How not to write a history of Gorkhaland
By Sumana Roy
22 February 2013
Romit Bagchi’s book on Darjeeling and the Gorkhaland movement rings hollow.
The first chapter of my personal story of Darjeeling would be similar to Romit Bagchi’s. His book, Gorkhaland: Crisis of Statehood, begins with a job posting:
It was nothing short of an adventure when I undertook the perilous journey into the subjective world of the Gorkhaland movement. A perilous journey it was indeed for me. Hailing from Calcutta, I knew nothing more than a vague silhouette of the statehood movement, when I landed in Siliguri over four years back with a job for The Statesman.
My first teaching job was in a government college in Darjeeling. Twenty-six years old, and newly married, it ought to have been, as the vaporous colloquial goes, a ‘dream job’. Soon I learnt that there was another bureaucratic colloquial for the posting. Darjeeling fell in the D zone of the West Bengal government’s transfer zones. Zones A and B were in Kolkata and most of its suburbs, C within a 300 km radius of the capital city, and D was North Bengal. Accustomed to the hierarchy of letters in the alphabet, ‘D’ suddenly stopped standing for ‘Dream’ and now stood for ‘Danger’. That change is also, in many ways, the story of Gorkhaland, which is the subject of Bagchi’s book.
It is interesting to see the changing perception of Darjeeling over the last two centuries, from a far flung outpost of the East India Company to a punishment posting in the post-independent Indian bureaucratic system. As the journalist Hiranmay Karlekar advised Bagchi in a letter:
You have gone to a place, I mean north Bengal and particularly the Darjeeling hills, which is a goldmine as far as a study into its many-imaged past and its restless present is concerned. You must begin preparations right now for writing a book on the ethnically rich region, which seems perpetually in distemper, along with carrying on with the day-to-day journalistic errands.
This book is a result of that advice seriously implemented, and its success – mild though it is – and failure owe to the approach described above. Gorkhaland, while easily accessible to the general reader, remains mostly a piece of reportage, overlooking many vital dimensions of the issue. But we’ll keep that for later.
The making of Gorkhaland
In 1829, East India Company officials G W A Lloyd and J W Grant, the Commercial Resident at Malda in West Bengal, inspected an old and deserted Gurkha military station called ‘Dorje-ling’ for its suitability as a Company outpost. By that time, the most important ‘hill stations’ had already been established: Simla, Landour, Mussourie, Almora, Mahabaleswar, Poona, and Ootacamund. These small towns, as the Darjeeling historian Fred Pinn wrote in The Road of Destiny,
were called sanataria, and served as convalescent homes for the employees of the East India Company of the lower income groups in urgent need of a change of climate. Their wealthier colleagues usually withdrew alone or with families to South Africa for the restoration of their healths or even returned to England; others went on a long trip to Australia as a sea voyage was the traditionally prescribed cure for almost every disease attributed to a prolonged residence in India.
An earlier attempt to establish a hill station in Assam at rainy Cherrapunji, with its permanently leaking roofs, had literally proved to be a washout. Lloyd and Grant’s initial report being favourable, a second survey was made by Captain Herbert, the Deputy Surveyor-General, again with the help of Grant. All was good but there was one minor hitch: Dorje-ling belonged to the Raja of Sikkim. After a lengthy and unpleasant series of negotiations, the Raja agreed to ‘gift’ Darjeeling to the British; the tract of land was seemingly of little ‘use’ to him.
Once they had possession of the Darjeeling tract, the officers of the Company set out to turn it habitable. For years, the town remained the embodiment of a futuristic dream, as men laboured to build a road that would allow people to travel to the ‘sanatorium’. And, like any experiment, Darjeeling needed its share of guinea pigs: workers, builders, tea planters, doctors, nurses, engineers, missionaries, teachers, and also sahibs and memsahibs willing to brave the ‘rough’ life. As the experiment proved successful, many of the new arrivals soon settled in the new town, often to the resentment of those who considered Darjeeling their own.
A favourite professor of mine, who taught English at a government college in Darjeeling in the 1980s, recalls being smuggled out of Darjeeling by colleagues at night because he had reported an ethnically Nepali student cheating during an exam. The student had stabbed the wooden bench with a khukuri blade, daring the professor to stop him. His fellow students immediately issued death threats: no Bengali professor could dare report against a Nepali examinee at the height of the Gorkhaland movement of the 1980s, now colloquially referred to in Darjeeling as Gorkhaland’s ‘first war of independence’. That movement, which culminated in a 40-day bandh in 1987, was itself the culmination of a long history of calls for a separate Gorkhaland state within India, tracing back to demands by the Hillmen’s Association’s in 1907.
In August 1988, the GNLF signed an agreement with the Government of India and the West Bengal Government to create the semi-autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), in the process giving up demands for a separate Gorkhaland. That was a temporary pacifier, but in 2001 Ghising, elected leader of the DGHC since its formation, called the Council a “garage” and demanded new administrative provisions under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which governs administration in the tribal areas of several Northeast states. The Indian government suspended elections scheduled for 2004 and appointed Ghising as sole caretaker of the DGHC until a Sixth Schedule council could be formed. Ghising’s demands proved deeply unpopular, including among resentful former DGHC councillors, but factional bargaining and sloganeering continued. In 2008, Ghising’s protégé Bimal Gurung broke away from the GNLF to form the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), exploiting popular support for Indian Idol 3 winner Prashant Tamang, a young policeman from Darjeeling, for whom Gurung had helped organise support. The GNLF’s supporters and cadre backed the GJM, Ghising resigned and left Darjeeling, and calls for a separate Gorkhaland, which Ghising had reigned in, became stronger than ever.
Today, some Darjeeling residents remember the 40-day bandh of 1987 with nostalgia. Speaking to me, Arati Singh, who used to work at Darjeeling’s Hayden Hall at the time, recalls:
It was like a picnic. There would be fresh supplies from the plains every day, no one knew how. There was excitement: no one was sure what would arrive the next morning. There was fun standing in the queues, the gossip about how bad things were and who had died and which family had sacrificed how many sons for the freedom struggle. And every morning someone’s decapitated body would be hung from a post in Chowrasta or just the head, sometimes a series of heads where pork would be sold previously.
Much of this history, including the violent subculture associated with the Gorkhaland movement, remains undocumented in Bagchi’s book. It joins a long list of omissions: the creation of Darjeeling; the gradual marginalisation of the Lepcha community; the many lives lost in laying the Hill Cart Road; the visits by explorers, mountaineers and traders; the tea estates; outbreaks of pneumonia; deadly landslides; graveyards and old church registers detailing deaths. Building Darjeeling, and also the Gorkhaland movement, was an investment in deaths. Whether it is in the statue of Madan Tamang, the political leader of the moderate Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League, erected at exactly the same place where he was assassinated near the Planter’s Hospital, or the small benches that dot the Hill Cart Road in memory of those who died building it, it seems impossible to write a history of the Gorkhaland movement without an analysis of its obituaries. Yet Bagchi does so.
A psycho-spiritual study
The most interesting books I’ve read about the Gorkhaland movement have been in Bengali: Soumen Nag’s expansive socio-political history in Proshongo: Gorkhaland, and Parimal Bhattacharya’s compilation of intimate personal histories in Darjeeling: Smriti, Samaj, Itihaash. Unlike such works, which are grounded in serious historical and sociological research, Baghchi’s book, influenced as the author is by the philosophy of the spiritual reformer Sri Aurobindo, attempts a psycho-spiritual study of the movement. This is how he begins the chapter ‘Gorkhaland – A Psychological Study’:
Mind is at best a flickering, doubtful light. It does not lead straight to the truth. Stumbling through the maze of errors, it seeks to seize the truth, separating the visage from the veil. And more often than not, it fails.
The book also fails here. How can the first page of such a chapter continue in this vein?
To quote Sri Aurobindo from Savitri:
An inconclusive play is the Reason’s toil
Each strong idea can use her as its tool
Accepting every brief, she pleads her case
Open to every thought, she cannot know.
Yet, reasoning, in spite of its inherent limitations, stimulates the human quest further and further. Though not luminous by itself, it is a conductor of light, which, transcending the limitations of the reasoning mind, peers deeper beyond the veneer.
And so it continues. What is the relationship between such a prefatory thought and the Gorkhaland movement? The author explains:
As far as the Gorkhaland tangle is concerned, it seems to have got solidified into impervious mind-blocks in view of its highly politicised and emotive contour, as much for the statehood advocates as for those who are staunchly opposed to it. This myopic compartmentalisation of vision, inclined more to cater to emotions rather than to throw objective searchlight, has reduced the issue to an intellectual’s nightmare.
Apart from the string of metaphors about light and luminosity, there is little of interest in the writer’s deductions. This reliance on the contrast between light and shadows marks his prose even when he seems to be making serious arguments.
Bimal Gurung [leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which wants a separate Gorkhaland state in India] and his followers seemed determined to achieve their goal in one go. They were willing to brook no intermediate arrangement, be it a more empowered council or placing the hills under the Sixth schedule of the Constitution. However, now the rigidity seems mellowing with the GJMM somehow inclining towards an interim arrangement, albeit grudgingly. It is still wrapped in speculative murkiness about how the party would convince itself and its followers of the imperative of a climb down.
The clunky sentences, sadly a common malaise of the social sciences in our times, take away from the reading. Where there might have been debate and discussion, as in the chapter titled ‘Gandhi and Ethnic Paranoia’, there is only an awkward vacuousness. Bagchi writes, “Two things are irreconcilable – Gandhian non-violence and bulldozing dissent through violence.” So while I expected to read about how the present Gorkhaland movement, led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, has essentially been nonviolent in contrast to the bloodshed of the 1980s movement led by Subhash Ghising, what I found was a comparative study of religions.
There is another thing that the book glosses over: the ‘land’ in ‘Gorkhaland’. For a region whose destiny has been inextricably tied to its being a ‘piece of land’ – from the time it was ‘gifted’ away by the Raja of Sikkim to current Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stated desire to make Gorkhaland into a Switzerland – this is a serious omission. The notion of statehood, though mentioned in the book’s subtitle, is never problematised. Nor is the fact that Gorkhaland’s aspirations extend beyond becoming merely another state of the Indian union. Darjeeling is a frontier town, and tied to that character is an element of foreignness that is both its charm and poison. How could that, and so much else, have escaped Bagchi’s attention?
~ Sumana Roy is a poet and writer who lives in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India.