Darjeeling hills Through Images- Revisiting the 104 Days of Political Lockdown

By Dipti Tamang


The Darjeeling Hills witnessed the most prolonged period of Bandhs and political strikes- 104 days to be precise, during the summer of 2017. Apart from being under-reported, the 104 days of political strikes in the Hills remains barely acknowledged, engaged with and understood in its totality

Our perceptions of conflict is such that unless it is obvious in its most bare form - as raging sites of battlefields, gun-wielding warfare and violent confrontation- we barely acknowledge the presence of conflicts where such sites of direct warfare is not involved in its most obvious forms. The conflict in Darjeeling Hills is not recognized precisely due to this perception of conflict that predominate our imaginations. Further due to the cyclical nature of the conflict, long periods of ‘peace’ in between these cycles obscures the presence of conflict in the region, simply understood as a ‘law and order’ problem.

It is part of the Confluence Collective’s larger vision of preserving and reproducing the histories of the Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim through visual medium- deconstructing the façade behind the picturesque images of the Hills and laying bare the harsh realities of these regions.

“This photographic documentation by local photographers during the 2017 agitation seeks to bring forth these nuances of the 104 days of political shutdown – the longest cycle of political agitation in the hills.” Conflicts are painful and result in an immense loss –personally, psychologically, emotionally and economically- and all of this being deeply enmeshed in the political- for after all ‘the personal is political’ in this part of the country. This series is nothing but an attempt to document the sense of loss, hardship and pain that lies behind the smiling faces of the Hill people- bearing it all with a sense of equanimity.


The boiling point

“The 2017 political agitation marks a crucial turning point in the political history of the Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling Hills. For one, it was unprecedented in scale and nature- being imposed by the political leaders but taken over by the masses.”


The Unity Rally that brought together people across the global diaspora under the united banner in the fight for the homeland. What began as a peaceful protest, met with aggressive repression by the state was inevitably embroiled in arson, political violence and tensions introducing a theatre of conflict in the hills - the loss of which is incomprehensible in terms of the loss of lives, emotions of collective trauma, pain and sacrifices of the masses.

Symbolic burning of the Gorkhaland territorial administration (GTA) agreements and other political gimmicks were simply desperate attempts of the leadership to take control of the movement from a people-led movement to a party-specific political movement. When states choose to use force and repression over dialogue and negotiations, sites of peaceful protests are quickly transformed into sites of conflict.


Rather than engaging with the people- the state chose to use force as a repressive tactic to curb the ‘law and order’ problem. Such tactics by the state only seek to fuel emotions of resentment, mistrust and anger contributing to aggravating the conflict. In the wake of large scale political violence and state repression, everyday instances of arson, killing, arrests and custodial deaths were soon to become the new ‘normal’ in the extended regions of Darjeeling Hills.


11 lives were lost, numerous injured, properties destroyed, with no records of arrested people on grounds of being ‘suspects.’ Most of the political leaders of GJMM are absconding, slammed with political charges of murder, arson and inciting political violence in the region.


Due to the ban on internet and communication services, the Hills were completely isolated, alienated and disconnected – with these harsh realities of conflict being obscured from the rest of the world. Over the past few years, banning internet facilities have been aggressively used by states to curtail political conflicts raising concern over questions of Democracy and Freedom.

The condemnation of such aggressive political stance of the states in the Hill areas of Darjeeling is yet to enter into the larger, mainstream public imaginations - completely confused and unclear of the political crisis of the Hills. Ironically, in the current situation of a state imposed lockdown, the internet is not only deemed to be a ‘basic necessity’ but a dire necessity!


Being a ‘tourism driven’ economy, shut-downs are bound to severely impact the livelihood of the people- largely dependent upon the tourism sector for revenue. In pitching a ‘plight of the stranded tourists’ as helplessly trapped victims, a trope often used by the state to legitimize its use of force, these narratives not only deliberately obscure the larger realities - they also dangerously institutionalise state militarization as legitimate. When in reality, these helplessly ‘stranded tourists’ are ensured safe passages and escorted to the safety of the plains, by the common masses, reflecting not just the hospitality of the Hill people but also their preparedness for a long period of political hardship, setting into motion the conflict-induced routine. A conflict routine is one where people seek to find a new system- of going about their ‘normal’ lives- amidst the instability generated by conflict. It is not surprising therefore that news of ‘shutdowns’ and ‘lockdowns’ barely create panic amongst the Hill people- attuned to a conflict routine, automatically set into motion at the onset of such crisis.


Seeking the ‘Normal’ amidst conflicts -

Being a ‘tourism driven’ economy, shut-downs are bound to severely impact the livelihood of the people- largely dependent upon the tourism sector for revenue. In pitching a ‘plight of the stranded tourists’ as helplessly trapped victims, a trope often used by the state to legitimize its use of force, these narratives not only deliberately obscure the larger realities - they also dangerously institutionalise state militarization as legitimate. When in reality, these helplessly ‘stranded tourists’ are ensured safe passages and escorted to the safety of the plains, by the common masses, reflecting not just the hospitality of the Hill people but also their preparedness for a long period of political hardship, setting into motion the conflict-induced routine. A conflict routine is one where people seek to find a new system- of going about their ‘normal’ lives- amidst the instability generated by conflict. It is not surprising therefore that news of ‘shutdowns’ and ‘lockdowns’ barely create panic amongst the Hill people- attuned to a conflict routine, automatically set into motion at the onset of such crisis. Seeking the ‘Normal’ amidst conflicts - Normal, everyday practices and routines gets new meaning and shapes in these shifting spaces.”


The ‘everyday’ is constantly redefined based on the scale and intensity of the conflict- and people seeking normalcy amidst these spaces. People are forced to seek new measures for survival – to show solidarity with the Cause despite bearing with its consequence- willingly at times, forced otherwise.

These multiple facets of conflicts barely remain acknowledged or addressed. For families directly affected by conflict- in losing family members to conflict are sadly forgotten, only to be paid tokenistic homage and respect annually.


“As ‘normalcy and peace returns’, life goes on while families await justice - not in the form of investigations and judicial procedures alone- but in the creation of a Homeland- an emotion that gives immense power to the Gorkha identity- often appropriated by the ruling elites for sectarian gains while completely uncomprehend by the state of Bengal and India.”


Looking back into time through these images, it almost seems surreal. Remembering the 104 days evokes both pain and resentment – pain for the irreparable loss of the people and resentment towards the political elites for making an absolute mockery of this loss.


The ruling elites religiously pay tribute to the ‘martyrs’ every year this time of the month- reduced to mere rhetoric and empty symbolic gestures. Our effort at revisiting the 104 days through these different facets of the conflict is a humble attempt to capture the underpinning realities of the political crisis that lie in the heart of the Darjeeling Hills- often presented as ‘peaceful and normal.’



“Images may not, on its own, be able to grasp fully these realities but speak volume when contextualised. This photographic documentation by our local photographers seeks to bring forth these realities of the 10 days that has profoundly impacted the socio-political and economic realities of the Hills with its consequences more visible than ever in the everyday spaces.”


This image of a school girl walking past political posters of the Gorkhaland discourses speaks about the political crisis of the Darjeeling Hills. The political crisis is barely forgotten or resolved; it is just simply pushed to the background- simmering with tensions and ready to erupt at the slightest of provocations.




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