Darjeeling Reconsidered — Histories, Politics, Environments review: Himalayan divide

From colonial excesses, labour movements to the Gorkhaland agitation and after, Darjeeling continues to live in anxiety

September 29, 2018 07:43 pm | Updated 07:43 pm IST

Darjeeling was transferred to the East India Company in 1835. The book under review seeks to understand the history of Darjeeling from the time of its transfer to its existential crisis in the post-colonial period through the prisms of history, politics and environment. The editors wish to avoid the stereotype of Darjeeling as a ‘hill station’ to present a more ‘grounded understanding’ of the town as a geo-political space by connecting history with the present through ethnographic and political analysis.

Challenging the ‘discovery narrative’ of the British, Townsend Middleton questions the description of ‘uninhabited Darjeeling’. He discusses investment of capital, the movement of labour to Darjeeling and locates its ‘exceptionality’ in terms of the colonial administration assigning it a special status. In delineating the early history, he has failed to do justice to the complex process of the emergence of a Nepali/ Gorkha identity in Darjeeling. Middleton also misses the larger geo-political context in the eastern Himalayan region at the turn of the 19th century, when the unification of Nepal and the strategical and commercial interests of the Company’s government played a major part in shaping the history of Darjeeling. The net result of the Company’s actions in the eastern Himalayas was to leave anxious people in the region.

Joyeeta Sharma’s essay stands out for giving ‘agency to the labouring subjects’ and recover their ‘voices, names, visages’. She focuses on the Lepchas, found to be reliable by colonial officials. The intimate knowledge of the Lepchas about nature was utilised by explorers like J.D. Hooker who sent more than 1,50,000 botanical specimens to Kew Gardens.

She talks of mobility of labour as some were able to move up in a generation. Education was a social capital, used by men like Ganga Prasad Pradhan, who was ordinated as the first pastor from a Hills community. He founded the Gorkha Press and started the first newspaper, the Gorkha Khabar Kagat , thus pioneering a Nepali print culture. Sharma brilliantly establishes the role of these labouring men in constituting Darjeeling.

Gorkhaland movement

The section on politics predictably focuses on the Gorkhaland movement from the 1980s. Bethany Lacina studies the elections to indicate that a viable multi-party system and democratic norms prevailed in Darjeeling. The rise of the political parvenu, Subhash Ghising of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, in the 1980s erased this political culture. She attributes the absence of democracy to ‘low political competition’ and the curious submission of the elite to the leader in charge at a given moment. The killing of Madan Tamang shows the price of consistent opposition. Miriam Wenner differentiates between a ‘virtuous movement’ (the demand for Gorkhaland) and ‘dirty politics’ (serving the self). She shows how what she calls ‘the art of camouflage’ helped people to use coercion and violence to practise dirty politics while ostensibly seeking the virtuous goal.

Mona Chettri, in analysing the domination of ‘rowdies’ in the political arena at the present, asserts that this is a ‘subaltern political phenomenon and a part of the distinct political culture’, following from underdevelopment and criminalisation of politics.

While her use of the rowdies’ phenomenon is unexceptionable as a general statement, it is difficult to accept that this phenomenon is unique to Darjeeling. In effect, the essays here take a cynical, if also realistic, view of the low level of opportunistic politics that now characterises political culture in Darjeeling.

Ethnic diversity

Nilamber Chhetri’s excellent essay explores the history of ethnic associations in Darjeeling. Given this history of diverse ethnic groups, there was ‘a conflation of jati (ethnic) and jat (caste) identities’. Recently formed associations transformed a socio-cultural quest into a political act. Chhetri sees here a renegotiation of identity dependent on ‘varying claims of authentic heritage, culture and religion’.

This ‘interface... represents the changing contours of ethnopolitics in the hills’. The establishment of a plethora of development boards might in the future lead to a fragmentation of the Nepali/ Gorkha identity, perhaps resulting in an entirely different kind of ethno-politics.

The class question

Swatahsiddha Sarkar and Babika Khawas pay tribute to Kumar Pradhan, an intellectual from Darjeeling, by exploring his work to locate the class question in the development of the Nepali identity in Darjeeling. Pradhan perhaps did not address the class question consciously, but sought to understand the complex processes of the formation of a Nepali identity among dispossessed migrants. As a consequence, Nepali emerged as the lingua franca of the area and tribal exclusiveness was gradually shed to produce an inclusive Nepali/ Gorkha identity.

In the final section on environments and labour, Sarah Besky studies the brief career of the Darjeeling Tea Management Training Centre which was set to ‘reconcile the tension between an aspiration of economic development and an aspiration of ethnic recognition’, but failed. Debarati Sen studies women producing organic tea on a small scale with the help of NGOs by forming cooperatives, and shows how they ‘navigate inequities’.

The book comprises 11 well-researched essays. The early history of Darjeeling has been presented well, though the quest of the people of the hills for autonomy in the last century has not been properly analysed. A particular absence is the silence on the language movements. These quibbles apart, the book is a welcome addition to the small corpus of academic books on Darjeeling.

Darjeeling Reconsidered: Histories, Politics, Environments ; Edited by Townsend Middleton and Sara Shneiderman, Oxford University Press, ₹950.

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