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.
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.
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.
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.