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Supporters of separate Gorkhaland state shouted slogans during an indefinite strike in Darjeeling on Wednesday.
Trouble is brewing in India’s tea-producing hill region of Darjeeling in West Bengal, with angry protestors taking to the streets after police fatally shot two activists who were part of a movement demanding a separate state.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, a political party spearheading a movement for the creation of Gorkhaland state, called for a total shutdown following the incident.
“Our people were on a peaceful hunger strike without any violent intentions. How could they open fire?” Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s general secretary, Rooshan Giri, told India Real Time Thursday.
Mr. Giri said the party has demanded an inquiry into the killings.
Local police officer Surojit Kar Purokayastha countered the allegations, saying the police were “provoked to open fire” after protestors turned violent and attacked them Tuesday.
He said at least 20 people, including seven policemen, were injured in the clashes that preceded the shooting and several government buildings were burnt down, along with buses and cars.
Police and paramilitary personnel have now been deployed in Darjeeling and surrounding areas to keep the situation under control, Mr. Purokayastha said.
The violence and unrest is likely to hit tea and tourism – bastions of the region’s economy.
Darjeeling, a popular hill station wedged between Nepal and Bhutan, is also recognized for its prestigious schools, which attract students from all over the country.
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha party chief Bimal Gurung told India Real Time that all schools in Darjeeling will be shut indefinitely and that “students should be prepared to lose a year due to agitation.”
According to a report by the Press Trust of India news agency, West Bengal’s tourism minister Manab Mukherjee has warned tourists about traveling to Darjeeling as “the situation there is extremely bad.”
S.K. Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari tea - one of Darjeeling’s top tea brands – has also expressed concern.
“Though the plucking for the first premium flush has not been affected, factory work has been completely halted,” he said, adding, “incomes have come down by almost 60% due to the agitation.”
According to the Tea Board of India, there are 86 tea estates in Darjeeling that produce a total 10 million kilograms of tea every year.
The movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland started in the early 1980s but ended in 1988 after the federal government granted partial autonomy to India’s Gorkha community.
However, a renewed demand was stirred up two years ago after New Delhi gave the green-light for Telangana state to be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The government later backtracked on its decision over Telangana and formed a five-member panel on the issue. The panel submitted some proposals to the home ministry in January this year which have so far been rejected by the people of the region.
After Tuesday’s violent confrontations with the police, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has threatened to pull out from all peace talks with the government and revert to its original demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.
The Gorkhas argue a separate state would elevate their profile as they suffer discrimination across much of India and blame the government of West Bengal for failing to create proper job opportunities, schools and infrastructure.
“The police atrocities have once again reflected we are not safe in West Bengal,” said Mr. Giri.