DARJEELING, India, June 20, Reuter: First an explosion shattered the Darjeeling night, then two rifle shots and a scream.
A homemade bomb had blown a huge whole in a government building, two men had been shot dead and a severed head left on display in a plastic bag in the local bazaar.
Darjeeling, the once tranquil “Queen of the Hill Stations” has turned into a battleground and by all accounts the violence will increase.
Militant Gurkhas, known around the world for their loyalty and fearlessness, are fighting for a separate homeland in the northeastern Indian tea growing district. :
More than 300 people have been injured in the two year old campaign. Hundreds have been injured and at least 2,000 buildings burned or destroyed as the Nepali speaking Gurkhas campaign against what they see as economic and political neglect.
Tea production has dropped and the tourist industry, the other major revenue earner, ground to a halt.
In the eye of the storm is Subhas Ghising, former army radio operator, father of two teenage sons, author of Nepali romance novels and founder and President of the eight year old Gurkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).
Ghising, 52, has frustrated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and West Bengal state Marxist Chief Minister Jyoti Basu by alternating between offering the olive branch and the gun.
Now he has announced that a “Do or Die” campaign will start “at the appropriate time”.
“Our ultimate aim is Gurkhaland, a separate state within India,” Ghising told a Reuter correspondent during a recent visit.
Ghising was interviewed at his headquarters, which is guarded by youths armed with kukris, the traditional Gurkha curved short sword. ,
“We don’t want bread or butter. We are dying for our political identity and political status,” he said. “Let Darjeeling’s economy go to hell. Without some suffering these can be no achievement.”
Gurkhaland would cover “all of Darjeeling district and some surrounding areas, an area of 2,256 square miles”, said Ghising.
He said the front had 40,000 ex-serviceman members, half of them armed, and “hundreds of thousands” more supporters.
“We manufacture our own arms, pipe guns, improvised rifles and homemade bombs. We don’t need foreign help,” he said.
Some 2,000 paramilitary policemen, including some ethnic Gurkhas, have been unable to curb the violence, but the, authorities believe Ghising’s support is waning.
“In the beginning, Ghising had massive support, but the spontaneity has gone,” said Darjeeling district magistrate D.P. Patra. “We are entering the third year of the conflict and people are getting tire, so Ghising has instead stepped up violence.”
“The next two to three months are crucial: He will either prolong the war or stall for time to ‘get more bargaining power. In either situation there will be a lot more violence than we see today,” Patra said.
New Delhi and West Bengal ministers have held several rounds of talks with Ghising to try to arrive at a negotiated settlement.