Thousands of tourists stranded in Darjeeling shutdown (Lead)

June 10th, 2008 - 11:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Kolkata, June 10 (IANS) Thousands of tourists were stranded Tuesday in West Bengal’s Darjeeling hills as the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) supporters called an indefinite shutdown demanding a separate Gorkhaland state. An exodus of an estimated 40,000 tourists started as the indefinite shutdown began Tuesday morning. Over a thousand tourists, including many foreigners, were stranded near the Teesta Bridge in northern West Bengal while returning from Sikkim.

The Eastern Railway decided to run a special train from New Jalpaiguri station to Sealdah Tuesday night to give a reprieve to the stranded tourists.

“We understand the trouble faced by our tourists. We are helpless but to call this shutdown. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee invited us for a dialogue. We are open for talks any time, but our demand is a separate statehood for the Darjeeling district,” GJM general secretary Roshan Giri told IANS by phone from Darjeeling.

All three hill sub-divisions - Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong - and some areas of Dooars observed the shutdown.

Vehicular traffic kept off the roads, and shops, markets and government offices remained closed and work at the tea estates was affected.

Maintaining that Darjeeling was an integral part of West Bengal, Bhattacharjee rejected the demand for carving out a separate Gorkhaland state out of the hill district.

He said the issue could be solved through talks if GJM activists stayed away from the shutdown that began Tuesday morning.

Bhattacharjee agreed to confer more financial assistance and administrative control to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).

“We can’t accept their demand for a separate Gorkhaland state in the region,” he said.

Darjeeling was the summer capital of British India till 1911, when the capital was shifted to Delhi from Kolkata.

The verdant hills and the Himalayan toy train service are a prime tourist destination, particularly during the summer.

“Over 50 GJM activists were arrested in today’s (Tuesday) shutdown when they were staging agitation at Birpara in Jalpaiguri district. They damaged a police jeep in Dooars and demonstrated in front of Birpara police station,” West Bengal Inspector General (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia told IANS.

He said additional police contingents and several companies of central paramilitary forces have been deployed in the hills to control the law and order situation in the coming days.

The GJM, led by its president Bimal Gurung, has been spearheading a movement in the hills for a separate state, besides opposing the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling district.

The central government in 2005 conferred the Sixth Schedule status on the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF)-led Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) that ensures greater autonomy to the district governing body. The Sixth Schedule status ensures more autonomy to the designated area’s governing council.

The DGHC was formed in 1988 through an agreement between the central and state governments and the GNLF after the hills witnessed violence for about two years.

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