“Indefinite shutdown” said the latest headlines and the hill region of Darjeeling becomes another political pawn.
Ten years ago when I had last visited, stepping out of the cocoon of the teakwood panelled clubby interiors of the hotel meant long walks along curvaceous streets, milky coffee from aluminium buckets on early morning visits to the snowy hills and returning to dinner that was announced with a gong and served by white-gloved bearers who whispered gentility as lace curtains reflected the candlelight.
The insulation was complete.
Little did one realise that another kind of insulation was gnawing at the entrails of the whole region. Peace is a mask Darjeeling has always worn for tourist consumption. Yak safaris provide an interesting diversion – a tourist is said to have described the animal as a buffalo wearing a petticoat. At a trade fair they had to recreate traditional houses because no one lived in those anymore. Except for their taste for meat, butter tea and home-brewed alcohol made with millet and sipped through a bamboo straw, many of the simple activities are often exaggerated exotically for vacationers. The pre-dawn sight of Mount Khang Chendongza – Kanchenjunga – the third highest peak in the world is like the tip of an iceberg touching heaven.
As the sun rises you notice the walls. Red-splattered paint that talks of a separate Gorkhaland. You sit in one of the roadside tea-stalls. Young eyes look suspiciously. Whispers are exchanged.
The blood-soaked cry has not gone away. Today it is reasserting itself with even greater vehemence. The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha president Bimal Gurung is speaking a new voice, a voice that refuses to play footsie or be content with sops. In the 1980s the government had managed to muffle opposition by co-opting the Subhas Ghising-led Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) by forming the Gorkha Darjeeling Hill Council and appointing him the titular head. It was a thorny crown, but the wearer was too enamoured of its purported glitter to care. He took the scraps as long as he could rule. He let down the movement. Self-governance and limited autonomy don’t work, in any case.
It is difficult to believe that Darjeeling was gifted by the Raja of Sikkim to the East India Company for “enabling servants of the government suffering from sickness to avail of its advantage”. That the king could be so generous is a bit of a surprise considering that parts of Sikkim were at various times conquered by Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. Sikkim became a part of India only in 1975.
Yet the Centre grants the state Rs 5,400 billion in aid; Darjeeling with five times the number of voters gets only Rs 100 billion.
The establishment has been playing games. The demand for a separate state was initiated during the early part of the century when the British ruled the country.
Indian democracy has often been a compromise formula; elections work as soft options. Almost every part of the country has separatist aspirations. It isn’t about terrorism. This is a crisis of identity that has been building up. The neo-fascists in power refuse to understand that we have always had principalities. Independent states were ruled by independent kings and princes. The privy purses have gone but the basic seed of regionalism remains. Is that not the reason why even metropolitan cities like Mumbai have an anti-immigrant stance?
Why does Darjeeling, which is a part of West Bengal, not feel Bengali?
It is a question of selfhood. There may be cultural incest with the border areas of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet but Darjeeling has been looking for a distinct political identity. Here a war memorial is considered a sacred place and politicians are heroes. Subhash Ghising was deified because “he made these roads”. The Hill Cart Road connecting the plains to the hills was in fact built by the British in 1839.
Looking at the awesome ruggedness of the mountains one cannot help but think of Tensing Norgay, the Sherpa who conquered Everest along with Sir Edmund Hillary. A forest official had been dismissive: “The Indian government has given him too much importance. He is a Nepali.”
Bhushan, our guide at the Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, had a different story to tell. “Once at an institute Norgay was asked his nationality. After achieving so much he felt hurt by the question. So, in anger, he replied that he was a Nepali. Why was it so difficult to accept him as an Indian? He has been one of a kind, known as a snow leopard. And his house still stands here.”
The Nepalis and those from the North East were seen as outsiders though there is considerable admiration for the Pashupati border area which is packed with foreign goods.
If the Nepali initiative for smuggling is appreciated, then the Tibetans, who started making inroads in the 17th century, are not. Their refugee camp perched atop a hillock in Darjeeling is a complete village boasting of a school, college, housing and myriad self-supporting activities. It is sponsored by the Americans.
Darjeeling has been a migrant haven. While the Biharis came as sweepers, barbers, grocers and later teachers, the Marwaris came to trade from 1888 under the Raj, only too ready to express its fondness for any shopkeeper class. But due to their considerable contribution to the economy, resentment against them grew.
As one politician had told me then, “Maintaining the social balance is important. We therefore need to monitor our economic growth in a manner that guards us from a sudden impact of any kind.”
The locals had found their own way towards creating harmony within. They stopped wearing traditional attire so that you could not differentiate amongst one other. Intermarriages became commonplace so even if there was simmering resentment, they kept quiet.
The Communist government of West Bengal does not take cognisance of social mores and needs. Its workers recently ransacked the homes of the dissenters and beat them up. Indian democracy will have to learn to accept that we are not a cohesive whole and unless the government provides the people with basic facilities and respects their identity, it will have to put up with such separatist aspirations.
The Leftists are happily supping with industrialists and creating havoc in villages to accommodate ‘progress’. What have they done for their own people? Nothing. Except send honeymooners to chuck snowballs at each other and legally seal their fate.
The call for a Gorkhaland wakes us up to these hidden realities. However, for a mountain people they ought to know that echoes resound only in your own valley.