Siliguri: Once a No Man’s Land

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    Tired of playing second fiddle to the North-East, Siliguri is now selling her own charms to tourists – and there’s plenty to pitch. Situated at the foot of the Himalayas and kissed by the Mahananda River in North Bengal, the city is now on travel itineraries in its own right.

    But Siliguri can never downplay its status as the ‘Gateway to the North East’. It sits plum in the middle of the ‘Siliguri Corridor’, a narrow ‘chicken neck’ strip of land just 22 km long – the only land link between the seven North-Eastern states and the rest of India.

    Flanked by four international borders – Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and China – Siliguri is also one of the most heavily protected areas in India. But how did Siliguri come to wear this weighty mantle? Now a burgeoning city in West Bengal, the city has a fascinating history. Let’s start at the very beginning.

    There are many theories that surround the etymology of the city’s name. According to one popular theory, it comes from ‘sali’ or ‘bow’ in the language of the local Lepcha tribe. But British writer E C Dozey, in his book A Concise History of the Darjeeling District (1917) writes, ‘Siliguri derives its name from the stones which once lay in myriads on the bed of the Mahananda river, which flows to the north of the town.’ ‘Siliguri’ is thus a combination of ‘sil' (stone) and ‘guri’ (place). Many places in North Bengal end with 'guri', like Jalpaiguri and Moynaguri etc. According to British records, the early name of the place was ‘Silchaguri’, which morphed into ‘Siliguri’.

    It is hard to believe what is now a small but buzzing city was for centuries dense forest, where elephants and leopards roamed. In the 16th century, the area fell under the rule of the Kamata Kingdom (Cooch Behar). In 1522, a Prince named Siswa Singha defeated the kings of Bhutan and Gaur and established his capital here. He named it ‘Baikunthapur’. Siliguri was then no more than a small agricultural village near Baikunthapur. It has since swallowed up the old Raja’s capital and is now a fast expanding urban centre.

    In the 18th century, Siliguri was first under the suzerainty of Sikkim and then Nepal. Its destiny changed when the British East India Company became the de facto rulers of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

    Their presence here brought them in contact with the kingdoms of North Bengal and of the Himalayas such as Cooch Behar, Sikkim and Bhutan and the Treaty of Sugauli defined the boundaries between British India and Nepal. Siliguri was now under British control and became an important transit point from Calcutta to Sikkim.

    The Hill Cart Road

    In 1835, the British acquired a strip of land just south of present-day Sikkim and founded the hill station of Darjeeling. But they needed a road to connect this beautiful hilly area blessed with cool climes with the plains.

    So, in 1839, British officer Lord Napier was tasked with building a road from Siliguri, which is south of Darjeeling, to the fledgling hill station. The road he built was called ‘Military Road’ as the British were already using Siliguri as a military cantonment. But there was a problem – the road was too steep for a palanquin and too narrow for wheeled transport. It was quite useless!

    Hence a new road was built in 1861-69. This came to be known as the Hill Cart Coad as it allowed animal-driven carts to pass through the rocky terrain. Siliguri thus became the Gateway to Darjeeling and Sikkim.

    Fatal Fever Zone

    Local historian Azizul Biswas in his book Siligurir Itihas writes that till as late as the 1870s, most of Siliguri’s population consisted of British and Indian army men and very few civilians. But the area around it comprised villages like Mech, Rabha, and Rajbonghshi, where peasants practiced shifting cultivation.

    The road from Siliguri to Darjeeling had been built to replace another one that was too steep to use; still, it was not meant for the faint-hearted. We get a sense of the terrain from the account of the famous British explorer and close friend of Charles Darwin, Joseph Dalton Hooker, who travelled through the region in 1848.

    In his travelogue, Hooker writes about how he crossed the Ganga on a steamer and reached Caragola. He says the travellers had to hire bullock carts and armed guards. About Siliguri, Hooker writes, “a low, malarious belt skirting the Himalayas… which nature has marked as the home of fever’.

    Siliguri acquired a rather unsavoury reputation as a fatal fever zone since malaria and kala azar were widespread in the region. In fact, when Governor-General of India, Lord Canning (1856-1852), came to Darjeeling, his wife Lady Canning caught malaria here and died in 1861.

    The Dawn of the Railway

    As with everything it touched, when the railway came, it changed Siliguri forever. We’re referring to the introduction of the famous ‘toy train’ as well as the tea estates developed by the British in nearby Darjeeling.

    In 1878, Franklin Prestige, the Agent of the Eastern Bengal Rail Company, proposed that a narrow-gauge railway line (the famous ‘toy train’) be laid between Calcutta and Darjeeling, as the road was now inadequate to transport all kinds of goods that were making their way up and down the hills. Also, the tea estates were booming and bullock carts were no longer enough to transport the produce from Darjeeling’s tea gardens to the plains.

    The Darjeeling Steam Tramway Company, later renamed the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, reached Darjeeling in July 1881 and it offered yet another benefit. Now British officials could frequently visit Darjeeling to escape the scorching heat of Bengal. And, just like that, Siliguri, as a transit point, flourished and became a small town.

    Early Days

    Another important catalyst in the growth of Siliguri was the cultivation of tea estates in North Bengal. The railway brought food and consumer goods to the Darjeeling hills, and took tea and oranges in the reverse direction. It also transported jute grown around Siliguri to the jute mills in Calcutta. Thus, British companies like the Raleigh Brothers, Landel and Clark set up godowns in Siliguri. This brought Bengalis here as clerks and other support staff for these companies, while the British engaged Santal and other tribals as labourers in the tea estates.

    Thus, from a village and a military outpost, Siliguri had become a small town. As freedom fighter Satyendra Narayan Mazumder wrote in his memoir ‘Bandi Jibana – ‘The town became busy when the Darjeeling mail train came in the morning. At night, when the Calcutta-bound train leaves, the town becomes silent.’

    Soon, schools, a hospital and a police station were built in Siliguri. One of the more famous schools is the Siliguri Boys' High School, the alma mater of the likes of Charu Majumdar, one of the leaders of the Naxalite movement, and scientist Dr Biplab Bhawal.

    Solidarity With The Nation

    As the town grew in importance, the people grew politically conscious. Siumangal Singh, a Bihari gentleman, enthusiastically worked to spread the ideas of the Congress and led the protest against the Rowlatt Act in 1919. On 6th July of the same year, the first hartal or strike was observed in Siliguri. In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi came to Siliguri. His personal secretary Mahadev Desai wrote, ‘In Siliguri, we came across another solitary friend working away with the same quiet faith and dogged zeal. He was a Behary… He had pre-arranged two lovely meetings for Gandhiji.’

    In 1931, the Bengali and Marwari businessmen of Siliguri decided not to sell foreign clothes during Durga Puja. On 15th August 1942, during a rally, Congress leaders Siumangal Singh and Brojen Basu Roy were arrested. These acts of patriotism only fuelled the anti-British struggle, and on 9th September of the same year, five agitators fell to police bullets as a large rally made its way to the police station.

    The Affair At The Station

    In April 1908, a group of British soldiers was waiting at Siliguri station. Their leaders were General Murphy and Major Sorville, who whipped a Bengali youth for stumbling upon one of them. What happened next was just a blur. In no time, the entire group of soldiers was on the ground, writhing in pain after being thrashed by the same youth.

    When the soldiers went to court against him, the British judge advised them to revoke the case so that ‘news of their cowardice’ did not spread! The incident was published in The Statesman in 28 January 1910.

    The Communist Movement & Beyond

    The Communist Party was a late bloomer in the Darjeeling district. It formed the Siliguri Committee with six members in 1946 and rallied peasants to unite against landlords in rural areas. This eventually grew into the Naxalite movement, which has its roots – and takes its name from – in Naxalbari, a village on the outskirts of Siliguri.

    Its prominent leaders were Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Kangal Sanyal and their objective was to take land from wealthy landlords and give it to poor peasants. The Communist influence grew stronger, and from 1977 to 2011, Left Front candidates had always been elected in Siliguri constituency. Later, their power waned and the Trinamool Congress emerged as the new front runner.

    Did You Know?

    Several political luminaries visited Siliguri during British rule. Apart from Gandhi and Bagha Jatin, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nibedita, Rabindranath Tagore, Mark Twain, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and scientist Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose are among them.

    The city today

    The initial growth spurt of Siliguri can be measured by the following numbers. In 1931, the population of Siliguri was 6,037; in 1941, it was 10,487; and in 1951, it was 32,484. The truth is, the communal violence during Partition brought many Hindu families to Siliguri and, later, during the ‘Bangal Kheda’ movement in Assam, a large number of Bengalis took refuge here. All this made the population of the town swell manifold.

    When East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was created, the North-Eastern states of India could be accessed only through Siliguri. Given the importance of the ‘Siliguri Corridor’ a rail link with Assam was built in 1951, with Siliguri as an important rail junction. Later, in 1961, all railway stations in the North-East were connected to a new Railway station of Siliguri just north of the old one, called New Jalpaiguri railway station.

    Siliguri is now the fastest-growing city in Eastern India after Guwahati. It is now known as the city of three Ts – tea, timber and tourism. And thus, from a land of mysterious jungles, Siliguri has emerged as one of the most vibrant cities in North East India.


    Abhishek Saha is a Siliguri based journalist and writer who loves Indian history.

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