Darjeeling has once again flared up bringing forth the demand of Gorkhaland, ignited by the decision of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to introduce Bengali as the second language. What started as a peaceful protest turned violent, killing three civilians and injuring many on both sides. Internet has been blocked, cutting down the flow of information from the hills. This is not the first time that such a crisis has taken place. In the 1980s, 1200 people died in the struggle. One wonders what the situation will become now. The history of Darjeeling, the Gorkhaland Movement and the famous tea it produces is intermingled and to understand that one needs to travel three centuries back, when neither the borders were formed nor the nation state.
Dorjeling, later anglicised as Darjeeling, was ‘discovered’ by Captain Lloyd and J.W. Grant in 1829 as a respite for the British from the tropical climate. This small town, under the shadows of Kunchendzonga range, also called the ‘old Gorkha Station’, then deserted by the original tribal inhabitants known as Lepchas and Limbus after the suppression of a rebellion, had less than 100 inhabitants. Darjeeling and its surrounding region shares a complex history with Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim passing from one kingdom to another finally being annexed by the British empire in 1866.
By the mid nineteenth century, the British were looking out for an alternative to tea trade in India since the export of tea from China was proving to be increasingly expensive. The opium war with China in the mid 1800s further added impetus to the need for finding a tea plantation region in India. The successful tea experiment in Darjeeling came as a boon to the British. Very soon, the quiet sanitarium town was converted into a bustling tea industry with about 170 tea gardens mushrooming. For this, the remaining locals were unwilling to carry out the arduous task of clearing forests, planting tea bushes, laying down railways tracks and building roads and other infrastructure.
Dr Arthur Campbell, who became the first superintendent of Darjeeling in 1839, under the British, was transferred from Kathmandu to Darjeeling. It was under him the town started to prosper. Once the town started growing wealthier, the Lepchas who had taken refuge in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan returned to live there. A close liaison developed between Campbell and Jang Bhadur Rana, the Prime Minister of Nepal who had overthrown the existing king in Nepal in 1846. This caused further deterioration to the already distressed socio-economic condition of the inhabitants in Nepal, leading to huge scale migration to Darjeeling. Rumours floated in Nepal, “chiiya bagaan mah rupiya falencha, Chiiya ko Bot mein sun paucha. (In the tea plantations, money is spread everywhere, you can find gold in the core of the tea plantation).” Family-based labour migration was ensured to provide adequate reproduction of labour to work in the Plantation economy.
Budhu bojju, an old woman, recalls the stories narrated by her grandparents about how the sardars enticed the people in Nepal with lucrative job offers in the Company Sehar and brought them to Darjeeling. “We have heard all this from our grandparents. They were searching for ‘coolies’ to work in the plantation as the British were running the Kaman (tea garden). In order to resolve the problem the goras would give the Sardars commission on getting labourers. The sardar smuggled ‘the coolies’ from pahar in the night time, through jungles, to the Sehar. My grandparents also came like that.”
It is seen that most of these workers stayed longer than the predetermined period, not out of choice but because the system coerced them into taking debt which they could pay back only through more labour-time. Further, the unfavourable situation in Nepal constructively forced them to stay on and work. As said by sociologist Nitin verma, “the unwritten law in this district is that once a tea garden coolie, always a tea garden coolie.” These migrants found themselves living in the middle of remote, forested terrain where they were allowed little or no contact with local villagers. Flight was almost impossible due to the unfamiliarity of the terrain, coupled with bounties offered to hill people to track runaways with dogs. Over time though, Darjeeling became their home and their roots.
A rigid segregation was maintained between the Nepali migrants in the hills and the migrants from Chota Nagpur plateau in the plains by the colonial rulers. The few Bengalis present in the hills were and have always been the ‘babus,’ the perceived elite who worked for the British and then the Indian government. The Marwaris came in as traders and have controlled most of the wealth. The Nepalese through time found themselves increasingly isolated and discriminated against.
The demand for Gorkhaland has always found its support among the tea plantation workers. The Nepalese find themselves reduced to second class citizens, at the hands of these otherwise minuscule inhabitants. A certain amnesia prevails in the hills; the history of the Nepalese has been erased. With little to hold on to historically, the relationship with ‘maato’ (land) and the tea-bushes their ancestors planted, has grown stronger.
Kipat (ownership of land by a community) and Maato (land) remain central to the movement. Maato ko andolan is still very powerful as it pulls in all the workers together. Slogans like, “Afno Maato bbhada Sddharta Sankar Roy thulo hoina!! Afno Maato Bhanda Ananda Pathak thulo hoina!! Afno Maato bhanda Dawa Narbula thulo hoina!! Bengalbata hamore Mato pharkaunu parcha!! (Neither Siddharth Shankar Ray nor Ananda Pathak nor Dawa Narbula – no one is greater than our homeland. Our homeland needs to be separated from Bengal)” echoed in the hills, each time the ethnic movement resurfaced. There were many others such slogans, which called for balidan for the maato, which inspired the workers who depended on their daily wages from the plantation to go on strikes as long as 40 days.
As the fight for Gorkhaland finds a new impetus, simultaneously tea plantation workers raise their demands for a fairer share of wages. Under the ambit of Plantation Labour Act, 1951, they are paid a mere Rs 132.50 when the minimum wage of a non-skilled worker is Rs. 226, semi-skilled worker is Rs. 248 and a skilled worker is Rs. 273. Other clauses of Plantation Labour Act, 1951 is violated with impunity. Many plantations have closed down arbitrarily leaving several out of jobs and starving. Lack of employment is driving the young out of the town in search of opportunities, which remain limited and plagued by racial discrimination. Those who continue to stay struggle every day figuring out basic necessities such as water, healthcare and transport.