All is quiet in the small hill town of Sonada, which is enveloped in a blanket of monsoon fog. The downed shutters, the stones and chunks of brick scattered on the deserted streets serve as reminders of the violence that erupted last Friday-Saturday, in which 29-year-old Tashi Bhutia allegedly fell victim to retaliatory police firing. He was found dead with a bullet wound on his forehead on Friday night, triggering more agitations, in which a nearby station of the UNESCO recognised heritage toy train was set on fire.
The waiting room of the station has been burnt to the ground. Even security personnel retreated after Saturday’s violence. The Bhutia residence is barely 200 metres from where Tashi’s body was found. An offshoot of the main road descends a steep hill, leading to a modest house. For the past two days, the house has been swarming with people — relatives, neighbours, GNLF workers, political leaders and the odd media team. On a bright green wall hangs a black and white photograph of Tashi. The frame is wrapped in a Buddhist stole.
In one of the inner, quieter rooms, is a table by the window, where 108 candles have been lit in his memory. Every day, for the next 49 days, the candles will be lit so that his soul “is in peace”. But there is no peace within the family. “I live on the other side of town. Agitations had been going on for days and all shops, including medicine shops, were shut. But since my fever had shot up, I asked Tashi to get some medicines,” said 42-year-old Jenzing Bhutia, Tashi’s eldest brother. Khamjung Bhutia, Tashi’s elder sister, is angry. ‘
“Even though the medicine shops remain shut, in case of an emergency, if you ring the bell at the entrance, they open up to give you medicines. It was 11 in the night. Soon after Tashi left, I heard firing down the streets, and then the sound of a passing ambulance. I was worried for my brother, but never imagined this had happened. I got a call from a neighbour saying that Tashi had been shot and taken to the health centre opposite our home. I rushed there with my husband and daughter. When I reached, I saw my brother’s body,” she said.
After her parents died several years ago, Khamjung had moved back to their home with her family to look after her younger brothers — Tashi and their youngest sibling, Tenzing. On a wall next to a bed where she sits grieving, is a timetable of the subjects her daughter has “chosen” to study — geography, history, economics, English and Nepali. She studies in Class XI, an achievement in the family of humble means. She studies in a missionary school in Sonada, the family says with pride. Khamjung was Tashi’s confidante. He never got married, saying that the family did not have the means to feed another mouth. Four years ago, he had returned to Sonada from Saudi Arabia, where he had worked as a construction worker for four years.
“He never wanted to go back to Saudia Arabia, or any other country for that matter,” said Khamjung, who ran a momo stall with Tashi. The income was used to support their family. “His dream was to save up enough money to open a big restaurant selling momos in Sonada, after which he said he would marry,” she added. A few years ago, Tashi’s youngest brother Tenzing and his eldest brother Jenzing’s eldest son Wangdi, both aged 21 at the time, joined the Indian Army as is tradition among the Gorkhas. This was a proud moment for the Bhutias, as the two boys were the first to join the Army from their family.
Wangdi joined while he was still in Class XII, Tenzing soon after graduating from school. While his regiment is posted in Gulmarg, Tenzing was undergoing training at the 58th Gorkha Training Centre in Happy Valley, Shillong, when he heard the news. He rushed home. “None of us were at the spot when this happened. Therefore, we don’t know what exactly happened and how my brother was shot. We didn’t think it was unsafe to go out,” says Khamjung. According to the police, a group of “miscreants” had tried setting fire to some police vehicles when they retaliated.
While Tashi has been an “active member of the GNLF”, he had nothing to do with the vandalism that took place, said the family. “Whatever the situation may have been, while we were always a part of the Gorkhaland movement, after Tashi’s death, our resolve has become stronger. There is no turning back for us now. We did have an electoral alliance with the Trinamool for the municipal polls, but TMC betrayed us. And then the Centre betrayed us. Now, no alternative to Gorkhaland is acceptable to our party. It is do or die,” said joint secretary of the Kurseong branch of GNLF Bhupendra Gurung, who has been camping at the Bhutia residence over the past two days. “All you people keep coming and asking us questions, but are we going to get anything from this? Will my brother receive justice? Will my family receive justice? That’s all I want to know. The only justice that is acceptable to me and my family now is Gorkhaland, Gorkhaland, Gorkhaland,” said Khamjung.