The colonial era Raj Rajeswari hall, burnt down on Wednesday by alleged pro-Gorkhaland activists, was a heritage structure in the heart of northern West Bengal’s Kurseong town that was graced through the decades by stalwarts from various fields including iconic freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Steeped in history, the nearly-century-old building functioned as the community centre of the dwindling Bengali population in the hill town over the years, hosting cultural and religious events and marriages and other social gatherings.
The building, primarily made of wood, stone and concrete, was virtually razed to ashes within two hours after the wooden roof was set on fire at around 12.30 a.m. on Wednesday, a management committee member said.
“At around 12.30 am on Wednesday, a group of unidentified arsonists poured kerosene on the roof of the community centre and set it ablaze. The fire spread in a matter of minutes as the roof was made of highly inflammable pine wood. A large portion of the building was literally turned to ashes before the fire brigade could arrive,” trustee board member Sovan De told IANS.
The arson took place on the 35th day of the GJM sponsored indefinite shutdown demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland to be curved out of the north Bengal hills.
De said it was a mystery how the arsonists entered the campus as both the gates of the community centre were locked.
The hall, built in 1930, was a part of local history and the proud venue of the oldest Durga Puja in the region that celebrated its centenary last year.
In June last year, a part of the hall was damaged in an accidental fire.
De said the hall was always seen as a symbol of harmony among the different communities and ethnic groups.
“Though the community centre was primarily for the Bengalis, it has often been used as a temporary shelter during any natural calamity in the hills. People across different communities including Bengalis and Nepalese have taken shelter together for years.
“It is also significant that the building was never attacked during the earlier phases of Gorkhaland agitation,” he said.
Referring to the frequent incidents of vandalism in the Darjeeling hills for the past one month, De said it was never the culture of the local communities to resort to such violence.
“The Gorkhaland movement is going on for years now but I have never seen the locals resorting to such violence in the region with such precision. Since the renewed agitation of Gorkhaland, several places have been burnt down efficiently by a handful of people. It seems there are outsiders involved in these attacks who are trained in such vandalism,” he added.
Reports of attack and torching of state properties have become a regular phenomena during the last one month of the agitation.