Sikkim and Darjeeling: Division and Deception
KMT Press, Phuentsholing 2002
pp 248, no recommended price
Dr Sonam B Wangyal
An authoritative work on the history of the Darjeeling-Sikkim hill tracts is marred by the emotionalism invested in the text. More distance would have served the subject well.
Sonam B Wangyal is a popular columnist and, as every reader of the Siliguri edition of The Statesman must know, Wangyal has the unique storyteller’s gift of turning the driest pieces of history into interesting narratives of contemporary relevance. However, the hope of getting to read an interesting story is belied in Sikkim and Darjeeling: Division and Deception as Wangyal has chosen to use an academic style in compiling this book. In misplaced eagerness to sound authoritative (misplaced because he already is an authority), the author uses bold letters, indents, italicised paragraphs, extensive footnotes, textnotes, and additional notes inside parentheses; sometimes all of it in a single page.
In addition to making the book tedious to read, the use of extensive quotes pushes the message of the book into the background, which is, perhaps, to urge the West Bengal government to give to Darjeeling “… till it hurts”. It is an enduring irony of non-fiction writing that while many academicians aim to be as lucid as popular columnists, even journalists who should know better (such as Wangyal) aspire to ape academicians and pour forth footnote- laden prose when they get around to writing books. In fact, the author himself admits that the book could have done with a copy editor. While the annexes at the end are immensely useful, there is no bibliography or index, which is a serious shortcoming in a work of this nature.
The structure of the book, on the other hand, follows a logical sequence as it interprets the history of Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong from the stories of placenames to the deceptions over the years that led to their division. The work ends by describing the murky politics of the Darjeeling Hills. Dr Wangyal (he is a practising doctor, based in Jaigaon, West Bengal) admits in his acknowledgements that he “lacks the unprejudiced vision of a good historian”, and it shows. The tone of the book is that of setting the record straight rather than putting facts or opinions up for scrutiny. Hence the finality of an eyewitness account in an interpretative sentences like, “the truth was that he injured the native sentiment by spurning hospitality” in an 1849 episode. And that too without offering any evidence to contradict the existing opinion, or prefixing the accepted fig leaf of ‘perhaps’ that pundits are expected to use in such situations.
There are several other problems in the writing that would have been acceptable in a newspaper column, but end up grating the nerves of a book reader. For example, no medical practitioner that writes a book in 2002 can declare a diplomat of 1836 a “pathological liar” when all that the person in question was doing was discharging his duty – to the best of his ability and by being economical with the truth whenever a need arose – to advance the interests of his government. Similarly, the author has every right to rail at the British colonialists for their rash decisions during the fag end of the Raj, but to call the declaration of Darjeeling a Partially Excluded Area an act of “treachery” is a bit too emotional.
The drama of the transformation of Sikkim from a Protectorate to an Associate in the early 1970s and its subsequent integration as the 22nd state of the Indian Union on 16 May 1975 may vary in details with the usurpation of Darjeeling by the British in 1835, but their end effect was the same – a small state could not stop a bigger power from getting what it wanted. A comparative study of tactics employed by GWA Lloyd Major and A Campbell in the early nineteenth century and BS Das and BB Lal in the later part of twentieth century could prove to be an important contribution to the study of diplomacy as a tool of aggression.
Dr Wangyal has done to the earlier adventures of the Empire what Sunanda K Datta-Ray did to the later coup in a no less enthusiastic a way in his Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim. Just as Wangyal’s Dr Arthur D Campwell, Dr Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Pagla Dewan Tokhang Namgyal held “centre stage in the drama of annexation of Darjeeling”, Ray’s BS Das, BB Lal and Kazi Lendup Doji saw to the demise of the semi-independent status of Sikkim. However, the uninspiring roles played by the two Chogyals – Tsudphud Namgyal in 1835 and Palden Thondup Namgyal in 1973 – were no less responsible for the results that the schemers of the Indian empire produced in this tiny Himalayan state.
The emotional intensity of the author’s prose rises in the latter part of the book as he begins to tread his familiar territory of the politics of confusion in the Darjeeling hills. The author’s disappointment at Subhas Ghising’s roar for a Gorkhaland turning into a whimper for the autonomy of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) is perhaps understandable, but he is getting carried away when he pro-claims that the district (Darjeeling) is “not only akin to an orphan but also a child of dubious paternity”. Similarly, his ire at the leaders of the All India Gorkha League of the 1940s ignores the possibility that they may have been, on the one hand, inspired and funded by the Ranas and were thus ‘duty-bound’ to swear allegiance to the court of the fatherland in faraway Kathmandu. On the other hand, they may have been unable to agitate for the division of Darjeeling from the state of West Bengal as most of their benefactors were Calcutta-based.
It is not just Randhir Subba who “after having stirred the hornets’ nest deserted the movement including the people of Darjeeling”. Many others followed his footsteps westward to Kathmandu as King Mahendra continued to embrace them all till the late 1960s. Although never openly stated, Kathmandu takes its responsibility of being the cultural capital of all Nepali-speaking people rather seriously. His Majesty’s Government of Nepal not only accepted and rehabilitated Nepali-speaking refugees from Burma in the 1970s, even today it continues to shoulder the burden of a hundred thousand of Lhotsampa refugees from southern Bhutan. Kathmandu continues to be partial to ‘ethnic Nepalis’ from anywhere in the world, often to the chagrin of its own citizens of different origins.
Part of the confusion arises from the word ‘Nepali’, which is a proper noun denoting citizens of Nepali as well as Nepali speakers of different nationalities. It was this ambiguity that prompted former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai to label Nepali a foreign language when some Indian activists urged him to recognise their mother tongue as an official language of India. Even though he is chided for it, Subhas Ghising seems to have got it right by choosing to call himself a Gorkha rather than a Nepali; after all, the particular language movement has always been known as Gorkha movement in Darjeeling, Banaras and Dehradun.
This matter of identity of the ‘Nepali’ is ignored by the author, even though it is significant. Another important issue he fails to raise is that of the status of Nepali-speaking people elsewhere in India. Since the fate of these people is tied up with the initiatives taken for the virtual Greater Sikkim, Pawan Chamling, the Chief Minister of real Sikkim, is perhaps touching the right chord when he calls upon New Delhi to accord all Nepali-speaking people minority community status all over the country. The pages that Wangyal uses up in running down the insolence of Bengali officers in the hills could have been better utilised in developing alternatives to counter that painful reality. In any case, babudom is same everywhere, and if it is any consolation to the author, this reviewer would inform the good doctor of Jaigaon that the predominantly Nepali-speaking officials of Nepal treat their countrymen of other ethnicities even more shabbily.
Wangyal’s other contention – that the interests of Darjeeling District would have been better served in a hilly state rather than plains-dominated West Bengal – flies in the face of reality: the worst persecutions of Nepali-speaking people have often occurred in the hills. It is not just the Lhotsampas of Bhutan; the Bahuns of Manipur, the Newars in Nagaland and the farm-labours in the tea gardens of Assam have all been subjected to some form of persecution by the majority communities of those hilly regions. In comparison, Gorkhas in Uttar Pradesh fared better even before the creation of Uttaranchal.
In any case, had the fundamental unity of all hill ethnicities been a reality, there would not have been any need to carve the old Assam into the seven smaller states of the Indian Northeast. There are also population groups such as the Bodo that would love to have their own states. Were it possible to reorganise the states of the Indian Union to form what was once Greater Sikkim, perhaps the voice of Nepali-speaking people in India would carry more weight. But precisely for that reason, it does not seem possible. In the end, Wangyal does surrender himself to the hard reality of geopolitics and he satisfies himself by asking for a better deal for the people of Darjeeling from the much-reviled establishment in Calcutta. Another promise, I might add, of a roar that ultimately ends in an ignoble whimper.
Perhaps this reviewer expected too much from the book given the sparkle that is there in the columns of the author in The Statesman. For that very reason, the complete absence of a point-of-view in this work towards a desired future left me completely dissatisfied. That said, I must admit that this book has inspired me look for more information on the subject it picks up as its own, and that is no mean achievement in itself.