At the onset let me clarify that I have no political agenda and have always refrained from politics, Left or Right. Never walked in rallies except for joining the mourners at the Maidan at 17, when the theatre actor, Prabir Dutta, was shot by the police, and more recently to escort the 80 plus director, Mrinal Sen, who wanted to join the Nandigram rally. I have great friends who are communists, people fighting for women’s rights and the gay cause. I have deep respect for those who raise their voices against social injustice. But I prefer to shut up and let my work speak for itself. The reason why I chose to write this is because much of what I am stems from the place in question: Darjeeling. Once again the volcano is erupting in the hills and I thought that my audience ought to rethink before jumping to predetermined conclusions.
The issue of Gorkhaland has a very long history. Whether we agree or not, the fact remains that it is an issue that addresses the identity of the people of Darjeeling. By no ideological yardstick can one claim that Darjeeling does not have a cultural/historical identity different from that of the rest of Bengal. It logically could have been slapped onto Sikkim. The British, famous for making blunders, slapped it on to Bengal for convenience and the Bengalis always regarded it as a convenient, quick getaway from the heat. Never was there a concerted effort to integrate the folks of Darjeeling with a Greater Bengal. What has been the average Bengali’s perception of the Gorkhas or Nepalis of Darjeeling? A Daju who works in the tea gardens, or who drives you up to your hotel from Siliguri, or at best a comedian in a Dev Anand movie. How many of us really care to see their true picture as thinkers, national warriors, professionals in all the different fields of life? Why would an average Gorkha or Nepali from Darjeeling be treated like a second-class citizen in our state or country? Why should all the decisive government offices in the hills be situated in Siliguri and not the hills? Is it because most political babus will not be comfortable in that climate or language — which most never even attempt to learn throughout their tenure? Let us not split hairs over exceptions but face the fact that generally we residents of the Bengal of the plains never looked at Darjeeling as anything beyond a tourist spot or a shooting location. We never really called each other brothers. There has been and will forever be a cultural and historical divide.
When Kabir Suman (after his stint in Germany and the United States of America) and then I, started singing our own songs, strumming our guitars, wearing our faded denim, we were not Bob Dylan clones. We were Bengalis redefining our Bengali legacy. And it was Bengalis who embraced us. Not those in power, not the music industry in general, but the average Bengali.
Who gained economically? Which industry grew? The Bengali music industry. I cite this example because it is important at this crucial juncture for all Bengalis to realize that the average folk in Darjeeling are actually fighting for their identity. And any form of real development stems from one’s growth and respective identity.
What has the state been doing apart from trying not to face the real issue here? So let us not raise questions as to whether Darjeeling’s movement has the best possible leadership but ask what the movement is all about. The movement is being led by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha or Bimal Gurung because they have been chosen by the people. But the movement is not about GJM; it is about the numerous folks of Darjeeling wanting their identity, their autonomy.
Two years ago, the people of West Bengal chose an alternative government. Did anyone at that point ask whether they were choosing the ideal government or leadership? They could have waited 30 more years for the ‘best’ alternative. They did not. They took over 30 years to decry corrupt communists and then took the only alternative they had. I’m not questioning that alternative. That is neither my purpose nor is it relevant here. I am just one rooted Bong who looks at facts. And I am still willing to give my leadership more time. Because I know that it will take time to sort out years of corruption. As I know it will take years to sort out all the problems of Darjeeling caused by our own government’s nonchalance. But for this moment let us not evade the real issue of identity and support those who want their own autonomy for justified historical reasons. Let us realize that things in Darjeeling cannot get any worse. At least, given autonomy or statehood, the leadership will have to be answerable to the people there and perform. As elsewhere, there will be opposition and corruption and the newborn unit will have to steer through collaboration with the neighbouring states.
Let us look at the flip side, in case the powers refuse to give autonomy and again a middle path is accepted by the present local leadership. What guarantee is there that another leader or party will not emerge in the coming years and raise their voice and banner for Gorkhaland again? Again the volcano will begin to boil. There is no short cut out of this historic crisis.
Balkanization has been our legacy since the British left. In my childhood, I drew a different map of my country. Our sons will perhaps draw a slightly different one. But the democratic republic has survived in spite of all divisions. I have faith in our democracy. Considering our population growth, poverty, the political threats from neighbours, I find it functioning far better than many other democracies. And within this democracy, I do not subscribe to denying a failed marriage. I find a healthy divorce far more productive.
As a Darjeeling boy, I know that finally a name does not matter. What matters is that the basic standard of life improves. If recurring bandhs and constant bad vibes are done away with, basic life will have to improve. From the plains, the West Bengal resident’s lopsided sense of nostalgia does not want Darjeeling to break away from ‘Sonar Bangla’. But at the cost of what? Years of denial of the true Gorkha identity? These citizens of Bengal just somehow want the bandhs to stop so they can again run off for a quick holiday. True, many survive on tourism, but do the tourists from the plains know that during the peak season, while they enjoy and waste water in the hotels, the local people suffer badly from water shortage? What steps have been taken to improve roads? Why is there not a decent hospital in this hilly part of ‘Sonar Bangla’?
The government, for obvious reasons, will not allow autonomy easily and will play its political cards to perfection. Politically, no state leadership would want to face the issue benevolently. Benevolence has no place in politics. What matters more is political loss of face. So my guess is that the murky past of the Gorkha leadership will be raked up. More murk will be dug up. Political arm-twisting will continue after which things would get worse. There were five contingents of the Central Reserve Police Force sent there. Now 10 more have been sent. The place will soon look like a red zone. Whereas, we all know, Gurung and his colleagues have shown total restraint till date. This does not mean that I am a member of the GJM. I am just a thinking individual of India who has always stayed away from all political parties and will continue to do so.
But there are times when political issues cross all political borders and become a social cause. A national phenomenon. The war in Bangladesh was sparked off by a similar issue; it crossed all geographical boundaries and became an international issue. The Free Tibet movement is no longer restricted to Tibet. How can anyone expect the numerous ordinary people of Darjeeling to ignore the Telangana factor as if it never happened? Numerous priests, professors, lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, drivers, students, housewives, drivers, coolies are trying make people see their point of view for quite some time. They do not want to destroy Bengal. They do not want to create a different land. They only want what is due to them historically. They want peace, brotherhood and above all their identity.
I spent my formative years in a boarding school in Darjeeling and when I returned to Calcutta in 1970, it took me quite a few years to actually find my roots. I was a hardcore Darjeeling fish totally out of water and, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Gogol, came to terms with my identity and roots as a Bengali through a lot of pain and emotional devastation. I know what it is to be an outsider and also what it means to find one’s roots. So for me the issue of identity is of utmost importance in life. To me, any form or growth, economic or cultural, is directly linked to one’s identity.