statehood, triggering widespread arson and vandalism, massive clashes, multiple casualties, political blame games and the longest-ever shutdown of 104 days that brought the entire northern West Bengal hills to a standstill.
During the May civic body polls, Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), the leading political force in the hills for over a decade, retained its supremacy by winning the Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong municipalities, but suffered a crushing defeat in Mirik Notified Area, where the Trinamool Congress gained a two-thirds majority. The Trinamool also significantly upped its vote share in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong.
Elated with her party making inroads in the region, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee called it the beginning of a new era.
However, her jubilation soon turned to concern as the Gorkha locals hit the streets in early June against the West Bengal government's three-language policy in the state schools and accused it of imposing Bengali on them.
Banerjee, in turn, accused the GJM of spreading lies to divide the Bengali and Nepali communities and vowed to take action against the board members of the GJM-run hill development body, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), if a special audit ordered by her government unearthed financial irregularities.
The very next day, GJM activists burnt the Chief Minister's effigies and rallied, demanding the state government publish a written circular about not making Bengali compulsory in the hills.
GJM Chief Bimal Gurung and his followers seemed determined to revive the century-old demand for a separate Gorkhaland. The fight would continue till death, Gurung declared.
Violence erupted in the heart of Darjeeling on June 8, the day the state cabinet held its first meeting there in 45 years, when hundreds of GJM activists went on a rampage, breaking police barricades, pelting stones and torching a police outpost. By evening, the army had to be called in to stop the situation from spiralling out of control.
The GJM called a 12-hour shutdown in the hills complaining of police atrocities on their workers, even as nearly 4,500 tourists were stranded in different parts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Within two days of the strike, the GJM called an indefinite shutdown from June 12.
As the shutdown started, pro-Gorkhaland rallies, picketing, vandalism in government offices and clashes between the agitators and security forces became regular happenings. The situation deteriorated after three local activists were killed during clashes with police in Darjeeling and Sonada on July 7. The incensed locals held the state administration responsible for the deaths and resorted to widespread violence and arson that compelled the government to deploy the army -- the second time in exactly a month.
The constant police raids at several GJM leaders' residences, including party chief Gurung, further infuriated the hill parties. Setting aside their differences with GJM, prominent hill outfits like the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Jana Andolan Party (JAP) supported the cause of Gorkhaland.
By the first month of the indefinite shutdown, thousands participated in pro-Gorkhaland rallies every day. The GJM announced a fast-unto-death while several Gorkha intellectuals including singers, filmmakers and poets registered their protest by returning awards received from state government.
On August 19, two separate bomb blasts within 24 hours in Darjeeling and Kalimpong rocked the hills. One civic volunteer was killed while two security personnel were injured in the Kalimpong explosion.
The police raids were intensified and a lookout notice was issued against Gurung and his associates under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, forcing him to abscond.
The West Bengal government's attempt to call truce with the agitators was futile as all the prominent hill outfits and opposition political parties boycotted the first two state-convened all-party meetings and formed the Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee to supervise the agitation.
However, as the shutdown continued without any positive outcome for the Gorkhaland demand, cracks emerged within the hill parties and even among the GJM leadership. The JAP openly questioned the relevance of the shutdown while the GNLF said it was ready to discuss the Gorkhaland issue with the state govrnment, defying GJM's decision that only tripartite talks between the Centre, the state and hill parties would be allowed.
But the GJM infighting came out in the open after its general secretary, Binay Tamang, and leader Anit Thapa were ousted from the party for announcing a partial withdrawal of the shutdown. The leaders, however, called the expulsion "unconstitutional" and, with Gurung still in hiding, strengthened their hold on the party.
Seizing the opportunity, Banerjee announced sops for people of the hills and appointed Tamang as the head of the Board of Administrators for carrying out development activities in the hills. After a series of seemingly "positive talks" between the two parties and an appeal from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the shutdown was called off after 104 days.
As the year draws to a close, an uneasy calm prevails in the hills, with police on the hunt for Gurung, who continues to send chilling audio messages from his hideout.