Why is Darjeeling Burning?
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on February 18, 2011
To answer this question I’ll have to tell you a little about Darjeeling’s history and its inhabitants who are essentially an indigenous people called the Gorkhas or Gurkhas as the Brits would like to spell it. In the beginning, they happened to be the most formidable adversary for the British during their campaign to conquer the world as it were, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After having taken much of India, now their eyes fell upon a smallish hill kingdom known as Nepal which had a record of not having been under foreign rule ever and it is still true today as it had been then. This makes the Nepalese a proud people. During one of the British campaigns to subdue the Nepalese, the latter with a force of just two hundred soldiers and their families, are known to have held the fort of Nala Pani, near today’s Dehradun in India, for two years. It was during this siege, the British General Gillespie was killed. After cutting off the fort’s water supply, the British waited some more time for the Nepalese to surrender. When no such thing happened, they stormed the fort to find everyone had disappeared without a trace. It was a moral victory for the Nepalese. There were no more wars between the British and the Nepalese but only truces during which Nepal had to concede much of its territories to the British Empire. The British Raj in turn left them at peace and being impressed by their fighting skills, they began to induct able bodied men into their army. Thus was born the British Gurkha Regiment.
DARJEELING IS BORN
I’m no historian or a political analyst so whatever I write will be from a common man’s perspective. There are no dates or corroborative references to show so correct me if I am wrong. To get a bigger picture, we must go back even before The British East India Company had got a stranglehold of much of India. There was no such country as Nepal then. A Raput clan, which later became the Shah dynasty, after having been harassed relentlessly by the Mughal armies, escaped to the hills of Gorkha, now in western Nepal. Today’s Nepal consisted of small principalities divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Prithivi Narayan Shah, one of the chieftains of the principality of Gorkha had expansionist designs which led him and his army to finally conquer all these hill states including the Kathmandu valley which under his kingship came to be called Nepal. Thus was established the Shah Dynasty and the country of Nepal. Gurkha or Gorkha was a name given to the Nepalese people by the British. Much of the Nepalese people being martial in nature continued to conquer more land towards the east and the west. When they took stock finally, they had under them much of Sikkim in the east and up to Himachal Pradesh in the west. Thanks to the British treaties, they are now left with a miserable piece of land which we call Nepal. [It is a beautiful country, no doubt].
My concern is with the eastern part of what then belonged to Nepal. Thanks again to the Brits, this tract of land between the rivers Mechi and Teesta, changed hands and was returned to Sikkim. The Rajah of Sikkim was beyond himself by the favour done to them by the British and being generous to a fault signed away the same tract of land to them because the British Sahibs found the climate suitable for their mem sahibs to live during the long Indian summers. What went on between the mem sahibs and the few sahibs left to take care of them in the hills is a topic for another story. The plains of India were too hot for them during the summers and so they began building small new townships in the hills which they called ‘hill stations’. Thus began the history of Darjeeling which in the early 1800’s was sparsely populated by the indigenous Lepcha people and a few hundred families of the Gorkha soldiers who had opted to stay back when Nepal conceded these tracts of land to the British. One important point to note about the Gorkha soldiers was that in their unique way of warfare they brought their families along so everywhere they conquered they would have readymade families to settle down with. This was true in Himachal Pradesh, the hills of Uttar Pradesh and even Sikkim and Darjeeling. So, giving a foreign tag to the Indian Gorkhas by some communities is like calling the Indian Prime Minister, Man Mohan Singh, who was born in Pakistan, a foreigner. Even Sonia Gandhi is of Italian ancestry and the father of the CPM party, the late Jyoti Basu, also came to West Bengal from Bangladesh. It is said up to three million Bengali refugees entered India after the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Hundreds of thousands of them pour into North Bengal every year along the almost porous border. They form a readymade vote bank for the CPM party and they have no difficulty in obtaining ration cards or voter’s ID cards, issued by the Election Commission. Thus, these Bengalees from Bangladesh become pucca Indian citizens by nefarious means while the Gorkhas who came to India with the land have always been treated as outsiders and atrocities against them in most of the North Eastern states have become a regular affair. This is the only reason why the Indian Gorkhas aspire for a separate land for themselves inside the Indian union.
As the British sahibs were preparing themselves to beat the heat building hill stations, they needed labour to build roads, buildings and other infrastructure. The Gorkhas from the eastern parts of Nepal came in droves looking for work and there seemed to be plenty for all those who came because the Brits had a bright idea planting tea in the hill tracts and the adaptable Gorkha community made themselves at home working in these plantations. By their sweat and blood, today after almost two centuries, Darjeeling tea has become the best tea in the world.
Time passes and the Gorkha community becomes sizable. They sent countless deputations to the British Indian Government asking them to give them a separate identity as a people within India. All this fell to deaf ears. Sometimes, the Darjeeling district would be clubbed together with Darbhanga in Bihar and at other times with some other areas seemingly for administrative suitability. It appears that at the time of independence, the people of Darjeeling were so confused and frustrated that as a form of protest, they hoisted the Pakistani flag from the town hall. Darjeeling had to stay as a district within the state of West Bengal.
Discontentment remained as an undercurrent amongst the people of Darjeeling for decades because they were behind in every aspect such as education, employment, economy etc… There weren’t enough educational institutions to study or enough jobs in this very backward tract of land. Whatever infrastructure the British had built became either defunct from lack of maintenance or disgracefully inadequate. As the decades passed, the population swelled as is the case in the rest of India but the quality of life worsened for the Gorkha community while it has improved considerably for most parts of India after the so called economic reforms. The tea gardens began to close down while the fat owners themselves invested their money elsewhere in the new upcoming Indian economy. We have read many times of tea garden workers of the closed gardens starving to death while the owners have been eating cake.
Having had it up to their necks, the discontentment amongst the Indian Gorkhas erupts into a violent agitation which lasted for a couple of years during which several thousand people were ruthlessly killed by the paramilitary forces sent by the Federal Government of India. Thousands of people were rendered homeless and most shameful of all was the use of rape as a weapon of war. The Gorkha leaders were brought to the table for talks but naivety took its toll again. Darjeeling was given the status of an autonomous council which supposedly had powers just a little more than a municipality. But the funds they were promised were many fold. This so called DGHC accord was supposed to be the full and final agreement and the demand for Gorkhaland was a closed chapter. The man who was supposed to have pulled it off believed himself to be the uncrowned king of the Gorkhas.There was dancing and singing in the streets of Darjeeling and other smaller towns across the hills and the night sky was lit up by fire works.
Time passes. To be precise, twenty two years passed and the children of the ‘revolution’ became adults. At the end of the day they had little to show in terms of development and any kind of upliftment of the economy. The precious little the ‘king’ and his men had done was build a few roads leading to nowhere and some grotesque looking buildings popularly called ‘community halls’ where people gathered to celebrate weddings and mourn deaths. The skyline of Darjeeling changed in a bizarre way in that many high rise buildings came up; all of them belong to a handful of people close to the ‘king’. The common man was short changed once more. The millions which came as development funds were unaccounted for. It so happened that one fine morning the ‘king of the Gorkhas’ was hounded out of the hills of Darjeeling and accompanying him were his councilors. Another Gorkha leader took charge under a new banner and a new improved philosophy of Gandhian non-violence. While the idea is excellent but my own personal view is that Gandhi and Gorkha are as different as chalk is from cheese because the Gorkha, though peaceful at most times, is a fighting man and on the other hand any kind of violence would make Gandhi’s head swim. If this new party’s belief in non-violence comes from the heart, instead of being a gimmick, I believe they will be able to achieve what they have set out to do, finally; no matter what the odds are. Because Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and truth has brought down the hated Apartheid regime in South Africa and Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement based along Gandhian principles brought freedom to the black people of America.
This new movement in Darjeeling seems to be more or less following the Gandhian path except for a few killings and burning of houses which their cadres vehemently deny. If they are following the path of truth from their hearts, they must know. One extremely sad episode was the brutal murder of another Gorkha leader who believed in Gorkhaland from his heart and was all the time telling people he knew the secret to achieve it. Till date no one knows who killed him but federal investigations are on and one day the truth may come out and justice will be served. Killing this man was equivalent toshooting the messenger.
The movement is continuing with sporadic instances of violence and hunger strikes, rallies, bandhs etc… Now only time will tell what turn the movement will take next and whether the Gorkha people will get their justice. At this point in time Darjeeling must feel like Cinderella just after that stroke of the mid night hour and she has just lost her slipper.
|By Rajan Pradhan|