"It was a terrible time," says my dear Darjeeling buddy, Ujwal, the memory of the Gorkhaland riots of the late 1980s etched in his mind as clearly as the air in the hills. And it was. The official death toll was put at 1200 and many times that number was injured. It's hard to imagine such a time, as I gaze out at a zen-like tea garden, in a Darjeeling, I've swiftly and surely begun to love.
With the brilliant coverage that our nation's fine press gives the North-East, I'm sure everyone knows everything that goes on there. Oh, wait. That's in some parallel universe. Here, no one gives a shit. Until the protests reached this fevered pitch resounding down to the valley.
Twenty years ago, under the leadership of Subash Ghishing, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) terrorised the hills in a demand for a separate state for the Gorkhas, until the wonderful art of negotiation the GNLF, innocuously renamed the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council to have a free run, in exchange for dropping the Gorkhaland ideal.
But corruption and atrocities will only be ignored for so long. In 2007, Ghishing was run out of the hills and a new party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) was formed under the leadership of the Bimal Gurung. They resurrected the ghost of Gorkhaland and are now demanding a state comprising Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, a few other regions in the hills and Siliguri. Of these the last has proved to be a thorn in the side for the West Bengal government. As a gateway (albeit a city of squalor) to the whole of the North East of India, Siliguri has the enviable job of collecting a tax and toll from every truck, train or aircraft bearing cargo to and from the region. There's the catch. Even if the West Bengal government was prepared to relinquish control of the hills, mainly prided for tea and tourism, giving up Siliguri would be too big a bitter pill to swallow.
That hasn't stopped the GJM and as I lay languishing in the sweet pre-monsoon of Darjeeling, the chants rent the air, already thick with fog. The looping almost musical Nepali and English cries of thousands of Gorkhas demanding their identity. I'm looked on with curiosity as every other tourist has flown from the intermittent strikes and constant peaceful protests. Whether they are adequately equipped to handle their own affairs is left to a time when they will be given the key. Until then, like my many friends in Darjeeling keep saying, we can only wait and watch.