The book Ethnicity, State and Development by Tanka Subba, an anthropologist at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, is about political conflict in an Indian hill territory that has common borders with three (four until 1975) other countries.
Political geography defines boundary as a demarcated territorial limit which is more specific than fuzzy frontiers. In fact, boundaries evolve out of frontiers. Boundaries are also malleable, tending to shift with changes in power dynamics. For example, the Darjeeling area, with which this book is concerned, originally belonged to Sikkim, until annexed by Nepal in 1783. The latter was ejected by the East India Company in 1816 and the territory returned to Sikkim. In 1835, part of Darjeeling area was “granted” away by the Raja of Sikkim to the British. Adjoining divisions of Kalimpong and Dooars were annexed in 1865, from Bhutan and Sikkim, respectively. All these territories became part of Bengal during the imperial heyday. Neither did Bengal’s own boundaries remain sacrosanct. The most traumatic was the partition of 1905. Until then one provincial unit encompassed Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.. Dacca, Chittagong and Rajshahi divisions were transferred to Assam in order to reduce the Bengali majority. Bengal regained these divisions in 1912 but 35 years later came the historic partition of 1947.
Bounded territories, whether. national or sub-national, also refer to the people that inhabit it and provide the substance. Subba’s book is all about a people’s endeavors for political space. He presents a lucid account of the Gorkhaland movement. It is the usual story of highland-lowland interaction, expressed in the political struggle of a martial people (Gorkhali) against a highly cultured host society (Bengali).
The Bengali people have been the pioneers of modernisation in India, be it in social reform, arts, literature or revolutionary politics. Of the last category, two Bengalis whose reference is pertinent are Subash Chandra Bose and Charu Majumdar. Some of Bose’s Most prominent followers were Gorkhali (see Subba, p. 59), and Majumdar’s heritage is alive in the main opposition party in the Nepal’s House of Representatives. In comparison to the Bengali, the Gorkhali of the Darjeeling area, as well as their neighbours the Lepcha and Bhotia, are rustic highlanders. Thus, what transpired in the Darjeeling hills during 1986-88 was a clash of divergent values of societies at different levels of development and sophistication. The confrontation was, in a way, predicted in the title of the book Baas Salki Rahe Cha (“The house is on the fire”) by Bhagirath Rawat on the life and times of Ari Bahadur Gurung along with Gorkha League history (Kalimpong, 1981).
Subba’s book commences with a survey of conceptual sources on ethnic politics (pp 17-22) and the author describes ethnicity, state and development as forming a vicious triangle from which it is difficult to isolate any one of the three. There is also a lengthy discussion of the so-called macro-theories and micro-theories on ethnic movements, with reference to Gorkhaland (Chapter 5). Incidentally, there is a clear cleavage in the theories cited: the nine macro ones are all Western and the seven micro ones mostly Bengali.
But what Subba describes is based on a thorough understanding of the ground realities. The political, ethnic and economic history of the Darjeeling area provides an appropriate backdrop to his political analysis. Particularly well-researched is the chapter on the history of ethnic movement in the area, spanning over eight decades. Initially, these were polite initiatives for a separate administrative set-up: demands made by an informal hill group (1907), the Hillmen’s Association (1917), and the All India Gorkha League (1943). When these pleas went unheeded, the demands became more strident: calls for Gorkhastan (1947), Uttarakhand (1949), and separate statehood. The proponents of statehood were the Pranta Prishad (established April 1980), the Gorkha National Liberal Front (July 1980) and Swatantra Manch (May 1985). There was also a parallel movement for the recognition of the Nepali language in India since 1924.
Subba provides a vivid description of the days, months and years of confrontation, of violence which he calls a “nightmare”. Similar to the author’s evocation of three inter-linked themes (ethnicity, state and development), GNLF’s confrontation was also triangular. One was directly against the State of West Bengal that was represented by the police. The second was against the Union government that deployed paramilitary and armed forces. The third was against the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the main political contender in the area.
The triangular negotiation is described as a process of three steps forward and two steps backwards. Finally, conciliation between GNLF, the West Bengal Government, and the Centre was agreed upon on 22 August 1988. The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland was dropped and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was created instead, empowered with 19 schedules of local self-government contained in a “Memorandum of Settlement.” (Annex I)
The author considers the agreement as political expediency on the part of all involved parties. The overall impact of the movement was mostly negative, particularly in the economic front, he states. A chapter is devoted to media coverage of the movement wherein it is revealed that journalistic objectivity was a myth as far as Gorkhaland was concerned: the closer to the scene, the higher the propensity for bias. Subba rightly ignores Nepal’s press, which was conspicuously silent on the violence in neighbouring Darjeeling while covering at length diarrhoea deaths in Bihar.
Frontiers can be changed and boundaries redrawn. But the basic question is one of political —not ethnic— identity of the people within the borders. Subba has attempted to deal with this issue in the chapter on evolution of Gorkha identity. His diagnosis seems somehow incomplete. He is also in error, incidentally, while discussing the roots of the term Gorkha to link it with Gorakhnath, derived from ‘go-raksha’ (protector of cow). The more plausible explanation can be credited to Surya Bikram Gyawali, who suggested that Gorkha was a variation of the Khasa word ‘garkha’, that means revenue area. Subba subscribes to the distinction between ‘Nepalese’ (of Nepal) and ‘Nepali’ (of India) for the people. On linguistic terminology, he is in favour of ‘Nepali’ (Bhandari version) as against ‘Gorkha’ (Ghising version). Therefore, he suggests ‘Nepali’ as the common designation for the people and their language in India. (See Subba’s article on page 30 – editors)
An example of confusion due to such synonymous ascription is the terms ‘ethnic Nepali’ or ‘Nepali ethnics’ that have been widely misused. Take for example the sentence, “Many ethnic Nepalis were expelled from Meghalaya and Bhutan”. As a matter of fact, ‘ethnic Nepali’ (Nepali jati) does not exist, but rather different ethnic groups that live within political Nepal (as citizens) or are of “Nepalese” origin but live outside (aliens). The above statement in quotes actually refers to a language group that use Nepali as lingua franca, not necessarily as a mother tongue. Tribals, whether within or outside Nepal, use Nepali to communicate with each other. Those outside Nepal may use the Nepali language but are not necessarily “Nepalese” in the political sense.
The nomenclature of the language we today call ‘Nepali’ has undergone numerous transformations, involving an extensive longitudinal traverse. It actually belongs to the family of ‘Pahari’ languages (Central Pahari in Kumaon and Eastern Pahari in west Nepal). Eastern Pahari in turn became ‘Khan-kura’ or the language of the Khasa. Its third incarnation was as ‘Parbate’, probably derived with reference to the powerful principality of Parbat or Malbum in today’s central Nepal. When Parbate arrived in the Gandaki region, the powerful house of Gorkha usurped it as ‘Gorkhali’ and it spread eastwards along with the expansion of Gorkha territory. It was as late as 1932, after 163 years of Gorkha rule in Kathmandu Valley, that the term ‘Gorkhali’ was officially changed to ‘Nepali’. This was a clear case of cultural annexation, since etymologically Nepali was the language of the Newer, who in turn, now call their language ‘Nepal Bhasa’.
The fifth incarnation of the eastern Pahari language that has been widely adopted as Nepali may, therefore, better suit the political unit in which it is predominant, that is Nepal. For the sake of distinction and identification, there is no harm if those outside this territory co-opt ‘Nepali’s’ synonym, ‘Gorkhali’, as their language. Following the same logic, some hair-splitting can be done to clarify other related terms. Thus, those people using Gorkhali language outside Nepal, and claiming origin in Nepal (but alien) could be called ‘Gorkha’. Within political Nepal, the people would be ‘Nepalese’ and their language ‘Nepali’.
But the crux of the matter regarding the identity of the Gorkhas in India is regarding their political status. This refers to their citizenship. The constitutions of both Nepal and India confuse ‘nativism’ with ‘political identity’. The constitutional terms ‘Nepali origin’ and ‘Indian origin’ have connotation of cultural affinity (basically language) rather than political identity. Such a provision is contrary to the concept of a modern State, narrow in national context, discriminatory on geographic and ethnic basis, and ambigious in operation. This has been further confounded by Article VII of the Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950, which makes the boundary between the two countries not only a ‘porous border’ but ‘open’ for human movement. The main contributing factor to the problem of citizenship, indeed, is the unrestricted entry and exit between the two countries. Nativist policies that are weak (non-existent in the case of Nepal and India) in immigration control but restrictive in naturalisation have all the making of a larger socio-political conflict. The implication of such anomaly is clear: that the political identity of the Gorkhas, or for that matter problems of political demography between India and Nepal, cannot be resolved without the regulation of the boundary.
Tanka Subba enlightens readers with a comprehensive account of an important issue. He believes ethno-development contributes to national integration. Recent ethnic conflagrations in eastern Europe suggest that Marxists have failed in minority group management. The Darjeeling area is not a `no man’s land’ as claimed by GNLF leader Subhash Ghising — it is very much Indian. The resolution of political problems that generate separatist movements such as Gorkhaland is through more regional autonomy.