A 20-minute drive from the popular Glenary's café in Darjeeling town takes one to what was the epicentre of the Gorkhaland statehood agitation two years ago. Now, it lies deserted.
The house of Bimal Gurung at Patlaybas was ransacked soon after he left Darjeeling and now lies abandoned. The former president of the unpided Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, Gurung was at one point the undisputed Gorkha leader in the Hills.
But that was two years ago.
Now, the broken check post at the entrance, piles of dry pine leaves and unkempt bushes signal that the times have changed. Charred remains of two cars in front of the house stand as reminders to the 2017 agitation. Inside the ransacked rooms are broken windows and furniture. One of the walls near the approach road to Gurung's house has a poster in support of the BJP candidate for the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, polling for which will be held on Thursday.
Click here for more election news
In the two years since the agitation, the power centre in the Hills has shifted. Binay Tamang, a former aide of Gurung is now the head of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) and is known to be close to Trinamool Congress chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
"Now no one comes here. Even local residents don't visit. It seems the days of Bimal Gurung are over. The same condition prevails at the party office and the community hall, which was later sealed by police," said Roshan Dorji, a local resident.
A majority of local residents and Gurung's neighbours are tight-lipped.
"We do not want to speak about Gurung or politics. No one will speak to you about these issues here," said a man walking past the house.
"We know what to do on the polling day. He is not here but that doesn't mean that people have abandoned him. They just don't show it in the present situation," said Prema Dorji, a local resident.
Gurung on the run but there is still anger in Hills
While Bimal Gurung's absence seems to give an edge to Trinamool Congress, there is anger among the people who stood with him during the statehood movement. The memories of deaths, allegedly due to police firing and raids, have not been erased. The BJP candidate and Gurung's followers are trying to tap this sentiment. For Gurung, it is important that the BJP wins Darjeeling and also forms the government at the Centre. On the run from Bengal police, he needs the support of BJP to avoid being arrested and fight what is likely to be a long legal battle.
A two-minute walk from Gurung's house takes one to what used to be his party office and a community centre. Two years ago, the party office and community centre would be filled with Gurung's supporters and mediapersons. Now both are sealed.
About a kilometre away in Malidhura is the Kanchanjunga Public School, which was known to be supported by Gurung. The school and its adjacent community centre where GJM used to hold meetings now accommodate the central forces personnel who will man the polling booths on Thursday. The three-storey GJM party office in Singmari, a kilometre uphill from Patlaybas, has been seized by the state government and currently houses police personnel.
Agitations and lathicharge by police in this area had sparked violence during the Gorkhaland agitation which later spread to other parts of the Hills.
Gurung is presently absconding as the West Bengal police have slapped several cases on him, including those under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). After approaching the Supreme Court, Gurung has filed a bail petition at the Siliguri Circuit Bench.
Gurung's meteoric rise is often attributed to his efforts to make Prashant Tamang, a 24-year-old police constable win reality show Indian Idol. The same year, he parted ways with his mentor Subhas Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation (GNLF), formed GJM and launched the statehood movement.
After coming to power in 2011, Mamata took the GJM on Board. In July 18, 2011, the Centre, the state government and GJM signed a tripartite agreement and GTA was formed. In 2012, the GJM won all 45 seats in GTA and Gurung became its chief executive.
Then, in 2017, Gurung re-initiated the agitation for Gorkhaland with a shutdown that lasted 104 days. Eleven people were killed in clashes with police in the Hills. As state police slapped cases against Gurung and his aides, he fled the Hills. The Trinamool Congress then roped in Binay Tamang, who formed a separate faction of GJM. In September 2017, Binay took charge as GTA chief.
With Gurung and the GNLF deciding to support the BJP candidate in the Lok Sabha polls and the GJM faction led by Tamang backing the Trinamool Congress candidate, the battlelines are clearly drawn in the Hills.
"Gurung is not here. Binay Tamang and his supporters hold sway. They are seen in campaigns for the Trinamool Congress candidate. But it would be wrong to think that Gurung's supporters are not here. They are present but they do not come out in the public because they fear they will be identified and targeted. But they are here. Some of them were seen at the rallies organised by BJP in the Hills," said 60-year-old Ramesh Tamang as he stood at Chowk Bazar in Darjeeling.