QUEST HIMALAYA JOURNAL
Darjeeling's Seasons . . . page 3
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.