Saturday, November 22, 2008

DARJEELING: THE PAST, THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE.

DARJEELING: THE PAST, THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE.

THE PAST

Most of what I am going to say is what I heard from my husband because he spent most of his childhood in Darjeeling. A quarter of a century ago and a little more Darjeeling used to be more than just a one horse town. Paid municipal sweepers would sweep the roads so clean that is unimaginable today. School children would go to school in their properly designed uniforms looking like babalogs. There would be hustle and bustle in the market place but never chaos. Customers would lineup waiting for their turns; everyone’s speech was silver like in the saying. Just simple middle class men and women going about their lives in an orderly fashion. The office goers would go to work on time and return home only after they due time. The police force functioned properly. Municipality made sure the streets were clean. There was electricity in every home and water flowed in the pipelines. Even the fire brigade trucks had water at any given time. Most of the tea gardens were open

and produced ample quantities of good quality tea to supply to the whole world. The workers were happy with their work and their wages. They would come to the market place every Sunday to buy their requirements and spend their wages. There would be two tourist seasons. One, in the beginning of March to the end of June and other was the short Puja season, September-October, after the rains. All said and done, it was a fairy tale like place where people lived happily. But without these simple folks suspecting anything, they were ominous dark clouds gathering in the horizon.

The tea gardens began to shut down one after the other because of management and union problems. Without the wages coming in, the labour force could not support their families. Consequently they moved to the town in search of work. Without education and a lack skilled knowledge about anything worthwhile, except plucking tea leaves, most of them found themselves out of place and jobless. In the beginning, the migration was a trickle. Then people began to come in droves, as more and more tea gardens shut down their shutters. Darjeeling town to begin with, was built for a population of 30 thousand. Now with a population many times over, the civic amenities were being tested to their limits. Consequently the electric bulbs burnt like oil lamps. Water trickled in the pipelines. Uncollected garbage piled up in the streets and the happiness of this fairy tale land was short lived. Homeless migrants encroached upon government land and constructed their shacks overnight. They felled trees illegally as a result of which whatever water had been there, dried up in the source. The sweepers did not bother to sweep the roads like before. Even the children in their uniforms seemed to lose their innocence. There were strikes, rallies, chaos everyday. New political parties began to form; each party trying to undo the other. One such party on account of its militant ideology gained ground almost overnight. It seemed at one point in time every house in the hills was a member of that party. Unemployed youth were trained the use of guns and kukris. Many such militant cadres were formed throughout the hills of Darjeeling. The fight was against the government. Government buildings and properties were torched and houses belonging to another party were razed to the ground and the occupants either killed or chased away. The police became like puppets on a chain, being able to do little or nothing to the situation which was going from bad to worse. The government finally resorted to seeking help from the center. The central government likewise sent in their paramilitary forces. Now instead of the situation improving it went from bad to worse with the forces unleashing a reign of terror upon a population as a whole. Hundreds of people were murdered, their houses burnt and their women raped by the same protectors of law and order.

Matters were going out of hand. The leaders of the party and central government decided to solve the issue through dialogue. After much haggling, a separate autonomous state was not given to the Gorkhas but an autonomous council with sufficient powers was handed over to these simple people who had never tasted any kind of executive power before but had obeyed their superiors either white or brown for many generations.

The happiness of the people knew no bounds. People accepted this council with much dancing and singing in the streets and bursting of fire crackers. The leader of the movement, who was the mastermind in designing the intricacies of the council, was treated no less than god. Gradually he began to take his new status very seriously so much so that he would dictate the people which god to worship and which not to. Even the rituals had to be according to his dictates. Idol worship was out and stone worship was in. He brainwashed the whole community that they were nature worshippers and all sorts of unheard of items began to be worshipped, including monkeys.

In the meantime people flourished, at least those who could extract favors from him. His councilors who in themselves were crooks of the worst kind, and some of his party workers who had been formally unemployed and with a penchant for rowdiness, began to get small contracts for buildings, roads and resorts in the hills. Their quality of work was most shoddy and Darjeeling began to look a changed place – a change for the worse. Recently tarred roads began to develop potholes, water pipes dried up, and they weren’t any kind of the sewage system to keep control of the human waste.

Multistoried buildings began to mushroom everywhere obstructing the view of the Kunchanjunga. People would rush home before sundown for fear of being mugged. This kind of situation went on for 21 years.

THE PRESENT

By a stroke of fortune or just co-incidence, the two decade long situation in Darjeeling was turned on its head. Overnight another saviour emerged with his new flag and his new party. The old party and the old flag which had been cherished for so long became taboo. Now it looked as though everyone in Darjeeling had switched over to this new reformed party. What must have attracted the people to the party must be the complete difference in the two ideologies. The former one had professed violence; this one followed in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi by following non violence as its ideology. The same people danced in the streets, covered one another’s face with vermillion and burst crackers as if it was Diwali, which is the festival to celebrate the victory of good over evil. The saviour and the leader of the party announced that freedom had come at last. The people could worship any gods, wear any clothes and speak whatever their wanted to. Because of his liberal views ,the leader attained a demi god status and his people were worshipping the dust he trod upon. This party had a set agenda to bring the government to its knees. There were hunger strikes, the long marches, rallies but no violence. Even the retired personal of the Gurkha regiment were asked to play their part in the movement. In one such rally the bravest soldiers in the world returned home physically and morally battered. They did not lift their hands in self defense. Thus they were humiliated. It is said one seventy three year old retired Gurkha soldier came back home and committed suicide rather than bear the humiliation. There was not a word of praise or condemnation in the media of the incident. What can be expected of a country that treats its brave soldiers in such a fashion? At about a same time several young women attending a rally were kicked and had their clothes torn by those who opposed Gorkhaland. There were some other agendas up their sleeves. During another rally which included mostly women, the house of the former leader was gheraoed. Before anyone knew what was going on, shots were fired from within the house and one women demonstrator was killed instantly. What followed next had nothing to do with Gandhiji’s teachings of non violence. Several of the houses belonging to the former leaders were ransacked and set on fire. Several cars and motorcycles were torched and some of these leaders were chased out of the hills so much so that even their dead bodies were not allowed to be brought back for their last rights. When questioned about all this, the present leadership said it was mob fury and nothing to do with party’s ideology.

This answer from the leadership did not satisfy many- especially the educated class. Isn’t the leadership accountable for what the rank and file does in any organization? They asked. Enmity is with the living. The dead are honored in any given society; even enemy soldiers’ bodies are returned honorably for their last rites.

Festival season arrived, the time to celebrate goodness and freedom. The hill people were asked to wear costumes identifying their ethnic identities. The hill people, by nature are simple folk. They seldom ask why? Most of them wore their ethnic dresses. Darjeeling began to resemble Taplejung in Nepal on a market day. Most the people wore the dresses for the reasons of their own. Action was taken against the few who erred. Their faces were painted with tar. Again when the leadership was asked for an explanation; they replied it was nothing to do with the party’s orders. It was the public taking action on their own. The festive season looked colorful but the incident left a bad taste in the mouth of many.

Another of their agenda required all vehicles to have the number plates changed from W.B. to G.L. Those vehicles plying in the hills did so happily without any desired consequences. Those who brought the vehicles in the plains with G.L. number had to bear the wrath of the Gorkhaland opposing public as well as the police. Similar incidences occurred in the hills with the vehicles bearing W.B. numbers. A few vehicles with S.K. numbers even had their number plates defaced.

As things were not getting anywhere, at the request of Gandhi – this time the grandson of the original Gandhi and the governor of West Bengal, the non cooperation agenda was withdrawn for the moment.

With all the antics going on in the hills the government of West Bengal has not batted an eyelid-they are just waiting and watching-the crafty old foxes that they are. Now hope lies in the tripartite talks to be held some time in November. As in any game, who blinks first will lose. Much is at stake for the Indian Gorkhas.

A PEEK INTO HISTORY

It may not be out of place to mention Gandhiji’s Dandi march here. One frail man needing a support of a walking stick broke the Empires law by making salt at Dandi. The British government with all its might was shaken to its hilt by this frail man’s simple act of disobedience.

Another instance which really brought the British government to its knees was through boycott of the British textiles and the use of khadi . The cotton mills in Manchester and Lancashire had to close down because of the boycott. What an adverse effect this simple act had on the Mighty Empire.

THE FUTURE

You cannot talk of the future without talking of the past. Someone has likened the plight of the Indian Gorkhas to that of the Israelites of biblical times and the modern Israelis of today. In any comparison, there is bound to be similarities and dissimilarities. The situation is no different here. The Israelites were a people bound by the common thread of religion, viz. Judaism. They have been persecuted throughout history. They were exiled from their homeland in Palestine as a result of which they roamed the wilderness for years. They were again taken to Egypt as slaves. As it always happens in a situation like this one; among them arose a leader called Moses.. He was finally able to emancipate his people and bring them back to the holy land.

The Jews have been persecuted all over the world for more than a millennium. There have been ethnic cleansing of the Jews all over Europe for more than a thousand years; the worst of them was Hitler’s “final solution” where more than six million Jews perished in the concentration camps of Europe. Only after the Second World War ended and Germany was defeated that the Jews were given back their biblical homeland which they called Israel. A man named Ben Gurian, a very determined leader was the mastermind who led his people to freedom. Today streets, universities and the airport have been named after him. He had been a refugee from Poland who began his career plucking oranges in a kibbutz. He was made the first prime minister of the nation where he led his country through much difficult times viz. several wars with the neighboring Arab states most of whom deny the existence of Israel but Israel won all the wars. It was Ben Gurian’s idea which made the Negev desert bloom. Finally, when he retired he went back to his kibbutz in the Negev as an ordinary worker and lived in a small wood cottage. I visited his cottage which I found to be no different from one of the many houses dotting both sides of the Tenzing Norway highway along the Siliguri Darjeeling route. On a table there was his revolver in a holster and along its side, a framed photograph of Gandhi. I was unable to comprehend how Ben Gurian was able to amalgamate these two very opposing ideologies and still make them work for his country. At a reception in Tel Aviv a former Israeli diplomat commented to me that the pacifism of Gandhi would not work for the Israelis considering the position they are in. I being neither a politician nor a political analyst said nothing, simply nodded my head in agreement.

Now to answer the question who the Gorkhas are and is their plight similar to that of the Jews, we must go back in history a little and trace their origin in Nepal. Just over three hundred years, Nepal was not a unified country as it is today. It was a congregation of several small kingdoms stretching from the east in Sikkim to right up to Himachal Pradesh running parallel to and encompassing the mountains, valleys and foot hills of the Himalayas. The ancestors of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the man who unified Nepal came from Rajasthan, India following the Kumoan, Garhwal trail and finally landing in Gorkha in West Nepal. Having been crowned as king of Gorkha Prithvi Narayan Shah began to wage wars with the smaller neighboring kingdoms until he conquered every one of them. The three city states of Kathmandu valley viz. Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur were his final trophies. These kingdoms had been ruled by Malla kings who were more concerned with the advancement of culture, science and the arts than warfare. It is for all to see even today how advanced a culture it had been just by looking at temple architecture and the layout of these cities. These people were called Newars who were very advanced for their times.

Prithvi Narayan Shah after defeating the Newar kings made Kathmandu his capital but now he had a more formidable adversary to deal with viz. the East India Company and later the British Empire itself. After several attempts only they were finally able to defeat the Nepalese army. They forced Nepal to cede much of its territories stretching from the east to west. As a result, Darjeeling and Sikkim came under British rule and so did Kumoan, Garhwal, Deheradun right up to Himachal Pradesh. The Gorkhas you may see in these places today never migrated from Nepal but only had their citizenship altered forcibly. On the other hand it may not by entirely correct to say not a single of them migrated to India. The British were developing their new found crown jewel which was India at a feverish pitch. They needed labor which was to be found cheap and in abundance in neighbouring Nepal. Many Nepalese migrated to the fertile Brahmaputra valley in Assam. Others migrated emass to Darjeeling from eastern Nepal to find jobs in the building of roads, railway lines and tea plantation. Many of them also came as businessman from as far away as Kathmandu and western Nepal. Last but not the least, the British were thoroughly impressed by the fighting skills of these Nepalese whom they named Gurkhas and inducted them into their armed forces. Today, the Gurkhas have earned the admiration of the world as the bravest and the most loyal soldiers in the world which is no mean feat. Even these soldiers after retirement made India their home. Today the so called Gurkhas are scattered all over India especially among the Himalayan belt stretching from Assam right up to Himachal Pradesh. They even have a sizeable population in Bhutan. More often, we hear of these people being persecuted in places like Assam and Manipur where some militant organizations have time and again threatened them with ethnic cleansing. Bhutan, over a decade ago acted in a rash manner where by more than one hundred thousand Bhutanese of Nepalese origin were exiled from the country. Until now no solution has been found for these refugees who have been living in the refugee camps in the eastern Nepal. Bhutan considers them foreigners; India has nothing to do with them and Nepal in no way will except them. Then who are these people and where will they go? This is the predicament of the Gorkhas, always having to live under the Damocles’ sword of ethnic cleansing hanging over their heads on a perpetual basis.

Time and again, even certain ignorant politicians in power have had the cheek to say that the Gorkhas are foreigners and finally must return to their homeland. But whenever a war breaks out or there is a war like situation along the boarder these young brave Gurkha soldiers have made the final sacrifice so many times that we have lost count. Are these soldiers Indians or are they of another nationality? There are more young widows and bereaving mothers from this community than any other in India. Can India disown the bodies of these young soldiers?

As a result of this and other discrimination, the Gorkhas have been asking for a place which they can call home, from where they may not be chased away. Is this asking for too much? Now, comparing the Gorkha’s plight with the Israeli situation, I must admit glaring differences arise between the two. The Israelis are fighting external forces to survive while the Gorkhas have to deal with the forces from within. Israelis have been bound by the common thread of religion while the Gorkhas are divided by religion, language, culture etc. The Israelis speak Hebrew today though just a half a century ago Hebrew was a biblical language something like Sanskrit here. Refugees from all over Europe began pouring in after the World War II and language became a problem. A visionary linguist called Ben Yehuda worked day and night to modernize Hebrew. Today it has become a modern language spoken by all and used in schools, colleges, offices, etc

The Gorkhas, I must confess have a few characteristics of the Israelis lacking. They are not united to say the least. There is always infighting as to who will take the mantel of leadership. To some of these so called leaders the offer for separate homeland, it appears is much less attractive than the royal incentives which come with it. The action of the past 21 years is an undeniable evidence of this mindset. Israel became independent one year after India but for more than a decade now she has been counted among the developed nations of the world while India is forever developing. Corruption, lack of integrity and accountability and complacency are the stumbling blocks here. While the Israeli character is flawless on these accounts. The Gorkhas need a leader like Ben Gurian who after retirement went back to the collective farm to pluck some more oranges. No marble bungalows for him, no Z category security and hardly any bank balance. That is why he had to keep on earning his living plucking oranges instead of living off a fat bank balance which usually is the case here. The creation of modern Israel gives the Gorkhas an ample opportunity to take it as a case study and emulate from their example.

No one can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not. The same holds true of the future of the Indian Gorkhas. Will they finally get a homeland within India or will they have to face a more precarious predicament. Only time will tell. Of course, we shall have to learn from the Israelis, the Western Nations and the more developed countries like Singapore and Japan where integrity, non corruptibility , accountability, respect for the rule of law and fairness in all kinds of dealings make them who they are today. To an optimist the situation in Darjeeling will be better off in the future than it has been for this long. The roads will be swept clean again, the street lights will burn bright, water will flow in the taps, the children will regain their innocence, the unemployed will have jobs, the tourist will come back and the smile in the face of the people will return.

1 comment:

r-a-j-a said...

TS Eliot has a remarkable and cunning comment on history- (in his poem HOLLOW MAN)"history has many cunning passages". Nothing such as history indeed is more confusing and biased.
History is a glass turned into mirror by pasting bloods behind. History is in fact the story of bloods, sweats and tears. The true story of history should not be bypassed by cuning history through the cunning passages.
Serpent of history always tries hard to nibble up our present.
Hence, All Histories of the World should be Rewritten!