Maybe it is the order of things that with age one’s keenness to enjoy festivities are blunted. You remember those who are robbed of the joy. The Durga puja of the hills of Darjeeling came to mind. The Nepali Hindus observe the festival for ten days. In their culture the pujas are linked with fertility rites observed by agrarian communities. On the first day of the festivities called Dashai by the Nepali community a kalash or a large bell metal water vessel is filled with water and topped with alluvial soil and dung. Various grains are planted and left to germinate. As far as I can recollect, the newly sprouted stalks, wrapped in red cloth, are carried to the place of worship on Sashtior the sixth day of the waxing moon. The hills burst into the mood of the festival in which even the non-Hindu communities participate. It is unlikely that they will be celebrating the pujas with the same verve this year. The wound of living in a state which is not theirs is gnawing at their guts. On the other hand, we Bengalis have largely succeeded in intensifying the differences between the hill tribes into antagonism for the sake of maintaining our control over all the communities. Added to this is uncertainty about the future and the economic crisis confronting the large segment of the population connected with tourism because visitors to the hills have dwindled to a trickle in anticipation of trouble.But they are the enemies, the traitors to the nation!
The hills disturb my peace because Darjeeling and her people are close to my heart, though I cannot claim much intimate knowledge apart from that gleaned from my students. Like an average Bengali tourist my wife and I travelled to many places in the hills of Darjeeling. That was during the early nineties. We used to visit almost thrice every year. We felt the warmth of the hospitality of the people but I do not have the temerity to claim that I gleaned much knowledge of the people. Rather I have come to know a lot from the large number of students from the region with whom I come into contact each year since I switched jobs eight years ago.
Many events many images flood my memory. I remembered one person particularly. She had rung me up just a few weeks back. A phone call onthe morning of Teachers’ Day delighted me but also filled my mind with a sense of helpless sadness. I was happy to hear Rinchu’s voice from distant Canada after so many days. Rinchu Doma Dukpa is a girl from the Dukpa tribe. She hails originally from some remote village in Darjeeling. She was once my student. She is now a researcher in Canada. But these hardly define Rinchu. She was a strong willed person when I taught her. She once beat up a roommate in her hostel because she did not accompany the students when they went to protest to the hostel warden about the leaking ceiling. I liked her straightforwardness and her commitment to whatever she believed in.
It was this commitment which drew her to the Ghising’s movement. Within a short time however, the opportunism of the leadership disillusioned her. But she never doubted the need of the people of this hill area for a separate state. So from the start of the new phase of the movement she has taken up the role of propagandist in social networking sites. Not that she has great faith in the current leadership. But she is more mature now and believes that if the people rise up they can defeat all the shenanigans and self seeking projects of the leadership.
She was bemoaning the fact that her posts on social networks had drawn vicious and ugly responses from Bengalese. She feels that most of the Bengalese are aggrandising and so look at the legitimate demands of the hill people as a conspiracy to divide Bengal. I do not quite agree with her assessment because those who live from hand to mouth are hardly bothered about what happens in the distant mountains; and these constitute the majority of the population. But I do feel that almost every Bengali who has the means to visit Darjeeling hills for a vacation feels that Darjeeling is an integral part of Bengal. So we have girded ourselves for a second Banga Bhanga andolan [the second movement against the division of Bengal, the first being against the decision of the British rulers to partition Bengal into East and West Bengal in 1905]. All the large political parties of West Bengal have joined this mass awakening at the call of mother Bengal! It is difficult to trace cause and effect, though. Maybe Bangla awakened first and then the political parties went into a competitive mode to outdo each other in their show of love for Bengal. Or maybe the political parties started the competition to fuel a more and more aggressive regional chauvinism with an eye to their vote banks.
I have never understood how the knowledgeable, argumentative, theoretician that the Bengali is, came to the conclusion that Darjeeling is an inalienable part of Bengal. A large number of hill people like the Rong, Tsong, Dukpa, Lepcha, Nepalese inhabit this region. Different communities like the Rai, Sarkis, Bhote have entered the region at different times. For example with the expansion of the Sikkimese kingdom in 1642 a large number of Bhutias entered this area. Again in the early part of the eighteenth century, when the Nepalese kingdom began to expand its reach to all parts of what are now the Indian Himalayas, the dominance of the Nepalese community began to increase. It may be pertinent to recall that in the seventh decade of the eighteenth century the Nepalese kingdom extended to Garwal, Kumaon, Kangra, Sikkim. When the Nepal king was defeated in the war of 1814-16, he was forced to cede all territories except Nepal. Darjeeling was handed over to the British through the treaty of Sigauli in 1816. In 1817 Darjeeling was given to the King of Sikkim through the treaty of Titalia. But because of its natural beauty it remained a prime vacation destination for the Company officers. So in 1835 the British forced the king of Sikkim to lease Darjeeling to them. Though ‘Gorkha’ is a district of Nepal the British used it indiscriminately to refer generally to all the people of this region as well as the Nepalese. 1905 Darjeeling was included in Bhagalpur subdivision of Bihar. In 1935 it was included in Bengal for administrative facility. Though it is difficult to settle who the ‘original’ inhabitants of this region were, it is clear that it was never an integral part of Bengal. The Bengali jehad against the Gorkhaland movement betrays the imperial mindset of the Bengalese.
In touring these parts as just a visitor I often saw how,bloated with conceit with our little knowledge, we look patronisingly at the hill people. Two decades ago my wife and I used to travel extensively in the area. Once we put up at a government tourist lodge in Kalimpong. The manager was a very hospitable gentleman. We travelled mainly in the winters. Going to the hills in the winter was not so much in vogue those days. The lodges were mostly empty. We went without proper enquiries. We found to our chagrin that the tariff for the room we had chosen at Morgan House was Rs 600. It was a princely amount those days and way beyond our means. But the manager did not let us go because I was a Bengali teacher! Morgan house boasted a very well cared garden with a large variety of flowers. The principle flower was Magnolia. We were chatting over dinner at his residence. He got up to show us a letter from the Bara Sahib of the tourism department in Kolkata. In curt officious tone he had commanded the manager. Grow magnolia plants!
We also saw evidence of barbaric torture inflicted upon them during the movement. Kurseong Tourist Lodge, a place we frequented regularly. Renga (name changed) the ebullient young man who looked after us every time hailed from Sonada. There were few guests in winter so he often had the time to accompany us on trips into the hills. Once we found someone else entrusted with Renga’s duties. Is Renga not in service? No employee was willing to communicate anything beyond the information that he was in service. It was only after much coaxing that we gathered from the manager that Renga had lost his mental stability as a result of police torture. He would sometimes become violent and would have to be locked up. The next day Renga was at his job. He carried out his duties with usual diligence but silently, with an expressionless face.
We are doing exactly what once our masters did. If the subjects become rebellious, set them against each other. Our task has been rendered easy because so many communities inhabit this region. Coupled with this is the lack of foresight and planning by the leadership of the movement. Only lately they had begun to make overtures to all communities. If they had been more democratic in their approach the movement of the hill people for dignity and self determination would have been more cohesive and strong.
Their movement is for self respect. Our resistance is exposing the Bengali will to dominate other people. In reality we had nothing to lose. If we had handed over to the rightful owners what we had acquired by dint of an administrative decision of the British, the travel loving Bengali would have been welcomed with warmer hospitality. Instead of that it is as if we are using the gift deed of a thief to deny the rightful owner.
Rinchu was saying that because of her features she was often asked ‘from which country do you hail?’ At airports, banks and even on a visit to the Taj she faced this query. She looks like a Naga or a Mizo, at least to the plains people. But they can say I am a Naga, I am a Mizo, I am a Manipuri. What is Rinchu to say? I am a Bengali? Will that be credible?
Or should she say: I am a subject of the Bengalese.
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