Opinion

The Gorkhaland demand is valid – and the racism I face in mainland India reinforces this view

Like my parents and grandparents, my generation has always believed in the demand for Gorkhaland.

When I read a tweet about Suraj Bhusal being shot dead by the paramilitary forces, I called my father in Kurseong, Darjeeling, immediately, and asked him what he was doing.

“Going for the funeral march of Tashi Bhutia, who was shot the night before,” he replied.

Bhusal had been walking in a pro-Gorkhaland procession in Darjeeling when he was killed. I begged my father not to go – from faraway Mumbai, it seemed as if the paramilitary was out to kill anyone who were part of the Gorkhaland protest. There had been two shootings in less than 10 hours. My father said, “Ae nani Gorkhaland ko lagi... marcha bhanae maroshh.” For Gorkhaland... if they’ll kill me, let them.

The Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts along with the Duars region at the foot of the Himalayas form the proposed state of Gorkhaland. The ethnolinguistic cultural sentiments of the people living in these parts of West Bengal form the basis of the demand for a separate state within the Indian Union. This movement is supported by the Nepali- or Gorkhali- (a version of Nepali) speaking Gorkha ethnic group of North Bengal. The demand for a separate unit has been there since 1907, when the Hillmen’s Association in Darjeeling submitted a memorandum to the Minto-Morley Reforms Committee, demanding a separated administration set up. In the 1980s, the agitation took a violent turn.

Girls play as paramilitary troops stand guard at Chowkbazar area during an indefinite strike called by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha in Darjeeling. Photo credit: AFP
Girls play as paramilitary troops stand guard at Chowkbazar area during an indefinite strike called by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha in Darjeeling. Photo credit: AFP

I wasn’t born during that agitation but heard stories about it from the elders in my family. On May 5, 1986, at a march in Kurseong demanding autonomy for the hills, five people were shot dead by the paramilitary forces. The violence took a much brutal shape thereafter. My uncle was jailed for four months, during which time he almost lost his life to grievous beatings. He was never involved in politics – he still isn’t.

During the 1980s, men were routinely rounded up by the armed forces. They were either taken to prison or assassinated (according to official estimates, the movement left 1,200 people dead). This meant women and children were left alone at home, routinely making them vulnerable to rape and sexual harassment. These incidents were never reported, no relief was provided to the victims, my family says. It’s just what ordinary life was like.

From that time on, the people of Darjeeling grew up in an atmosphere of fear and trauma. This was why my parents sent me to college in Hyderabad and later, Mumbai. They made sure I was away from the heart of the resistance and the anxieties it brings – except I have never really escaped it.

Humiliation by a million cuts

The night my father went to attend Tashi Bhutia’s funeral, I couldn’t get through to anybody’s phone in the hills until late at night. I was worried sick. None of my friends from Darjeeling, who had migrated from home for safety, better education or jobs, could call home either – the internet had been banned and we suspected that phone lines had been cut too.

Irrespective of our religion, caste, tribe or location in the world, my friends and I have considered ourselves part of the Gorkha community. Like my parents and grandparents, my generation has always believed in the demand for Gorkhaland.

Photo credit: PTI
Photo credit: PTI

I was 15 when I left home to attend high school in Siliguri. Growing up on the mainland during those years, I came across many versions of the person I was supposed to be, as a Gorkha person. These opinions were incompatible with what I had experienced as a child growing up in Darjeeling. In junior school, my teacher Miss Lama often told us we are the daughters of Kangchenjunga – so she reminded us to be righteous.

In college, people would greet me with “Salaam Saabji”, mimicking accents they had seen actors perform in the movies. When people learn I’m from Darjeeling, they say something about tea, without fail. A professor once reasoned that Gorkha/Nepali women are trafficked in such unbelievable number, because we are beautiful and soft.

The media tells stories about us that have become part of our lived experiences. The stereotype of a Gorkha watchman that struggles to speak in Hindi might be comic relief for some, but it causes irreparable psychological harm to the Gorkha community. The majority of mainland Indians do not even think they are being racist when they use the term Gorkha interchangeably with the word watchman.

Thanks to my degree in Dalit and tribal studies, I was able to see these endless examples of people mistaking my ethnicity for an occupation, for what it really is – a consequence of the jati framework followed by caste Hindus, where the occupation of a person translates into their identity. But the Gorkha identity is a meta identity of the people residing in the hills of Darjeeling, Terai and Duars. The language adopted in these parts is Nepali.

IT IS THE HOME OF THE BRAVE GORKHAS 💪🏻 #gorkhaland #Gorkhalandunrest

A post shared by WE WANT GORKHALAND (@gorkhalandunrest) on

I began to realise that there are few people from the Gorkha community in positions of power. A majority of the people who migrate to metropolises become part of the labour force – in contrast to other communities that migrate from Bengal.

Being a historically oppressed community renders our voice inaudible. There is a confusion that surrounds the Gorkha identity, since what we are defined as has always been determined from an external source – either by Nepali citizens claiming that our ancestors were from the Gorkha district in Nepal, or the colonial classification of the Gorkha as a soldier. This is a deliberate strategy for exploiting us (as soldiers, plantation labour) or dividing us.

Old resistance, new blood

While the government ignores the deaths of the Gorkhas in the hills, the Gorkhas outside have begun to re-examine our histories. We discuss our ethnicity, our Gorkha identity, the indigenous knowledge systems that are now defunct, the persecution of the Gorkha population in parts of the North East and in Bhutan.

On June 8, when the shutdown in the hills began, people I hadn’t spoken to since I was in school, called me from various cities across mainland India. They are people like me – with no political affiliations, in diverse professions, people who grew up hearing stories of the andolan in the 1980s, people like me who shrug off racist comments every day of their lives.

There are those of us who want to go back and experience the revolution, and contribute to it in some way. The fear of the paramilitary has percolated from our grandparents and parents to us. We are scared but we speak often, about how the dream of Gorkhaland, alive since the 1980s, might finally be realised. We talk about organising and executing campaigns in the cities to mobilise people, make a noise loud enough for the government to pay attention to.

Through the conversations, it was apparent that no matter how near or far we were from home, we are united in our search for a sense of belonging. The creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland in the Indian Union will warrant that we are no longer deemed foreigners in our own land. We are pushing back the stereotyping, the negative pathologies and the racist hate against the Gorkha community, so we are accepted as equal citizens in our own home.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.