Darjeeling Dreams

Book: Gorkhaland-Crisis of Statehood
Author: Romit Bagchi
Publisher: Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd
Pages: 447
Price: Rs. 895
Year: 2012 

Cold mountain air, green landscape, tea gardens, orange orchards, tall evergreen pines. Thick calves that have walked the ups and downs of the hills, friendly eyes, small bodies with big hearts, hot tea on icy, parched lips. Prashant Tamang’s songs. Nostalgic, missionary boarding schools, fresh tea garden produce, long-winding roads, frozen little fingers, runny noses, gurgling rivulets, sharpened khukris, mountain trouts, the endless monsoon, colourful haats, rusty landrovers: this is Darjeeling. This is not West Bengal. Indeed, West Bengal will have to run that extra mile to empathise with and understand the Gorkha soul!

Sublime Darjeeling, the Queen of Hills, sits graciously atop the West Bengal map. Uncannily, Darjeeling is not quite proud of it. With the complicated history of the hills, the laid back and peace-loving ‘Gorkhas’ have witnessed  a revival of the claim that they are victims of edgy treaties and blurred political schemes.

The ethnically dominant Nepalese people of Darjeeling have always played second fiddle to West Bengal — typical victims of the step sisterly syndrome! The region has nothing to boast of other than 3Ts: tea, tourism, timber. Its infrastructure is bad — NH 52, once the Hill Cart Road, is a traveller’s nightmare. There is no university, the younger generation which wants to make a future, has to go to distant places to pursue their education — leaving their beautiful homeland. Education, ignorance and illiteracy have always been a big challenge.

The (in)famous Darjeeling tea has made millionaires out of smart people who have worked their way up leaving thousands of tea workers as bonded, impoverished labourers. Frustrated youth bogged down with unemployment, children and mothers denied basic healthcare — Darjeeling’s inner life can be sad.

The Gorkhaland movement, since the mid-1980s, has gathered momentum in recent times, riding the highs and lows of leadership crisis, motivation, violence, madness, passion, zeal — all that comes with a ‘freedom struggle’. Undoubtedly, it has stirred every Gorkha soul to stand up for one’s rights. The right to fight for their identity!

However, the hill people are almost always under-estimated and marginalised. They are not seen as a ‘factor’ in West Bengal or in Delhi. The burning issues here are not even acknowledged, given a place of dignity, or regarded as politically significant.

Manipulated, ignored and waylaid, Gorkhaland seems a distant dream. The mid-1980s agitation saw serial brutalities faced by the locals, predictably, downplayed in Kolkata and Delhi. Much of it went unreported. The demand for statehood was stalled with the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council under the discredited leadership of Subhash Ghishing.

Indeed, for the simple people, the moment of truth lies in the slogan that reverberates in the hills and dales: “We Want Gorkhaland.”  This has been their deepest dream. Nothing can replace this dream. 

Indeed, under Ghishing, the vision of the hill state became distorted. The signposts of optimism have shifted under Bimal Gurung of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The irony is, leaders are also manipulated and underestimated! Often, with the leaders at loggerheads, the State sits back and watches the bull fight.

Meanwhile, the down-trodden people become victims of ethnic inferiority and poverty. With Bengali babus calling the shots from Kolkata, the Gorkhas are relegated to khukri-wielding bahadurs — victims of the clichés of colonial history.

It’s time the Gorkhas are given their due. There is so much to be done, dreams to be fulfilled. With the new Gorkha Territorial Administration under the leadership of Gurung, it’s like coming full circle: another Tom and Gerry snippet! We shall wait
and watch.

In this sense, the book reopens old and new windows. It’s an objective look at the movement based on historical facts since Darjeeling was a part of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, to the contemporary realm. The book highlights how people’s demands are based on ethnicity, language, terrain, origins and history. There is a strain that runs through the book that the demand for a separate hill state is a problem with no solution! But the fact is, the Gorkhas will not give up. Impossible as it may seem, you just can’t shut off the dreams. 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2012