Hills commercial hub turns into political nerve centre during bandhs

The Times Of India

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DARJEELING: The Mall is Darjeeling’s prime spot on normal days. That’s where residents and visitors meet, have a cuppa and exchange the latest town gossip, besides lounging and taking in the breathtaking views of the snow clad peaks in the distance. But come a bandh and ground zero of this town shifts to Chowk Bazar, its commercial hub which becomes the political nerve center.
A shutdown such as the ongoing one that entered its second day on Sunday, changes the face of Chowk Bazar. On normal days it is an overcrowded street with shoppers jostling with honking vehicles for space. Chowk Bazar or simply ‘market’ to locals is also the wholesale market that the rest of the district sources its foodstuff and all other goods and commodities. But on ‘bandh’ days, Chowk bazaar gets transformed into a political nerve center.

For most residents of Darjeeling, a stroll down to the ‘market’ is an integral part of their ‘bandh’ routine. They start arriving from late morning and by 10 am, the Chowk Bazar is chock-a-block with people of all age groups, classes and communities.

“The ‘market’ is where we get to know what has happened all over the hills in the past 24 hours and which way the wind is blowing. This is where we also get our newspapers from,” says Dinesh Pradhan, who owns a popular eatery. A blank wall of a three-storey building facing the main street becomes the cynosure of all eyes: popularly known as the ‘democracy wall’, this is where all political parties put up their posters.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which is spearheading the current agitation puts up a makeshift stall to accept donations. Second-rung Morcha leaders also visit this place and interact with the people. An open first-floor balcony, popularly known as ‘Sumeru Manch’ adjoining a 99-year-old municipal market becomes the vantage point for Morcha leaders and activists throughout the day. Constructed during Subhas Ghising’s rule over the Hills, this is where leaders of political parties make announcements and speeches.

From late morning and throughout the day, groups of slogan-shouting and flag-waving supporters and activists of the Morcha and its affiliates from various localities in and around Darjeeling make their way to Chowk Bazar, where Morcha leaders assign them their duties—which offices to picket and gherao or where to demonstrate.

“During shutdowns, Chowk Bazar is the place to visit. At such times, after a late breakfast, I call up my friends and we fix a time, usually around 11 am, to meet at the market. We meet more people there, exchange the latest news and gossip,” Dipen Shrestha, a physical instructor, told TOI.

The ‘market’ is where news is dissected and discussions on the political developments take place. A part of this main road and also the small lanes inside the markets on both sides of this road become cricket pitches for children who are starved of open spaces in Darjeeling.

Citizens generally spend a couple of hours here before heading back home for lunch. The Morcha also arranges for lunch for the people and regulars at this ‘market’ congregation know where this arrangement is made—generally in one of the by-lanes off the main street.

Post-lunch, most of the visitors are back at Chowk Bazar to catch up on the latest developments and get an inkling of what the next day will bring. The Morcha supremo, Bimal Gurung, generally sends important messages from his residence around late afternoon to the Morcha men present at Chowk on future plans. On some rare days, like on Sunday, he comes to make a speech.

Bandh or no bandh, Chowk Bazar plays a crucial role at all times, economically in normal times, socially and politically during the frequent shutdowns that Darjeeling experiences.

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