The last time Pashupati Nagar, a Nepal town across the border from Mirik in Darjeeling district, faced a shutdown was in April 2004. Some 3,000 Nepal Maoists had attacked police stations and government buildings in an offensive against the monarchy. The Maoists had used the hills on the Indian side to launch the attack.
Thirteen years later, Pashupati Nagar’s residents are grappling with fresh trouble, again from the Indian side. The Gorkhaland agitation, at its most violent around Mirik, has halted business in this trading town. Tourist flow has stopped, and many residents are upset that the Mamata Banerjee government has blamed Nepal Maoist elements for playing a role in the hill agitation.
The small hill town is 15 km from Mirik and was once a major trading post for Chinese goods flowing into Siliguri’s markets. A lot of those goods were smuggled across the Pashupati Phatak (the customs gate). With the India economy opening up and bringing a flush of cheaper, legally imported Chinese goods, Pashupati Nagar today depends largely on tourists to Darjeeling, from both India and Nepal, who stop by to buy Chinese clothes.
The main road is lined with shops selling Chinese goods, small restaurants and lodges. “These days I am barely recovering the rent,” says Mani Kumar Bashnit, who runs a Chinese goods shop and pays Rs 50,000 annual rent. “This town runs on tourism from India. Nepali people buy little. People from Sikkim also visit but because of the Gorkhaland agitation, no one is coming.”
Bimal Dewan, who runs a lodge and is a member of the local Vanijya Sangh (traders’ union), says the only visitors these days are locals on the Indian side of the border. “But they are coming to buy rice, pulses and oil as essential supplies have been disrupted there. We hope the situation improves before Dussehra, which is peak tourist season,” he says.
Shailendra Gupta, who too runs a Chinese garment shop, is not so hopeful. “This year is gone for us. We depend on tourists from Bengal. But I had to shut my shop for 50 days for lack of sales. Now even if Darjeeling opens, business is not going to improve. The goods I had picked up for the monsoon have not been sold. There is little money to buy fresh stock. Also, it’s unlikely that tourists will suddenly come pouring in,” he says.
Gupta and his family came from Ballia, UP, in 1992 and settled here. The family had a thriving wholesale business in garments. “All goods in Siliguri would go from here because Dhulabari used to be a tight border. But business began going down after Chinese goods began coming freely,” he says.
About 10 years ago, his brother Kailash moved the wholesale business to Siliguri. Shailendra turned the Pashupati Nagar business into retail as wholesale was not sustainable. “Now even that looks in danger,” he says.
Dewan puts it in perspective: “Trade in Chinese goods began going down 10 years ago and has stopped in the last four years. We get our goods from Kathmandu. At Siliguri they now come directly from Kolkata ports. A jacket that sells at Rs 1,200 here is now available at Siliguri for Rs 900. Many Marwari businessmen from here have already moved to Siliguri. So this town is now running entirely on tourism.”
But concerns about Gorkhaland in Nepal’s border towns are about more than just business. Nepali citizens connect with the struggle of the Gorkhas on the other side. That the Mamata government is blaming Nepal Maoists for the trouble has made them angry.
On August 8, Siliguri police arrested a Nepali citizen, Udayhang Fago, for an alleged role in the Sukna violence of July 29. A resident of Fekkal, 10 km from Pashupati Nagar in Nepal, Fago is a businessman and his family claims he had gone to get his mother treated at a hospital in Siliguri.
“Why arrest people from here? We have nothing to do with Gorkhaland. Maoism is long over in Nepal,” says Rovit Khadka, Fago’s friend in Fekkal. Another friend, Saroj Rai, says, “People here are angry. They say if Fago is not released soon, we will block cars coming from India.”
At the Fekkal taxi stand, people engage in animated discussion about Fago as well the “legitimate demands of the Gorkha people”. Says one, “It’s a question of identity. The Nepali people in Darjeeling are considered neither Bengali nor Nepali. So what are they?”
At Pashupati Nagar, Sunita Dewan too sympathises with the cause. “Mamata Banerjee should accede to the legitimate demands of the hill people. They are mostly Nepali, Marwari and Bihari. Bengali should not be imposed on them.”
Sitting at her restaurant, Dorje Bhutia, president of the Mirik town committee of Jan Andolan Morcha (one of the parties fighting for Gorkhaland), is not very hopeful. He is taking his family from Darjeeling to Kathmandu because of the prolonged trouble and security risks.
“We had met Home Minister Rajnath Singh and our MP S S Ahluwalia recently and both have refused Gorkhaland. They say at most they could discuss the possibility of Union territory status to Darjeeling. But they don’t understand. This has become a people’s movement.”