The current agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state has struck a chord with the hill people and local political parties, a throwback to the 1980s when a prolonged movement led by the GNLF under Subash Ghisingh had rocked Darjeeling.
Cutting across religious, political and ideological divides, the overwhelming view is that Gorkhaland is a "sentiment" that can no longer be ignored.
"Such unity among the people of the hills was last witnessed in the 80s. Gorkhaland is a sentiment of the people of the hills, which you cannot afford to ignore. It can be suppressed for some time but can't be wiped out," Jan Andolan Party (JAP) chief Harka Bahadur Chetri said as tension continued to simmer, 11 days after the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite shutdown on June 8.
Chetri, a former GJM MLA, had formed his own political outfit last year after differences with GJM supremo Bimal Gurung. He has now extended his full support to the cause of Gorkhaland as have GJM's arch-rivals Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), All-Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), Gorkhaland Rajya Nirman Morcha (GRNM), Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh (BGP) and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM).
In a disturbing development for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a section of local leaders of her Trinamool Congress (TMC) has backed the statehood demand along with local CPI-M leaders. "Gorkhaland is not a political rhetoric, but a sentiment and a passion which has grown stronger over the years," said a leader who did not want to be named. There were signs of a split in views in the local BJP leadership as well.
BJP district general secretary Shanta Kishore Gurung said, "I may have difference with the GJM and its style of functioning, but on the issue of Gorkhaland we are on the same page. I am also a Gorkha, how can I betray my Gorkha brothers and sisters?" State BJP secretary Dilip Ghosh, however, declined to comment on what Gurung said, but maintained that his party was against creation of a separate state.
GNLF, an ally of West Bengal's ruling TMC and an archrival of the GJM, has also broken ranks with the TMC and thrown its weight behind the agitation for a separate state.
"We have our own differences, but... we have decided to keep aside our differences and fight for Gorkhaland. The GNLF has, since its inception in the 1980s, been fighting for Gorkhaland. We now feel that the atmosphere in the hills and at the Centre is fully conducive for the creation of a separate state," Neraaj Zimba, GNLF spokesperson, told PTI over the phone.
Such unity was witnessed during the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s then spearheaded by the GNLF under Subash Ghising. The ABGL, whose founder-chief Madan Tamang was murdered in broad daylight on a street in Darjeeling in 2010 suspectedly by the GJM, also endorsed the agitation.
"Yes it is true we have our differences. But presently we need to keep aside differences and respect the sentiments of the hill people," a senior ABGL leader said.
Asked about the "imposition" of Bengali language, the trigger for the current revolt, GJM general secretary Roshan Giri said, "Our mother tongue is Nepali, why would we learn Bengali? Now if someone says that everybody in India needs to learn Sanskrit, will Bengalis accept? This is the reason all of us have united."
Opinion on the street also appears to veer towards supporting the movement, although the current turbulence has rekindled bitter memories of the 80s disturbance which had all but destroyed the local economy overwhelmingly dependent on tourism.
"We have been branded as foreigners, but the fact is that our land and our forefathers were born here. Darjeeling is being treated as a holiday home by the people of Bengal. Gorkhaland is not just a state for us, but a matter of our identity," Smreeti Rai, a professor of St Joseph College, Darjeeling, told PTI. Mahendra Pradhan, a retired school teacher, echoed Rai.
"We are the most neglected community in this country who did not get their due."
Mustaq Ahmed, a shop-owner who has lived in Darjeeling for five decades and considers himself a "Gorkha Muslim", also feels that the demand of Gorkhaland is completely justified as every community has the right to its own identity.