Living with the Gorkhaland movement

One of the oldest, albeit unresolved identity based ethno-linguistic movement by the Nepali speaking population in India has undergone a serious transformation during the last few decades or so when the word “Gorkhaland” was introduced as a name for a separate state in India. Between Gorkha and Nepali identity it established a new meaning of the word “Gorkha” for the Nepali population in India as being distinct from the Nepali of Nepal and reinforced belongingness in India. Henceforth, the words “Gorkha” and “Gorkhaland” have become a political tool for parties to sustain local political base in Darjeeling Hills.

However, many historical writings establish the argument that the first separate movement in the region began in 1907 when Hillmen’s Association, a hill based political association placed the demand for separation of Darjeeling hills from the rest of the then Bengal, before the colonial government. , without ignoring this fact I put forward my own subjective experience of the Gorkhaland movement that grew from my own position of being so called “Gorkha”. Thus, this article aims to decorate its argument within the logic of one year (anniversary mooring) of last year’s movement and try to understand the nature of politics unfolding in the region after the movement.

I attempt to capture this transformation through two-way processes: one way reflects my own subjective relation with the movement and tries to analysis how people celebrate post episode of the movement. The subjective relationship with the movement began from my own experience as being “Nepalis/Gorkhas” supplemented by an ethnographic engagement with the people in the field where I observed, witnessed, heard and learned while doing my fieldwork in the region since last one year. The article mostly aims to show how Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling Hills have created a different version of past among different generation of people and how they live with the past. Thus, the second section of the article reflects the narratives of “peace” unfolding in the region in a contested and controversial fashion. The narratives of “peace” has been used by different actors to define their own position and hence it is interesting to see how the narratives of “peace” is revolving in contemporary politics of Darjeeling Hill.

Living with the Gorkhaland: My personal experience

“I have been hearing the euphoria of the Gorkhaland movement since my childhood days but never experienced the reality of the movement. My blood boils when my ancestor narrates me the story of humiliation and suppression that Nepalis has been living under the regime of Bengal government. I become rebellious and agitated when I heard of 1986 movement’s (chyasi ko andolan) story where thousands of Gorkhalis have sacrificed their lives for the sake of their motherland. But I feel embarrassed again when I think of the leaders and their petty political interest because of which we failed always” said one of my friends, Dewan when he was drunk.

Unlike him, I also don’t have any experienced with the movement but we both are emotionally charged with the word “Gorkhaland”. Nevertheless, I had subtle participation in the movement when Bimal Gurung formed his new political party Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (henceforth, GJMM) in 2007 and launched a movement for separate statehood. However, I could hardly feel the essence of the Gorkhaland sentiment during those days except for the holidays from the school whenver there were strikes. . When I was attending my last year of high school, movement for Gorkhaland felt like a vacation for me as school was closed due to general strike called by GJMM. For several days, I even enjoyed wearing ethnic dress over school uniform when GJMM dictates the wearing of respective (s) ethnic dress to prove the claim of being ethnically different from the rest of West Bengal. I felt awkward when tourists would click my photos as if I am some engendered species of the world but I was told that by displaying our culture we will get Gorkhaland. So, I indulge in displaying my tangible culture to the tourists from various part of the world, so that they would understand the uniqueness of our identity, an-identity that is waiting for recognition by the state.

World Cup celebration in Darjeeling

Things changed over years and slowly the movement died without achieving its end. I moved out of Darjeeling hills in search for better opportunities and this perhaps gave me a chance to understand the essence of the Gorkhaland and made me realize what it meant to be a Gorkha/Nepali in India. I was being questioned about my identity, my race and my physical feature – from train stations to local tea shops and I could hardly convince them. When I didn’t have anything to answer them, I looked back to my place for its history, geography and its identity and tried to understand its relationship to me. I repeatedly read the history of Darjeeling Hills written in colonial administrative gazetteers, ethnographic reports and travels dairy to understand my position in the history, geography and identity of the modern nation and then I realized that I am also no less different from them (those who questioned me) but my history is not written in a way that would fit into their imagination of being “Indian”. Like many other communities in India, I was also a child of colonialism where modernity and capitalism have my worldview and the experience of the modern nation-state has shaped my imagination of belongingness. But unlike other, I was kept different and isolated because my place was (is) the repository of resource extraction – from colonial plantation to post-colonial development. Like many other, I also sang Jana Gana Mana (national anthem of India) at School and even played parade during 15th August (Indian Independence Day). However, my biggest mistake is that I speak a language which is, in fact, national language of Nepal even though Bengali and Tamil is also spoken in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Hence, in this context, I questioned and re-questioned myself “why Gorkhaland?” and then I realized why my friend Dewan felt patriotic as well as agitated when he remembered chyasi ko andolan (1986 agitation).

1986 is the year that has materialized the sentiment of ethnic homeland among Gorkhas, in a way that no political factors had done ever before. It undertook the region into a new imagination of modernity that is, in fact, perpetuated by the hitherto crisis of Nepali identity in India entering into a new phase of political contestation. It was the decade when the word “Gorkhaland” engrossed the ethnic sentiment into something supreme belief that would certainly end all the crisis in the region. Since then the generation is living and dying with such supreme sentiment of their ethnic homeland. Three decades have passed away and the region experienced three phases of Gorkhaland movement (1986, 2007 and 2014) and today we are living in the fourth decades that has also witnessed another phase of Gorkhaland movement (in 2017) albeit unfulfilled as usual.

From 1986 to 2007, Subash Ghising ruled Darjeeling hills uncontested and unchallenged making democracy dysfunctional in the hills. However, I could see him only in newspaper and electronic media but I heard several times that his white jacket was bulletproof. When he was attacked in Pankhabari road (the old military road that connects Darjeeling hills and Siliguri plain), my young consciousness made me believe that he was saved by his bulletproof jacket but the story was different and I will not get into the controversies here. When Bimal Gurung replaced Mr Ghising and re-ignited the ethnic sentiment, another chapter was added in Gorkha history, deeply embedded in the utopia that Gorkhaland is the only solution to the crisis in the hills and henceforth the silent hills once again turned into a troubled frontier of the nation.

Nevertheless, when I recall the past that underwent serious transformation, I could see myself in the darkest era of political culture molded into the sentiment of ethnic homeland. And the latest memories that haunt my mind is the trouble of last year. There were 105 days general strike, perhaps one of the longest strike in the history of statehood-demand in post-independence India. Some unwarranted arrest and police firing by the state were routine during the movement and 13 civilians lost their life and many were left with deep trauma difficult to erase. Thus, 105 days struggle for Gorkhaland turn into a nightmare- a nightmare that reached one year on June 2018. So, should I celebrate or protest it?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this year June is meet with an eve of World Cup FIFA and Darjeeling Hills is all prepared to celebrate the first ever held football carnival on June 2nd and 3rd. It us organized by some local NGO’s and Darjeeling North Point School Alumina Association (DNPSAA). Darjeeling Hill was seen with new enthusiasm for the upcoming world cup fever, decorated with flags of different nations, supporting one’s favourite teams with lots of musical events, bike rally and so on. In fact, a football carnival occupied the public space of the hills during 2nd and 3rd June 2018. The whole town was in a festive mood with an orchestra of youths dancing and singing in football songs. So, the region celebrated the anniversary of the movement in the guise of FIFA carnival because it was apolitical (sis)? However, celebration came as a package of “peace” in the region that had indeed opened up new narratives of the “past” and used in different context. Thus, it is interesting to see how the narratives of “peace” and “past” molded the region during post movement period.

“Memories”: Between violent past and romantic past

“Darjeeling was a beautiful, safe, peaceful and one of the most loved place by the tourist but politics made it dirty now”, Pasang, a hotel owner expressed his frustration when his income was shattered by 105 days general strike last year. Along with him, roughly 80 per cent of income in the hills depends on tourism directly or indirectly and last year political turmoil has severely hit the economy of the hills. Similarly, an urban resident, Nawang whose family was displaced in 1986 agitation explained to me that “Ever since the call for Gorkhaland is made first in 1986, the hills in Darjeeling has undergone tremendous changes in terms of public culture, political experiences and urban transformation”. While pointing at the top of the hills from his two-stored building in the middle of the town, he said to me “there used to be a full of trees and jungles when we first arrived here, we could hardly pass that way alone even in daylight due to fear of wild animals. But now the place is full of building composed of various hotels, multinational companies and commercial hub. The town has become congested and Darjeeling is no more a place to live. But we cannot leave our land also as this small house is the only property that we possess.” However, both Pasang and Nawang shared a similar view that politics have changed the Darjeeling hills especially the politics of Gorkhaland and they the perspective that the past was better in Darjeeling.

Batasia Forest Rest House
Hills (2nd June 2018) Darjeeling; brunt down during last year Gorkhaland agitation; Photo by author

The grandmother of Pasang quickly shouted from another room after hearing our conversation saying “we used to return home at late night watching a movie from the town and we could rarely hear of rape, murder and all those sinful activities during those days. But now girls cannot roam alone even in daytime; Darjeeling hills is full of rowdies now.” Their references of “those days” directly referred to the time before the Gorkhaland movement of 1986. However, Gorkhaland in Darjeeling hills is something that is inevitable and has perhaps been at the heart of Hills politics. It has overshadowed the entire issues of the hill and made the demand for Gorkhaland as something supreme, moral and indeed sacred where conscience encompass every member under a generic belief that “Gorkhaland is their mother (Amma)”.

However, my from younger generation share different views as compared to their elder generation. Although they hold held a view that the state should consider the demand for Gorkhaland, they don’t want their life to be shattered by agitation. One of the respondents whom I interviewed after the FIFA carnival said in anger “Shall we stop celebrating everything in the name of Gorkhaland? Leaders have filled up their pocket with money by selling our demand and why should we sacrifice our life. We want this kind of events to be organized often in the Hills so that we can revive the lost glory of Darjeeling Hills”. Another respondent claims that “everyone wants Gorkhaland but not in the cost of our future”. In contrast to the view above, Mahesh, a hardliner Gorkhaland supporter states “how can we so easily forget the atrocities and humiliation done by the state and dance in the tune of FIFA. There is a deep underlying political conspiracy behind the celebration of FIFA carnival and we are yet to understand it.”

Four phases of Gorkhaland movement have created an adequate disturbance in the Hills that the word “peace” has become a new political buzzword today. “Past was peaceful” was and the state has found a new avenue to dismantle the movement through the rhetoric of “peace”. A self-proclaimed leader Binay Tamang who sidelined Bimal Gurung has become a new puppet of the state government to work for the development and peace in the region with a new vision of politics of development. He indulges in Having said this, it is equally important to see how the organizers of the events are underpinning the work for peace in the hills. The President of the DNPSAA in English daily The Telegraph (29th May 2018) said “the Herculean task at hand is to establish to the rest of the world that peace and normalcy have returned to the Queen of the Hills. The future of the town in different respects, including tourism and education, depends on this.” However, the narratives of “peace” dominates the larger discourse of ethnic sentiment and in some respect, erase the violent past. He further said “Darjeeling has a rich history of football, the most loved sport. We use to host the famous Brigade of Gorkha Gold Cup with teams from all over the country taking part. We want to revive the past glory of this hill town.”

To encapsulate, it can be argued that the glory of Darjeeling hills depends on its past and that Darjeeling and its people have lost in their battle for Gorkhaland and it can be achieved only without Gorkhaland. Thus, if reviving the past is to establish peace in the region, then why Gorkhaland? However, there are other groups of people who criticize such event which aims to bring peace and normalcy in the region as a hidden political conspiracy by the state. Various posts in online forums like Darjeeling Times, Darjeeling Hills, Hamro Gorkhaland (Our Gorkhaland) criticized such events and happening in the hills as being a foolish act of the people of Darjeeling to celebrate such events in the pretext to forget the past. As one of the posts writes: “It is the conspiracy of the state government and Binay Tamang led GTA 2 to make us forget what the state has done to the people of Darjeeling last year exactly at this time. It is a conspiracy to stop us from protesting, from remembering the humiliation and to forgot the sacrifice that our people made while fighting for our constitutional right.”

Past as an Excuse:

From the above discussion, it is clear that the “past” is not simply a chronology of the past but a collection of memories, events, culture, landscape and objects that are used in various context to describe the present and imagine the future. Some, like Pasang and Nawang used the past to describe the condition of Darjeeling before the advent of the Gorkhaland movement and romanticize the time when Darjeeling hills were beautiful, peaceful and safe, comparing it with present characterized by violence and chaos. They define their past in relationship with disorder that the politics have created with the advent of movement for ethnic homeland. However, such disorder has been accentuated by various unprecedented changes occurring at global level after 1990 and Darjeeling hills was not an exemption. The coming of multinational companies, commercial building and hotels that have radically transformed the urban structure of Darjeeling is a product of globalization. Nawang and his grandmother were not aware of the political economy of globalization but their predicament of living in changing town has been molded into unpleasant politics of the region. For them, the town has become congested, unsafe and unromantic to live in as compared to “those days” when grandmother used to return home at late night from movie mainly due to changing political culture in the hills. Nevertheless, they hold a firm belief that Gorkhaland would bring back such glorious past. Nawang, when asked about his view on future, said to me “Once we have our own state to take care of this place and people, we will definitely make this a better place again”.

However, people who haven’t experience chyasi ko andolan hold different narration of the past but having same imagination of future that “Gorkhaland is the end”. Like Nawang and his grandmother, past was still peaceful even though they haven’t experienced time beofere 1986. For them, events like Carnival, Football tournament (Gold Cup), Tourism Festival, Rock Concert are what constitute glorious past of the Hills. Reviving such events would eventually bring peace in the region that Darjeeling hills have lost in its past and the current state government and GTA 2 is all set to revive such events but without Gorkhaland.

Amid these narratives of the past, by encouraging events like FIFA Carnival, Tea and Tourism Festival, Rising Star, a Football tournament and so on. All these events are an effort to erase the memories of the violent past in lieu of establishing peaceful present. Thus, the rhetoric of “peace” in Darjeeling hills is not free of tensions and has been used in the guise of reviving “past”.

So, how do we conceive such arrangement of the past in the context of Darjeeling hills and the demand for Gorkhaland? One can only say that “uncontested romantic past” and “contested narratives of peace” has created an undefined present where region and its people have to choose either to revolt for permanent solution or have to compromise with the words Gorkhaland permanently.


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Sangay Tamang Written by:

PhD candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati. His Research interest primarily focused on the history, politics and social activism in the Eastern Himalayas and Himalayan Studies in general. He contributed articles, book reviews in peer-reviewed journal and an opinion column in forums like Sikkim Express, Darjeeling Times etc.

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