What’s brewing in Darjeeling

Getty images

Getty images

The Darjeeling hills are in crisis. A resurgent Gorkhaland movement and subsequent state crackdown have infused life with violent uncertainty. Visitors to the ‘queen of the hills’ will be hard-pressed to find the idyllic tea plantations, mountain views, and quaint footpaths that characterise Darjeeling. Challenging these figments of the postcolonial imagination has always been another side to Darjeeling, now undeniably visible in the tear gas, burning vehicles, crippling strikes, tourist evacuations, foreboding police and military presence, and deaths at the hands of both state forces and political activists.

The current crisis was born of a perfect storm. In May, the West Bengal government announced Bengali as a compulsory language in schools across the State . By June, this triggered protests and claims of ‘linguistic imperialism’ in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts (where the lingua franca is Nepali). Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee then decided to hold a Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling for the first time in over 40 years. Little effort was made to include representatives of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) or the three hill MLAs, eliciting protests. The ensuing clash with police left government property destroyed and many protesters injured. The Army was brought in to staunch unrest, but it escalated instead. Subsequent protests and crackdowns have led to further destruction and deaths.


With ‘Jai Gorkha, Jai Gorkhaland’ reverberating through the hills, Darjeeling has plunged again into the throes of agitation. Internet and cable television have remained suspended since June 18. Strikes and security threats have devastated the local economy at the peak of tourist season. While fear is rampant, so is a shared sense of resistance and solidarity. Uncertainty notwithstanding, the crisis has made clear: Darjeeling is not what it’s often made out to be.

The time has come to take a deeper look at the histories undergirding Darjeeling’s latest crisis. This requires asking: What is Gorkhaland? And why is it deemed necessary by those who call the region home?

The crux of the movement

The Gorkhaland movement is a long-standing quest for a separate State of Gorkhaland within India for Nepali-speaking Indian citizens (often known as ‘Gorkhas’). With roots dating back over a century, Gorkhaland is a classic subnationalist movement, not unlike those that have produced other States, most recently Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Beyond all else, Gorkhaland is a desire for the recognition, respect, and integration of Gorkha peoples in the Indian nation-state. Contra popular misunderstanding, the movement is neither separatist nor anti-nationalist; it is about inclusion and belonging in India. As Gorkha National Liberation Front founder Subash Ghisingh explained during the first Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s, “We Nepali-Indians who have nothing to do with Nepal are constantly confused with ‘Nepalis’, that is, citizens of Nepal, a foreign country. But if there is Gorkhaland then our belonging to an Indian State, just like your identity, will be clear.”

With those demands unrequited, a second Gorkhaland movement emerged in 2007 under the leadership of Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and has flared intermittently. Heralding self-governance, recognition, and belonging in India, Gorkhaland remains the dream for Darjeeling citizens and many Nepali-speaking Indians across the country. It stands as a key means to redress the Gorkhas’ enduring history of discrimination, misconception, and marginalisation in India. Herein lies the rub — and primary antagonism with West Bengal. By demanding Gorkhaland, the people of Darjeeling-Kalimpong are opting out of West Bengal’s domination, and opting in to the democratic frameworks of India writ large.

Understanding Gorkhaland requires understanding its underlying histories. In many ways, the Gorkhas of Darjeeling have yet to taste the liberation of India’s Independence. The local economy illustrates the continuities between the colonial and postcolonial eras: Gorkhas remain pegged to the lowest levels of employment, while outsiders own the tea industry, meaning its profits flow out of the hills. These economic constraints are exacerbated by the misunderstandings Gorkhas face when they seek education and work in places like Kolkata, Bengaluru, and New Delhi. Called ‘foreigners’, ‘outsiders’ and ‘chinkys’, racial discrimination affects aspiring Gorkhas at every turn.

Reasons for resurgence

The political circumstances are equally frustrating. Since 1947, the Darjeeling-Kalimpong region has remained under the thumb of West Bengal, despite no substantive pre-Partition evidence to support West Bengal’s territorial claims to this region. Conciliatory set-ups like the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (1988-2012) and the GTA (2012-present) have failed to provide meaningful autonomy. These problems don’t emanate solely from the hands of Bengalis, yet much of the marginalisation coalesces under the shadow of West Bengal’s domination. Thus, when Ms. Banerjee and others stridently lay claim to Darjeeling, insisting that Bengal will never be divided, it strikes a nerve for the Gorkha peoples of India, evoking painful, yet ever-present, histories.

Instances like the attempted imposition of compulsory Bengali are not read as one-off events or mere slights in Darjeeling. They are seen as extensions of precisely the histories of domination that the Gorkhas are trying to escape. Ms. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has lately made significant inroads into the hills. West Bengal’s recent creation of the Kalimpong district (2017) and the State’s doling out of Tribal Development Boards to ethnicities within the Gorkha conglomerate (Tamang, Sherpa, etc.) might appear well-intended gestures but in paving the way for the TMC’s electoral gains, they appear to many as clear examples of ‘divide and rule’ — causing splits in the Gorkha electorate and undermining the already-limited authority of the GTA. Indeed, the GJM’s instigation of the current agitation was at least partly in response to TMC encroachment. GTA elections were imminent, but the GJM’s popularity was waning in the face of considerable rewards flowing from West Bengal’s coffers. By summoning thousands to the streets, the GJM demonstrated its ability to evoke the emotional force of Gorkhaland. But then violence took hold, and the Gorkhaland movement once again became something else — something bigger than any one party.

The sudden resurgence of Gorkhaland has caught many by surprise. But today’s turmoil mustn’t obscure deeper histories. For Gorkhas, the troubling realities of colonial and present-day Darjeeling are eerily similar: linguistic chauvinism, ethnic and racial discrimination, resource extraction, unilateral territorial claims, the denial of self-governance, political suppression; and ultimately, an unwillingness to respect the ‘native point of view’. This double bind of colonial nostalgia and neocolonial regional domination produces a sense of constant déjà vu, leading to the desperate feeling that genuine progress is out of reach. These unsettling truths demand some soul-searching.

A reconsideration is in order. Brisk air, Himalayan vistas, and beautiful tea plantations may be Darjeeling’s enduring attributes, but these do not define the life experiences of those who call this embattled place home. Today’s unrest makes this painfully clear — and calls out in intermittently poignant and frustrated voices for a new kind of engagement.

Rune Bennike (Copenhagen University), Sarah Besky (Brown University), Nilamber Chhetri (Maharashtra National Law University), Townsend Middleton (University of North Carolina), Roshan P. Rai (DLR Prerna), Swatahsiddha Sarkar (University of North Bengal), Debarati Sen (Kennesaw State University), Jayeeta Sharma (University of Toronto), Sara Shneiderman (University of British Columbia), and Miriam Wenner (Goettingen University) on behalf of The Darjeeling Studies Collective, a group of more than a dozen scholars with long-term research experience in the Darjeeling region

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2022 2:40:45 am |