Tens of thousands of tourists were left stranded in India's main tea-growing region yesterday as ethnic Gurkhas demanding their own state announced an indefinite general strike and closed down the entire area.
All shops and businesses were shut in Darjeeling, one of the main hill stations in the area, and up to 40,000 holidaymakers were struggling to find a way home after the leaders of a Gurkha political movement asked them to leave immediately.
The Gurkha Janamukti Morcha (BJM) wants to break away from the state of West Bengal and establish a state for Gurkhas, similar to neighbouring Sikkim, which would be called Gurkhaland.
The group claims the state government in Calcutta has done nothing to help the "hill people" and that only by dealing directly with federal authorities in Delhi will the situation improve. "We will not settle for anything less than a separate state this time," said the BJM president, Bimal Gurung.
Tourism is a vital source of income for the breathtakingly scenic but economically depressed area. In recent years, local authorities have been promoting "tea tourism" to lure foreigners and Indian visitors to visit and stay in upmarket hotels on tea estates.
The Gurkhas, an ethnic group from north-eastern India and Nepal, are renowned for their fighting skills. Since 1815, they have served as soldiers in the British Army.
The campaign for an independent Gurkha state gathered pace in the 1980s when 1,200 people died in violence surrounding the breakaway effort and the subsequent suppression by state authorities. Peace was eventually secured by the creation of the Darjeeling Gurkha Hill Council, a body which was supposed to provide a degree of autonomous rule for the Gurkhas. But in the 20 years since the creation of the DGHC, many people have apparently become dissatisfied with the Gurkha politicians involved, particularly Subash Ghisingh, who led the Gurkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).
Last year, the newly-created BJM – a breakaway from the GNLF – drew publicity during the television talent show Indian Idol when a Delhi radio presenter described the ethnic Nepali winner as a chowkidar or caretaker, a term of abuse for people from north-east India. While the station subsequently apologised, Mr Gurung seized on the moment and made it a rallying cry for his party, whose popularity soared.
Yesterday, thousands of Mr Gurung's supporters took to the streets, waving his party's green, white and yellow flag and chanting: "We want Gurkhaland." No violence was reported.
Dr Rajat Ganguly, an expert on Gurkha nationalism at Australia's Murdoch University, said there was a lot of history behind the strike. "People [in the area] feel as though the GNLF has become co-opted by the West Bengal government," he said. "Over the last 20 years there has been no accountability. The BJM has tapped into that frustration. What has surprised me is the timing of this strike. This is happening right in the middle of the tourist season and yet they are telling people to pack up and leave ... when they need every dollar."
State authorities in Calcutta ruled out full autonomy for the Gurkhas. "A separate state is out of the question," said Asok Bhattcharya, State minister.
The tea capital
Darjeeling, the former summer capital of British India, has exploited its reputation as the home of Indian tea to attract the tourist trade. Tourists explore tea estates and enjoy tea tasting sessions in the verdant hills. A Himalayan "toy train" provides breathtaking views as it runs along a narrow track between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The area is also a trekking centre. Historically, Darjeeling was the summer capital until 1911, when the capital was moved to Delhi from Calcutta. During the Second World War, the hill resort was used as a convalescence centre for British and American soldiers because of the cool weather in summer.Reuse content