India’s tea producing region of Darjeeling has turned into a battleground with a local party demanding a separate state for the area’s majority Nepali-speaking Gorkha community.
In recent days, the army has been called out to help the West Bengal state police tackle the protesters. At lease five people have been killed and more than 100 others, including 30 policemen, have been injured.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha or GJM (Gorkha Peoples Liberation Front), which is spearheading the protest, has accused the police of firing to kill the protesters – a charge police have denied.
The GJM has threatened “a fight-to-the-finish” for Gorkhaland, the separate state they want carved out of the northern hill region of the state.
This movement was provoked by a recent decision of the West Bengal government, ruled by the regional Trinamool Congress party, to introduce Bengali as a compulsory subject in schools across the state, including in Darjeeling.
“We are not Bengalis, Bengali is not our mother tongue, almost everyone in Darjeeling hills speaks Nepali, so why should we be forced to learn Bengali in schools?” asked Bimal Gurung, the chairperson of the GJM, as he renewed demands for Gorkhaland.
Mr Gurung has been in hiding ever since he announced a month-long strike earlier this month to back his demand, effectively paralysing Darjeeling at the peak of the summer tourist season.
Tens of thousands of tourists were left stranded in the hills, with many desperate to get out after Mr Gurung said they could stay there, but only at their own risk.
Since then, the West Bengal police have regularly raided his many offices and hideouts across the hills and arrested his supporters for burning down government offices and vehicles, attacking policemen and intimidating shopkeepers to keep their shutters down.
The GJM hit back with rallies that turned violent and led to much mayhem.
At Singabari, an angry mob slashed the throat of a police official when he was trying to stop them from setting fire to police and government vehicles. Scores of other policemen were hit by stones and khukris (traditional Nepali knives).
“Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali,” the war cry of the feared Gorkha soldiers of the armies of India, Nepal and Britain, reverberated across the streets of Darjeeling, as men and women, young and old marched, for Gorkhaland.
“They have been planning for a violent campaign for a long time. That is why they have stockpiled explosives and weapons and a lot of cash in their hideouts, some of which we could seize,” senior police official Anuj Sharma told the BBC.
Intelligence officials also allege that there are links between insurgent groups in India’s troubled northeast and Mr Gurung’s supporters, many of whom are former soldiers.
But Mr Gurung and his supporters have dismissed the charge as “motivated” and accused the authorities of trying to “blame the violence on us”.
“The Bengal police has unleashed a massive suppression campaign. This is bound to cause reactions,” Amar Singh Rai, GJM legislator from Darjeeling, told the BBC. “We are a martial people and we don’t tolerate oppression.”
Mr Rai has ruled out any negotiations with the West Bengal government. “We can only negotiate with the Indian government and only on one point – Gorkhaland, the separate state we want.”
The state government has also ruled out negotiations at this stage. “Dialogue is the answer to all problems but first the violence by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha must stop,” party spokesperson Derek O’Brien tweeted.
In Delhi, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh advised both sides to show restraint and called for tripartite negotiations to restore normalcy, but officials in his ministry are worried about the consequences of a long drawn agitation in Darjeeling.
“The Darjeeling hills are strategically located just above the Chicken Neck, a 20km (12 mile) wide corridor that links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland. This is an area our enemies would love to disturb,” a top home ministry official who did not want to be named told the BBC.
Indian intelligence officials worry that China could to exploit the tense situation in Darjeeling.
Recently, Beijing China had expressed anger at India’s decision to allow the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, to visit Arunachal Pradesh, which China also lays claim to.
It had also warned against Delhi’s decision to strength military infrastructure there.
“The Gorkhas are great fighters and Darjeeling has its fair share of ex-soldiers who are well trained. If an insurgency gains ground in Darjeeling, that is something we just cant afford after the recent downslide in the situation in Kashmir,” retired Maj-Gen Gaganjit Singh, former deputy chief of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), said.
Darjeeling was bloodied by a violent agitation for a separate state in the 1980s in which more than 1,200 people had died.
That ended when the Gorkhas settled for an autonomous council that promised a degree of self rule for the hill region.
But the leader of the 1980 agitation, Subhas Ghishing, a former soldier, has now been replaced by his former – and more hardline – lieutenant Bimal Gurung.
And it may not be as easy to bring Mr Gurung to a negotiating table.