Indefinite strike starts crippling Darjeeling hills again

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Darjeeling, June 17 : Protesters shut down the famous Darjeeling hills today, threatening its tea and tourism industries, as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) pressed its demand for statehood.

Streets were deserted in Darjeeling with protesters restricting supply of materials from the plains.

The strike has badly hit the tourism and the tea industries of the region, the two mainstays of the local economy and tea industry official, warned that the exports of premium Darjeeling tea could fall 20-25 per cent this year.

Protesters called off the strike for a few days last week and forced tourists to leave Darjeeling. But on Tuesday, they shut down hotels again and asked local residents to stock up on food.

"Our demand is for autonomy, we want a separate state of Gorkhaland. We have asked the central and state governments for the same. And till our demands are met, we have called for an indefinite shutdown throughout the hills," said Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Gorkha People's Liberation Front).

The region's vast tea gardens ship highly prized and fragrant brews around the world, churning out about 10 million kg a year.

Although tea workers were exempt from the strike, the lack of transport and fear of violence was hitting the industry, said Rajiv Lochan, secretary of the Siliguri Tea Traders' Association.

Tourists were also avoiding Darjeeling hills with hundreds of cancellations reported by tour operators since last week.

The ruling communist government in West Bengal has ruled out a separate "Gorkhaland" state but has offered to talk to the protest leaders.

The communist government has also threatened serious action if the strike was not lifted.

Experts say the central and state governments are unlikely to give in to the Gorkha demand, and warn the agitation could intensify and be long drawn-out as emotions are running high.

The protests have also fanned ethnic tensions between Nepalis and Bengalis, after reports emerged of a few Bengali tourists being roughed up last week.

Hundreds of Bengalis living in the foothills to the south near the town of Siliguri have blocked roads to the hills and last week beat up some ethnic Nepalis.

At least 1,200 people died in the first Gorkhaland campaign in the 1980s, but protests ended a few years later after Gorkha leaders accepted limited autonomy. This time around Gorkha leaders insist their campaign will be peaceful.

Gorkhas, who are ethnic Nepalis, are demanding a separate state of "Gorkhaland" to be carved out of West Bengal to protect their culture and heritage.

ANI

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