The first time I saw the television footage of young men and women wearing daura sural and choubandi farayi milling about the Mall, I mistook Darjeeling for a remote hill town somewhere in the Northeast. Then I learnt about the dress code imposed on college students there by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. It came as a shock. During the six years I had taught at the government college in Darjeeling in the 1990s, I was never known as a lenient teacher. But I could never award my students anything short of full marks for their perfect dress sense on all occasions. In fact, one of the great mysteries that I have not been able to solve is how they could maintain such an immaculate wardrobe and clean, sparkling hair in a town where water taps remain bone dry for half the year. Come sun or rain, they would always be nattily dressed in crisp blazers and colourful cardigan suits and turn the foggiest of days bright and cheerful.
On my subsequent visits to Darjeeling, I was pleased to find that the sartorial flair of the town’s youth has not only thrived, but with the winds of globalization blowing, has become bold and creative. While this has helped sustain the cosmopolitan feel of the town, for the youth of Darjeeling, fashion is truly a statement: they want to make it known that they are a part of the youth brigade of the new, metropolitan India. The fatwa that asks college students to wear traditional attire, and sanctions blackening of faces for those who do not conform, strikes at the heart of this statement.
Such diktats go against the broad tenor of the movement that brought the GJM and its leaders into the political centre stage. Darjeeling has long been a melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures. The most remarkable achievement of Subash Ghisingh during the earlier movement was to bind these different groups — consisting of people of Lepcha, Bhutia, Nepali and other origins — into a political entity called the ‘Gorkha’. This paid him rich dividends and, despite corruption and misrule, kept him in power for nearly two decades. Trouble began when he started to undo his achievement by asking the hill people to cultivate their distinctive tribal and ethnic identities, in order to pave the way for the Sixth Schedule status of the Darjeeling hills. Tribal practices were re-introduced. For the young people, who have grown up in the liberal cosmopolitan atmosphere of the hill station, this bizarre journey back to a primitive future was the last straw. There was also a threat to the multi-ethnic fabric of the hill society.
The revolt was swift and unexpected. Last year, the youth in the hills rose like a futuristic tribe: Prashant Tamang, an Indian Idol contestant, was their totem; internet and telecommunication were the new rituals. The man who engineered this cultural upsurge, and turned it into a political tsunami, was Bimal Gurung. This movement is still in a state of flux and it would be imprudent to predict its course now. But in its initial stages, it had some refreshing features.
Although there hasn’t yet been a woman among the Morcha leaders, young women have so far been an impressive presence in the rallies. A few months back, they made news by setting up community prisons, where local drunkards were put behind bars. This has reportedly curbed alcoholism among the hill youth. Then, Mahatma Gandhi’s portraits were displayed at the sites of hunger strike. Just as Tamang’s claim to fame rested on a culture spawned by Hindi movies that is essentially pan-Indian in character, the popularity of “Gandhigiri” as an effective instrument of social change is also a Bollywood invention. But seldom have we seen the presence of Gandhi and the absence of a local luminary in a political movement based on regional identity anywhere else in the country.
Such features distinguished the present movement from the earlier one led by Ghisingh. One could sense the stirrings of a civil society behind the various programmes initiated by the youth. Unfortunately, the ruling dispensation in Bengal failed to recognize this and did not apply the kind of informed sensitivity that this movement deserved. It would be sad if the leaders of the movement now make the mistake of pushing the aspirations of the hill youth into the straitjacket of a run-of-the-mill agitation.
The young people of Darjeeling look as smart in their traditional garb as in anything else. But they should have the freedom of choice. For them, fashion is not just a part of life but a way of breaking free from the stereotypes. It would be unfortunate if the path of the present movement leads to ethnic stereotyping in order to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of the hill people.