Darjeeling, the Bengali Bhadralok, and the Gorkhaland Movement

April 29, 2018

This article, written in 2017 in the backdrop of the ongoing struggle in North Bengal, has been written by Tathagata and appeared in the Bengali political monthly Aneek. It has been translated by Anindya Dey.

Hills. Darjeeling. Kalimpong. Ghoom.

For middle class Bengalis, these names symbolize some special images. These images can be found in one’s camera, in the neighbor’s photo gallery, on the walls of teashops, in brochures of the neighborhood travel agent, or in Bengali films like Satyajit Ray’s “Kanchenjangha”.

The narrative of “Kanchenjangha” revolves around the members of a wealthy Bengali family on a vacation in Darjeeling and certain individuals related to the family, as they grapple with various complexities and unresolved issues in their lives. According to the characters of the film, the hectic urban life of Kolkata squeezes out the opportunity or courage for such a dialogue. 



The misty hills of Darjeeling inspires them  to dust off their fatigued urban lives and begin afresh. The storyline of “Kanchenjangha” is important for our discussion, since the characters represent the prototypes of Bengali tourists in the hills of Darjeeling.

Bengalis from Kolkata visit the hills to rejuvenate themselves, leaving behind the exhaustion and worries of their urban middle-class lives. For some, it is a much needed escapade, far away from the stifling routine of work and family. Traveling along the serene winding roads up the mountain, one wants to believe that one owns these hills and forests. 

Bengalis love to romanticize Darjeeling in poems, songs and cinema. Much like the man who, after yet another frustrating day at work, returns home to play the role of an all-powerful patriarch, Bengali tourists love to think of themselves as the master of the hills during their vacation at the end of the year.

For a long time the people of Darjeeling played along with such attitudes at the cost of their own dignity. The hills served as an exotic venue for meetings of CEOs and government officials from across the country. In Bengali and Bollywood films, the majestic beauty of Darjeeling was used as a background for an alien narrative, while the people and the culture of the hills were routinely depicted as mere props. No Bengali film-maker would ever dream of treating them  as the subject of a film called “Kanchenjangha”.

As long as the tea-garden workers silently toiled under the tyranny of the bhadralok manager, and the Gurkha attendant at the tourist lodges ran the errands with a smile, the Bengalis had nothing but admiration for Darjeeling. As long as the people pretended to be happy with meagre handouts of the Bengal government distributed through the GTA and other local administrative boards, Bengal’s faith in Darjeeling was unshakable.

However, the day Darjeeling started asking tough questions about her condition, she became a traitor in the eyes of Bengal in no time. When she tried to sing her own songs — not as a background score but as the central theme — she was quickly dubbed as “extremist”, “terrorist” and “anti-national”. Bullets and tear gases ravaged Darjeeling-Kalimpong-Sonada killing workers and unemployed youth — the hills were on fire. As tea-garden workers, who were on the verge of destitution, went on strike for their legitimate rights and wages, the police and administration moved to strangle the resistance using brute force. A crushing blockade was imposed on the movement of essential goods, including food and medicine, from the plains of Duars to the hills. 

Meanwhile, the Bengali news media, whose understanding of Darjeeling didn’t go much beyond her tourist attractions, lost no time in spinning stories about how Darjeeling had betrayed the trust of Bengalis. Such was the fervor for  discrediting the people’s movement, that not a single objective and analytical article on the century-old struggle for Gorkhaland could be found in the mainstream media.

No one cared to note, for example, the state of utter neglect of the Nepali language and the imposition of Bengali in government-run schools. The academic curriculum in the hills consists of a single paper on the Nepali language, while all the other subjects are taught in English. For all these years, there was little effort on the state government’s part to prepare a curriculum in Nepali. As a result, students in government-run schools are gradually losing their proficiency in the language. Under such circumstances, making Bengali compulsory as the third language in schools can have disastrous consequences for an already beleaguered community.

While people of West Bengal may not care much, the people from erstwhile East Bengal, who still carry the memories of the “Bhasha Andolon” in their hearts, will most definitely relate to the sentiments of the people of Darjeeling. In any case, the shamelessly false propaganda on the movement went on unabated, while uncomfortable news, like the police assault on local women, were summarily suppressed.

Every day, the Bengali news media tried to convince people that there was little popular support for Gorkhaland, and the entire crisis was the work of a few mischievous politicians and marginal political groups. The narrative is uncannily similar to how women’s struggle for honor and freedom within the family is dismissed as a conspiracy hatched by a few “extreme feminists”.  To make space for this false propaganda, the flow of information from the hills had to be throttled, which the administration did by suspending the phone and internet connections. It is also important to note that, during confrontation with protestors, the Gurkha police sergeants would form the first line of defense with the Bengali officers pulling the strings from behind.

The urban Bengali had little concern for the deaths of tea-garden workers from starvation. The struggles of Lepchas and other tribal communities in the hills didn’t seem to figure in the thoughts of Bengali intellectuals either. Given this history, their concern for the daily hardships endured by the local people as a result of the strikes, rings hollow and laced with self-interest.

With the strikes gaining strength, the Bengali intellectuals seem to have woken up to the question of what the situation of Lepchas would be in the proposed Gorkhaland. In any struggle of self-determination, there are internal contradictions which the community needs to resolve. The task should be shouldered by democratic individuals and organizations within the movement. People outside the struggle should definitely extend their hands of friendship and assistance, but trying to discredit and derail a movement on this pretext reeks of nefarious motives.

After all, when the people from West Bengal faced the political and socio-economic crisis precipitated by the arrival of people from East Bengal as refugees, the Gurkhas did not lecture them on how to resolve it.

In any case, aside from the question of tribal communities like the Lepchas and Bhutiyas, there are other democratic issue that the Gorkhaland movement has to resolve. Minimum wage for tea-garden workers as well as their education and healthcare benefits, rights of women and other genders, fighting caste oppression and economic inequality — are important issues for the society in the hills, like any other society. And that is anything but surprising. But the direction and leadership of these struggles, as well as the contours of a democratic Gorkhaland, should emerge from the local democratic organizations. And the fact is, these struggles have already begun.

The Kolkata-based Bengali intellectuals are willfully ignorant of them. In their imagination, the epitome of democratic struggle across the Tista river is still  the Bengali hero Animesh of “Kaalbela” . The idea that Gurkhas, Bhutiyas or Lepchas can be leaders of such a movement and not just soldiers, sounds a little alien to them — very much like salt-tea, or gundruk soup. What is gundruk? Well, use your smartphone. Kolkata still has internet. 

It is important to emphasize that there is nothing wrong in reading the works of Samaresh Majumdar or enjoying Bengali cuisine. But trying to judge another community on that basis is problematic.  In any case, we do not even know that the sound of the state’s gunfire in the hills is being drowned by poems, songs and plays penned by Darjeeling’s very own writers and musicians. The Bengali left-leaning intellectuals of Kolkata haven’t read or heard Pradip Lohagun’s poems from the protest marches (translated):

A hungry body cannot read the letters of the constitution,

A naked body cannot bear the weight of democracy,

Neither can the bare feet of the homeless make it to the parliament.

The nature of hunger is to satiate itself,

It knows no other religion.

It is understandable that many people haven’t read his work, and that included, until very recently, the author himself. But the problem is that historically, Bengali leftist intellectuals have shown little interest in reading the work of poets like Pradip Lohagun. They haven’t heard the conviction and courage oozing out from the lines of poet Xeoyang Yonzon (translated)— 

Muzzling a voice by slitting a throat,

Killing a dream by gouging eyes out,

Stalling a revolution by cutting off the fingers of an author,

When in human history has it ever worked?

They haven’t heard Proshid Rai, a singer who grew up in a tea-garden, and his song “Muktomon”. Poets and artists like Prodip, Xeoyang, Proshid are progenies of a long history of cultural activism, which involved writers like Agam Singh Giri, Parijat, and Bikash Gotam. A Bengali intellectual, angry at  the arrogance of Delhi, Mumbai or the US,  thinks of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Indian Ocean and Delhi Sultanate as cultural activists. For some, the list might include Kabir Suman, Moushumi Bhoumik, and Mohiner Ghoraguli.  “Cultured” and “political” Bengalis have never thought of putting activists like Parijat on the same list.

Anyway, let’s return to the main story. The state’s plan of muzzling the voice of the hills by suspending internet services was disposed off by the people from the heights of the Rongo into the Jaldhaka river. Instead, the music and poems emerging from their collective struggle sound like a disdainful laughter directed at Kolkata and Delhi. This is laughter that comes with gaining freedom from oppression. This will not be celebrated in newspaper headlines as “The Hills are Smiling”, since this laughter has struck fear in the heart of the oppressor, aside from revealing the true nature of Bengali nationalism.

Since Bengali nationalism is being used to argue against the case of Gorkhaland, it would not be irrelevant to inquire about the sociocultural relation of West Bengal with the East, after the partition of Bengal. When we talk about Bengali literature, how many writers, poets and lyricists from Bangladesh figure in that discussion? West Bengal’s chief minister and education minister wish to impose Bengali on the hills, even as they rail against the imposition of Hindi by Delhi on the states. It is worth asking how many in their own party feel closer to Dhaka-Barishal-Chattogram than Delhi-Mumbai-Gurgaon. How many of these self-appointed custodians of Bengali language and culture know the history of “Bhasha Andolon”?

If they did, they would probably have understood Gorkhaland somewhat better. They would have also realized that giving ludicrous names to Metro stations or posting superficial messages on Facebook on the birth anniversaries of Jibanananda and Nazrul Islam, will neither save the Bengali language nor defeat the cultural aggression unleashed by Delhi.

It is essential to resist the ruling class in Delhi and their main instrument of cultural aggression — the Hindi language. It is as crucial for West Bengal as it is for Gorkhaland. But Bengal’s ruling class has unleashed a brutal reign of terror on that pretext, with its police and administration on the one hand and the state-sponsored intelligentsia on the other . The fire of Bengali nationalism they have lit in the hills and forests of Darjeeling  is only benefitting the BJP and its government in Delhi. 

One should not forget that Gorkhaland has its own ruling class, which has time and again proved its opportunism. They have traded the aspirations of the people for financial benefits with the dominant political parties of the day — BJP, Trinamool, CPIM or the Congress. In addition, the hills have lucrative natural resources. The project of selling off Darjeeling’s hills, forests, rivers, tea-gardens and cinchona plantations, cannot be stalled by appealing to meaningless nostalgia. Under present circumstances, the West Bengal government will not be able to prevent an alliance between Delhi’s ruling class and at least parts of Gorkhaland’s ruling class. Similar to their utter failure in arresting the growth of RSS by appealing to Hindu majoritarian sentiments, the Bengal government’s strategy in the hills is doomed.  However, these opportunistic alliances are taking a heavy toll on the democratic organizations and common people on a daily basis. They have to engage in a two-front battle — against the state and against people within the organization, and the fight is only getting harder every day. 

Under these circumstances, it is imperative for every democratic individual to stand in solidarity with the people of the hills, and try and understand their language, struggle and pain. It is at least as important for Bengal, as it is for Gorkhaland. 

These days, winds of change are sweeping Gorkhaland. People in Darjeeling and Kalimpong do not have the time to appreciate the beauty of Kanchenjangha. The squares are thronging with common people, as rallies of thousands are marching along the mountainous roads. In every corner of Gorkhaland, hundreds of people are attending local village meetings. Tea leaves have not been collected for quite some time, as the tea garden workers have put forth the demand of minimum wage along with that for Gorkhaland. 

The height of those tea plants are increasing every day, much like the loudness of slogans reverberating in the streets. The hills have come alive with songs and poems and street theatre. Pamphlets are being distributed and posters put up in spite of the heavy rain. Signatures are being collected. Thousands of women are marching every day shouting slogans demanding empowerment along with Gorkhakland. Little magazine like “Laali Gulas” is being handed out. Innumerable poems, songs and street-plays are being written by the common people. The colors of their pain, love and anger are taking the form of slogans and street art every day.

Under a project called “Pahal”, cultural activists have undertaken a march over a few hundred miles across the hills. They started from Kalimpong to Darjeeling, marched to Sukna via Jorbanglo, and after a few days headed to Gorubathhan through Kalimpong and Lava, followed by Rongo. In the next step, they marched from Bijanbari to Mirik through Sukhiapokhri. People, starving as a result of the blockade, were seen waiting by the road with whatever resources they had to feed and encourage the marchers. The old woman who sells vegetables on the street, the younger woman who runs her household selling plastic sheets, handed away their only source of income to the marchers. People who had nothing were also there, shouting slogans with dreams in their eyes, as the marchers passed by. If you listened carefully, you would hear the marchers singing Bengali songs like “Ek Jhhank Ichhedana” or “ Amra Korbo Joy” as well as Nepali, Hindi and English songs.

While the local people are extremely critical of Magmata Banerjee and Narendra Modi, there is probably a greater concern about the reliability of their own leaders. What if they backstab the movement yet again? People seem determined — this time they won’t be spared. In the backdrop of these discussions, one can hear protestors playing mouthorgan, melodica, guitar and djembe. One can hear —

Bato deu, bato deu,

Noulo juglai bato deu,

Sunulo juglai bato deu,

Hami andhi ki santhan.

(Make way, make way,

Make way for new days,

Make way for golden days,

I am a child of the storm.)

As thousands of young men and women including school students joined the protests against police atrocities, one could see a clear approval and a sense of pride tinged with a bit of worry in the eyes of their parents. Different rallies often meet along the mountainous roads, with songs and slogans seamlessly blending into each other. Thousands of clenched fists rise in the air, as if they want to rip the stars off from the night sky. Different community halls are busy cooking daal and rice for hundreds of protestors. And then, for a few hours after midnight, there is a lull, as the mountains guard over their sleeping children. The next morning sees another cycle of rallies, songs, guitars and slogans, possibly another police firing, blood and death (until now six people have been martyred in police firing).

Whether the dream of Gorkhaland is realized or not, the people of the hills have won. They have freed themselves from the oppressive “love” of the Bengali middle class. With their own blood, they are writing their own love songs. They do not need Satyajit’s “Kanchenjangha” anymore. These days, Kanchenjangha lifts its misty curtain to get a peek of Darjeeling-Khorsang-Kalebung, and says : well done, comrade! 

1 Comment »

One Response to “Darjeeling, the Bengali Bhadralok, and the Gorkhaland Movement”

  1. K SHESHU BABU Says:
    May 2nd, 2018 at 13:02

    Amidst natural beauty of Darjeeling mountains and greenery, struggles by indigenous people and workers have been going on for a long time. The yearning for autonomy and self determination has made the rulers deploy forces and muzzle freedom of expression. Still, people are carrying their struggles with renewd vigor and optimism bravig extreme repression and exploitation

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