Any visitor to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok, with some idea about the area through which he passes, would wonder why Sikkim and Darjeeling are separate territories. That is not a politically correct issue to raise at any forum, however, not even in academic ones. If a Sikkimi raises this issue, he is identified as an ideologue pushing ‘Greater Sikkim’ and if a Darjeelinge does it, he will be very unwelcome in Sikkim indeed. The psychological cleavage between Darjeeling and Sikkim is deeper than the rivers that flow between them, forcing them to accept the political boundaries of ‘Smaller Sikkim’. It will not be surprising if, at some point in the future, the Nepali-speakers of Darjeeling call themselves ‘Gorkhas’ and the Gorkhas in Sikkim call themselves ‘Nepalis’, just to differentiate between themselves.
What is most striking when one thinks about Darjeeling and Sikkim is the physical, social and cultural contiguity of these two regions. If someone wants to know why Darjeeling is in West Bengal and not in Sikkim, there is no clear answer available in the history of the region. One always thought that Darjeeling was a ‘gift’ of the Sikkim Maharaja to the British so that they could build a sanatorium for their ailing soldiers. That was until Fred Pinn published his Road to Destiny. Kalimpong, the old hub of spies and spooks working in and around the Himalaya, was too a part of Sikkim, like the rest of the district of Darjeeling, but it had to go under Bhutani rule for almost a century-and-a-half. The way it all ended, the people of Sikkim today need to cross a subdivision of Darjeeling before they can ford the Malli Bridge to go to west Sikkim, or travel along the banks of the Teesta until they arrive at Rangpo, the brewery headquarters of Sikkim.
In an arena where politics has assumed the centre stage above everything else, all that should have served to bind the people and administrations of Darjeeling and Sikkim. Instead, the kinship ties, matrimonial alliances, literary ventures, religious congregations, and the shared predicaments of the peasantry amount to little. The people of Darjeeling and Sikkim share the same mythologies, rituals, festivals, dances and other cultural events, and yet for a region that relies heavily on tourism, there is nothing collaborative. They share the waters of the Teesta and Rangit, but they cannot develop river-rafting together. They commercially grow the same flowers, like gladioli and orchids, but they do not market them together.
There is no difference between Darjeeling and Sikkim except in the mind-sets of the contemporary population. They are divided by two different kinds of fixations: the people of Darjeeling have an economic and political complex vis-à-vis the Sikkimese, while the latter have a cultural and demographic complex vis-à-vis the former. And they are unwilling to discuss any of these. They are ready to sink separately, but unwilling to swim together. They meet at the Teesta and Rangit to perform their annual rites or to participate in the annual fairs, but do not welcome those from across the river to their homes. Obviously, this is because they do not want to be confronted by the fact of how similar they really are.
While thinking about the region, I must rest briefly on its once-sprawling tea gardens. At one point, they were the single largest employment avenue for the illiterate and semi-literate people of these hills. But today, the tea bushes are old and the pickings are decreasing by the year. Together with the yield, the number of tea gardens has also been decreasing. The abandoned gardens have been plundered in both Darjeeling and Sikkim, and overtaken by rampant construction on slide-prone hillsides.
I hope that from the debris of destruction, a new people will be born – one who will not differentiate between Darjeeling and Sikkim, whose hearts are as pure as the glaciers on their northern horizon, and whose priorities are different from those of the people in the region today. Amen.
~ Tanka B Subba is professor of anthropology and dean of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. His area of research is the eastern Himalayan region.