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Bhanubhakta Statue at Chowrastha

Darjeeling's Seasons . . . page 2

Beside you on the benches will be plenty of other visitors from out of town. The bulk of tourists still come from Calcutta and other towns of West Bengal but there are plenty from further afield in India as well as from overseas. Chowrasta is also a stop for many locals on a morning or evening walk while a popular hangout for schoolchildren on their lunchbreak or lingering after the final bell and before the walk home. From stately Tibetan matrons who survey with a proprietorial eye to retiring retired gentlemen who slowly peruse their newspapers, Chowrasta can give you a glimpse of much of Darjeeling.

But not all. Nowadays boys use the statue of Bhanubhakta that dominates the end of the promenade as an oversized wicket for impromptu cricket games. Yet while most visitors, as a local writer recently lamented, pass by with barely a glance, this statue is no forgotten remnant of a distant past. More than any other monument in a town which is littered with reminders of bygone days, this statue is a key to the history of Darjeeling. Not of its founding, nor of the achievements of its original colonial overlords, but of the people who built the town, worked in it and who still struggle for a degree of recognition and autonomy.

For the story of Darjeeling is not just of stylish sahibs and memsahibs strolling down their carefully sculpted avenues. Much more it is a story of a frontier town, of the hardship of poor economic migrants fighting for a foothold in a new land and of cultural and social accomplishments more remarkable than any fancy hotel the British built. Darjeeling, and the tract of land around it, is normally described as a ‘gift’ made by the king of Sikkim to British India in 1835. Certainly the king’s seal was on the grant of land but the process by which that seal was obtained was a cunning piece of freelance skulduggery by an ‘enterprising’ British officer.

There were formidable obstacles to establishing any kind of settlement at Darjeeling. Set atop a ridge in dangerously inhospitable mountains that had in recent times been a battleground for Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, it took an immense amount of time, effort, money and lost lives just to establish a rough road to supply the small garrison of pioneers that had assembled by 1839. Labourers were brought in from the eastern hills of Nepal to undertake the backbreaking carrying and construction tasks and when commercial tea-growing started in the 1850s the imported labour was again Nepalese. The British military policy of recruiting Nepalese ‘Gurkha’ soldiers into the Indian army led to the establishment of a recruitment centre in nearby Ghoom by the turn of the century.

Thus the overwhelming majority of the population was, and remains, ethnically Nepalese although Indian by nationality. And indeed many of the foundations of modern Nepal’s identity were fashioned by the Nepalese population in India. Bhanubhakta is now universally recognised as Nepali’s ‘founder poet’ but the first celebrations of his birth anniversary were held outside Nepal and four years later in 1949 the first statue of the poet was erected in the same place. In Chowrasta, Darjeeling. For in its golden days, or golden decades as the period stretched from the beginning of this century until the sixties, Darjeeling was a centre of literary and cultural production to eclipse Kathmandu.

Yet Indians of Nepali ethnic origin were never allowed to feel secure in the country of their birth. Referred to by many Indians as ‘foreigners’ even after generations of settlement in India, Indian-Nepalis were expelled in their thousands from north-eastern states, culminating in the early 1980s. Darjeeling was about to experience its own revolution. Decades of anger and frustration at the lack of recognition of the Nepali majority’s language and citizenship status was channelled into the Gorkhaland movement. A mass movement that demonstrated the political strength of the Indian-Nepali community, it also brought two years of violence, terror and economic devastation to Darjeeling. Shutting the area to tourists and crippling much of local business and industry, Darjeeling is still recovering from the impact of the movement, although enjoying a degree of hard-won local autonomy.

And if you can’t see this at first glance in the eyes of Bhanubhakta on Chowrasta then you can ponder it in the very existence of the statue. A claim to recognition which was itself vandalised in 1991 by Gorkhaland extremists who saw it as a link to a foreign country (Nepal), it speaks of both past struggles and the fresh wounds which have yet to heal in Darjeeling’s communities. And it may help explain why there’s less of a spring in the lordly stride of the Indian inheritors of this queen of hill stations.

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