I only remember snatches of the conversation. “Bora ma baandheko” – Tied inside a sack – our neighbour relayed what she had heard from somewhere else. I remember the expression of fear and disgust on her face and her hand gestures as she showed how the victim’s breasts had been sliced off. That was all I could see and hear before my seven-year-old self was whisked away by my mother.
It was 1986. A violent agitation raged in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, demanding separation from the state of West Bengal in eastern India. Living in Siliguri, in the plains just to the south of the hills, we were worried sick about our relatives living to the north. My mother’s family was in Kurseong, near Darjeeling, and my father’s in Kalimpong. Our only source of information was All India Radio’s evening news bulletins, which we listened to on an old transistor radio set, and which mainly gave the government’s version of events. For “real” stories, we were forced to rely on the unverified and unverifiable, accounts of neighbours who knew someone who knew someone who had seen something with their own eyes. It was from them that we came to know about midnight raids, detentions, disappearances, murders and the torture and atrocities inflicted by the syarpi – a corrupted pronunciation of “CRPF”, the acronym for the Central Reserve Police Force, which was deployed in the hills to quell the agitation.
Chhyasi ko andolan – “the movement of ’86”, often simply Chhyasi (’86) – is the Nepali term for the agitation. The demand was for a separate state, Gorkhaland, for the Nepali speakers predominant in this part of the country. The new state, to be carved out of Bengali-dominated West Bengal, was to grant an undisputed Indian identity to the “Gorkhas”, a term used by Indian Nepalis to distinguish themselves from the people of Nepal, which lies west of the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills. My family was Indian Nepali, as was our neighbour who told us the horror story, and though we lived in a multicultural milieu on the outskirts of Siliguri, our sympathies lay with the people in the hills.
The demand, rooted in the desire of the Gorkhas to not be seen as “outsiders” or “foreigners” in India, had been a long-standing one. Under the leadership of Subhash Ghisingh, a Darjeeling-born former Gorkha soldier of the Indian Army, and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the Gorkhaland movement erupted into an armed rebellion, leading to a period of extreme violence and anarchy unprecedented in the history of the hills. The agitation officially ended on 22 August 1988 with the formation not of a separate state but an autonomous hill council within West Bengal. An uneasy peace returned.
The formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) came at a price. According to official records, 1200 people were killed during the agitation, but anecdotal evidence pointed to far higher numbers of people murdered, as well as of women raped and houses burnt. But no one was willing to probe the numbers. In fact, with Ghisingh allowed to assume dictatorial powers within the DGHC, no one dared to even question the failure of Chhyasi to deliver statehood.
People still lived in fear, even if the main source of terror had changed. Now the violence perpetrated by state agents was replaced by reprisals at the hands of habilitated revolutionaries. The usual threat was “Chha inchi ghatai dinchu” – We’ll reduce your height by six inches – a chilling metaphor for lopping off someone’s head. This, writes the author and translator Anurag Basnet, was the prevailing response to speaking out, along with “Boliss ki mariss” – If you speak, you die. Basnet, in a piece for The Record, enumerates at least four murders of opposition political leaders that took place in the hills within four years of the end of the agitation. “When politicians and strongmen were being picked off, men protected by the police and their own bodyguards, what hope could archivists, documentarians, and writers have?” Basnet asks. “How could fiction be possible? Or nonfiction? To write is to probe, to find, to step on toes, to uncover that which is uncomfortable, or criminal.”
The significance of the recent books on Gorkhaland cannot be overstated. In some ways, they carry forward the work that Desai had left incomplete in 2006, by providing insiders’ perspectives on the movement.
Thus no one spoke, few even dared to remember. There was no public discourse or literary engagement with the events of these epoch-making years that shaped the destiny of the region. It was as if the people of the hills had woken up from a nightmare lasting over two years and did not wish to recall any of it.
My own questions remained locked in my mind. What was inside the sack? Whose breasts had been cut off? Who could actually do such a thing? What did that have to do with the gunshots I heard in Kurseong when we visited the hill town in the summer of 1986 and were told not to venture out?
I never got the answers. In fact, I never asked the questions. I did not know whom to ask, when to ask or how to ask. As a child, I had found it easier to deal with the fragments of information I received by believing that they were part of a made-up story. Even later, as a journalist, while I reported on the region and covered the rekindling of the Gorkhaland agitation in 2017, I did not go as far back as 1986 to seek the answers.
It was the age of collective amnesia, and I was complicit.
It took 20 years, and an outside voice, to set off conversations about Chhyasi. Large parts of the Indian-American writer Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss (2006) are set in Kalimpong, against the backdrop of the Gorkhaland agitation. Desai, resident in New York City, has links to Kalimpong: her aunt, Indira Bhattacharya, ran a clinic for children in the town, and her mother, the novelist Anita Desai, had briefly lived there. Kiran Desai spent a few months in Kalimpong to research her subject and later said in interviews that the novel’s story was close to her family’s own.
The Inheritance of Loss revolves around non-Gorkha characters who are not actively involved in the agitation but get caught in the crossfire. Still, Desai offers a historical perspective on the agitation and explains the marginalisation of the Nepali-speaking minority in West Bengal. She is scathing in her portrayal of local Gorkha leaders and also unsparing in her caricature of the elite local Bengalis who speak fluent English but never bothered to learn Nepali, the language widely spoken in the place they had permanently settled.
The novel won the Booker Prize in 2006, but closer to home Desai faced criticism for her portrayal of the agitation in particular and the people of the hills in general. The list of complaints was long: a character in the novel calls the hill people illiterate “Neps”, and they are shown mostly doing menial jobs; the “Gorkha lot” are shown cheating, plundering and killing; and how could she portray Gorkha revolutionaries giving “outsiders” a hard time when the movement was not against them but targeted at the state?
No one spoke, few even dared to remember. There was no public discourse or literary engagement with the events of these epoch-making years that shaped the destiny of the region.
The importance of The Inheritance of Loss lies in the fact that it spoke out against the dark side of the agitation. It posited an alternative to the monolithic narrative prevalent in the hills: of Chhyasi being an entirely good fight fought by the marginalised Gorkhas against the state, demanding their right to self-determination – a narrative closely controlled by the political dispensation led by the fascist Ghisingh. In that narrative, the Gorkha revolutionaries are heroes beyond reproach. In Desai’s story, by contrast, they cut sorry figures – barbaric, misogynist, racist and xenophobic.
Understandably, given local sentiments around the issue, Desai’s assessment of Chhyasi did not gain much support in the hills, and there were even reports of some fringe elements threatening to burn copies of her book. The people of Darjeeling and Kalimpong continued to hold on to the dominant narrative even after Ghisingh was overthrown by his aide Bimal Gurung and banished from the hills in 2008. Gurung formed his own political party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, and became the next “supreme leader” on the back of a renewed push for Gorkhaland.
In 2011, a new autonomous body, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), was formed in the hills to replace the DGHC. The next year saw the publication of Bimal Lama’s Nun Cha, a story of Chhyasi told by an “insider”, but from a distance.
Lama is an Indian Nepali born in Dhanmandhura in the Darjeeling hills, but he writes in Bengali, and has won awards for his Bengali short stories. Nun Cha – the Bengali title means salty tea, a popular beverage among villagers in the hills – was his first novel. Lama spent his childhood in the Darjeeling hills and moved away when his father got posted to south Bengal before 1986. His novel, Lama insisted at an event in Siliguri last year, is an expression of his inner self, which remains rooted in the soil of Dhanmandhura.
The protagonist of Nun Cha is Urgen, a young vegetable seller from Dhanmandhura who transforms into a revolutionary. The story of Chhyasi is revealed in all its shameful detail, from the burning down of homes to inter- and intra-party slugfests and gruesome murders and rapes – all inflicted by the hill people on their own. In spite of its daring revelations, Nun Cha did not cause a stir in the hills. It was well-received in the rest of West Bengal among Bengali readers, but people in the hills remained largely unaware of it until a Nepali translation of the novel arrived in 2022. By then, both the political landscape of the hills as well as the literary response to Chhyasi and events beyond it, had undergone significant changes.
Subhash Ghisingh died in Delhi 2015, after having spent most of his last years in exile in Jalpaiguri, more than 100 kilometres from Darjeeling. Meanwhile, the demand for Gorkhaland continued to simmer, and in 2017 it flared up again.
The failure of the final battle and the end of the one-leader-one-party power structure combined to mean that the fear was gone. And Chhyasi came back as a subject to be interrogated in literature.
There were clear parallels between 1986 and 2017. On the second occasion, what started as a protest against the West Bengal government’s attempts to make Bengali a compulsory language at all schools across the state soon took the shape of a full-fledged movement – popularly called the antim yuddha, or final battle – for Gorkhaland. An indefinite strike, which lasted more than a hundred days, brought back memories of Chhyasi. The attendant violence was nothing compared to 1986, but still around a dozen people died across Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong. Several incidents of arson were reported. As in 1986, some people in the hills were forced to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere because of their political affiliations.
By the end of it all, Bimal Gurung was in hiding and Binay Tamang, his one-time lieutenant, was at the head of the GTA. But Tamang did not wield the same power that Ghisingh and Gurung once had. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha broke into factions and mainstream Indian political parties made inroads in the region. The structure of absolute power earlier prevailing in the hills crumbled.
With the goal of a separate Gorkhaland still unrealised, the people of the hills once again felt let down, their sacrifices gone to waste. There was an overwhelming feeling of having been misled by their political leaders. The failure of the final battle and the end of the one-leader-one-party power structure combined to mean that the fear was gone. And Chhyasi came back as a subject to be interrogated in literature.
Interestingly, the main impetus in this effort came from a new generation from the hills, individuals who were not born in 1986 but saw first-hand the violence, political machinations, in-fighting and anarchy unleashed during the indefinite strike of 2017. They decided to voice the questions that had been buried deep, and could now do so without fear of losing their heads.
Two years after the disillusionment of 2017, a young writer, Chuden Kabimo, took the Nepali literary world by storm with his novella Fatsung. His language – the colloquial Darjeeling-ay Nepali – came as a breath of fresh air. More importantly, his story ventured where no other Nepali writing had dared to go until then – laying bare the truths of Chhyasi.
Fatsung revolves around a group of young boys who join the revolution as child soldiers. Based in Kalimpong, the story is told from the perspective of clueless school dropouts – Nasim, Norden and others – trying to make sense of events as they get sucked into an all-consuming frenzy that alters their lives forever.
Born in post-agitation Kalimpong, Kabimo, now in his 30s, won the Indian government’s Yuva Sahitya Akademi Puraskar in 2018 for a collection of short stories titled 1986. Fatsung was soon translated into English by Ajit Baral, into Bengali by Samik Chakraborty and into Hindi by Namrata Chaturvedi. The English translation, Song of the Soil (2021), was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature in 2022, awarded yearly since 2018 “to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author”. All of this was indicative of the excitement Fatsung created in Southasia’s literary scene, at a level unprecedented for a work of Indian Nepali literature.
Kabimo has spoken about how the change in the hills’ political milieu made it possible for him to write something like Fatsung. “A political party which is fighting for the rights of the people becomes the enemy of the people once it assumes power … there was no atmosphere to write during that time,” he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2022.
Another popular work of fiction in Nepali that questioned the legacy of Chhyasi was the journalist and activist Lekhnath Chhetri’s debut novel Phoolange (2020). The novel is set in Relling, Lekhnath Chhetri’s home village in Darjeeling. It tells the story of villagers – sharecroppers, love-struck simpletons – who have their lives upturned by a movement they had little to do with. Within this narrative world, the fight for ideas and ideals that forms the basis of Chhyasi must be taking place elsewhere – no one in the novel knows exactly where. In Relling, Basnet, his wife Basnetni and their nincompoop son Jhuppay lose all they had while simply trying to survive the excesses of their scheming neighbour Chhyatar – “76” – who took up the local leadership of the movement only to profiteer from it.
“Everything in the novel is based on true incidents,” Lekhnath Chhetri said at a panel discussion in Siliguri recently. The depiction of the ordeal faced by Basent and Basnet-ni, he said, was based on the experiences of his own grandparents in Relling. Lekhnath Chhetri says in the preface to Phoolange that his father had been a GNLF revolutionary who spent months in hiding and later became a wanted man within his own party because he questioned the leadership. Lekhnath Chhetri, like Kabimo, was born after 1986.
In Nepali, “Phoolange” refers to a plant that blossoms but does not bear fruit, and Lekhnath Chhetri uses the term as a metaphor for the failed Gorkhaland agitation. Like Kabimo, Lekhnath Chhetri has his guns trained on the architects of Chhyasi, who started a revolution without a clear plan or strategy – or even real conviction, it seems – and drove innocents to die and kill each other in numbers that have never been correctly counted, only to eventually accept a compromise by trading the demand for a separate state for the formation of an autonomous council. The English translation of the novel, by Anurag Basnet, was published this year as Fruits of the Barren Tree. Basnet also edited Song of the Soil.
In the interim between Song of the Soil and Fruits of the Barren Tree, 2022 saw a slew of books on Gorkhaland, the glut coming after the lull of the Covid years. Satyadeep Chhetri’s debut novel Gorkhaland Diaries: Even Dreams, Uneven Lives was billed as the “first English novel to capture the Gorkhaland Movement in its entirety”. Satyadeep Chhetri is a columnist, translator and poet, whose day job is to teach chemistry at Sikkim Government College in Gangtok.
The story is told in the first person by Rajen, who was a Gorkha revolutionary during the 1986 agitation. Rajen gives an overview of the Gorkhaland movement and its aftermath, drawing parallels between himself and Bijay, a young employee at a tea estate in Darjeeling who gets involved in the agitation of 2017. Of course, the failure of both 1986 and 2017 is one of the parallels and points of comparison.
Babita Maden’s memoir in Nepali, 1986: Baas Haraye Pachhi, which can be loosely translated as “1986: After home was lost”, stands out as a non-fiction title on Chhyasi. Her first book-length work, it combines personal history with journalistic research. Maden’s father, Bhaktaraj Maden, was a village-level GNLF leader and a panchayat pradhan, the head of a rural self-governance unit, in Darjeeling. After the agitation started, he and his wife had to flee their home and seek refuge in neighbouring Sikkim, to save themselves from getting killed at the hands of the anti-Gorkhaland and pro-government communists – the Communist Party of India–Marxist was in power in West Bengal at the time. Maden herself, only seven at the time, was forced to flee with her siblings and join her parents after their house was set on fire. The book is about not only the struggles of her family but also the challenges faced by the people of the hills amid the large-scale violence that erupted during the agitation and continued even after it officially ended with the formation of the DGHC.
Bimal Lama’s Nun Cha was translated into Nepali as Noonko Chiya (2022) by Samik Chakraborty, a Bengali activist and translator who works mostly among the tea estates of northern Bengal, including the hills. This represented an interesting and perhaps unique dynamic in the literature of the region: a Bengali novel written by an Indian Nepali was translated into Nepali by a Bengali. Chakraborty had earlier translated Fatsung into Bengali. Afterwards, while stranded at home during the Covid lockdowns, Chakraborty decided to work on Nun Cha because of the detailed canvas that Lama had drawn up. “I’m sure that no other novel in Bengali carries such vivid description of the hills, the rural life and the movement of 1986,” Chakraborty told me.
These writers’ proximity to the Gorkhaland issue makes a huge difference in how they portray Chhyasi. With Desai, the Gorkhaland agitation is only a backdrop; with the others, Gorkhaland is the story.
Another Bengali, Anirban Bhattacharyya, has approached the 1986 agitation by straddling fiction and non-fiction in his autobiographical novel The Hills Are Burning (2023). Bhattacharyya, now a Mumbai-based television producer, was a student at a residential school in Kalimpong in 1986. His novel is a coming-of-age tale told through the experiences of Tukai, a character modelled on himself. The novel gives a detailed picture of the agitation as seen by a young boy from Kolkata who comes to the hills to study and develops a deep bond with the place and the people.
Writing on 1986 as a Bengali meant Bhattacharyya faced the threat of being labelled “anti-Gorkhaland” by critics in the hills. However, he has walked the tightrope with dexterity, describing with honesty the horrifying atmosphere that prevailed during the agitation – especially due to a fall-out between various Gorkha factions – while also taking a sympathetic view of the long-standing fight for a separate state for Indian Nepalis and examining critically the violent state repression that followed.
At a recent event in Siliguri, Bhattacharyya said he once believed the “bad guys” were the revolutionaries killing people and destroying property in pursuit of a separate Gorkhaland, and the “good guys” were the police and paramilitary personnel trying to prevent a bifurcation of West Bengal. It made me realise that I, too, had grown up with a simplistic view of things, just that in my belief system the “good guys” were the brave Gorkha revolutionaries who were ready to lay down their lives for a land of their own and the “bad guys” were the government agents that crushed the uprising.
“The realization hit him hard … the rumours were true … These CRPF jawans were not soldiers … they were cold-blooded killers … he [Tukai] was seeing them shoot unarmed people!” writes Bhattacharyya, as he enumerates the excesses committed by the central forces, including the rape and murder of a nurse on the suspicion that she was a militant.
He also notes: “It wasn’t just the CRPF who were having a free hand at killing people. The two factions of the GNLF and GVC [Gorkhaland Volunteer Corps, the militant wing of GNLF] clashed and claimed lives as well. If ‘outsiders’ were to be held responsible for the destruction of the hills and the claiming of lives … so were the insiders who went on an ego-fuelled killing spree to prove their superiority in a futile mission of claiming an eye for an eye.”
The culture of silence around 1986 ensured that for a long time I did not explore, let alone question, the “grey areas” that no one spoke of. Chhyasi was indeed a Gorkhas-versus-state conflict, but it was also an ugly civil war that pitted Gorkhas against each other. For over two years, at a time when the state was using all its might to repress the agitation, the people of the hills were also busy killing each other, for reasons that ranged from political differences and factionalism to just personal grudges. This was the aspect of Chhyasi that brought people the most pain, yet no one spoke of it because – as the latest writings on Gorkhaland point out – it was also the Indian Nepali or Gorkha community’s great shame. “The fight with an enemy will come to an end, you will either win or lose,” Kabimo writes in Song of the Soil. “But can a war against your own people ever end? You neither win nor lose.”
The murder of Prem Sir in Fruits of a Barren Tree presents a searing description of the nature of the violence that prevailed. A respected village teacher, Prem Sir makes the mistake of telling off local revolutionaries for felling trees. He gets beaten up and is then made to dig his own grave while the revolutionaries cook mutton by the river. They even shove two pieces of the meat into Prem Sir’s mouth while he is lodged in his grave before killing him with a blow to the head. The murderers carry out the act in an unhurried, cold-blooded manner, in an atmosphere of fun and merriment. As the book’s omniscient narrator says later, “Dying and killing had become ordinary matters.”
Writing on 1986 as a Bengali meant Bhattacharyya faced the threat of being labelled “anti-Gorkhaland” by critics in the hills. However, he has walked the tightrope with dexterity, describing with honesty the horrifying atmosphere that prevailed during the agitation.
Like Chuden Kabimo and Lekhnath Chhetri, the others writing on the agitation also show both a deep anguish at the excesses committed by the state and an acute anger at the local leaders who misled the people with fantastic promises and drove them to kill and get killed. “I was angry,” Rajen says in Gorkhaland Diaries. “I felt cheated. I felt agitated that the people of the hills had been let down. Not by anyone from outside but by their own people.”
“Our family’s fault was that, when the issue of Gorkha identity arose in the hills, we as Gorkhas extended moral support to it,” writes Babita Maden in her memoir (translation mine). “But there were many who knew next to nothing about politics. They had no clue even as to what Gorkhland meant. Why were those innocent people targeted?” She adds, “Those resorting to violence did not even know why they were killing people, burning down homes, or looting people’s properties.”
Bimal Lama and Maden have both written at length about the sexual violence faced by women, not only at the hands of government forces (as shown in Nun Cha) but also from within the Gorkha community. Maden writes that women had to bear the brunt of enmities between different groups among the hill people, as sexual assault on women was very common as a revenge tactic used by warring groups.
Compared to the other novels on the Gorkhaland movement, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss is a better-crafted book with all its ingredients cleverly mixed by a master storyteller. The home-grown authors write with unpractised rawness. The plot of Kabimo’s Fatsung feels disjointed in places. Having created a fascinating setting, Lekhnath Chhetri’s Phoolange hurries to the end; the book’s complex characters and gripping plot could have done with more fleshing out. Anirban Bhattacharyya appears conflicted between writing fiction and non-fiction: The Hills Are Burning is the only novel I have read that says the names of certain characters have been changed and contains detailed citations in the footnotes. In the case of Babita Maden’s memoir, I wish she had focused more on her extraordinary personal story, while using her journalistic research to contextualise her experience. Satyadeep Chhetri, in Gorkhaland Diaries, has neglected the techniques of fiction in terms of plot development and characterisation. Nun Cha reads like the script of an endless soap opera, complete with passages that read like elaborate stage directions.
But these stylistic flaws are compensated by an honesty of purpose. As Satyadeep Chhetri said at the launch of his book in Siliguri recently, his primary objective was to educate the younger generation about the history of the Gorkha community’s struggle in India. These writers’ proximity to the Gorkhaland issue makes a huge difference in how they portray Chhyasi. With Desai, the Gorkhaland agitation is only a backdrop; with the others, Gorkhaland is the story.
Desai’s focus is on “outsiders” trying to live their lives in alien lands – be it a Gujarati judge and his north-Indian cook in Kalimpong or the cook’s son in the United States. She could have put her characters anywhere else besides Kalimpong without her story falling apart. The only Nepali character in her novel, Gyan, plays a secondary part. He is the private tutor and love interest of the judge’s granddaughter Sai. Gyan is not quite a Gorkha revolutionary at heart but cannot escape contagion in the politically charged environment as he begins to understand his position in the class structure dominated by the likes of Sai and her family. But Gyan’s story is not central to the plot.
The post-Chhyasi generation, like Chuden Kabimo and Lekhnath Chhetri, have especially taken advantage of their temporal distance from the agitation to take a more objective view of it. They are not afraid.
Desai’s loyalty is more to her craft than to the portrayal of the Gorkhaland agitation, which is the main concern of the other writers. She has given her own twist to Chhyasi, tailoring her narratives to the needs of her themes of exile and displacement, alienation and belonging. This is why she cherry-picks events that see agitators target “outsiders”. As a novelist, Desai is within her rights to make events incidental to the agitation a core part of her story and align them to suit her narrative. However, in pulling off this trick, she also manages to obfuscate many of the complexities of Chhyasi.
In the context of the movement and the public memory of it, the significance of the recent books on Gorkhaland cannot be overstated. In some ways, they carry forward the work that Desai had left incomplete in 2006, by providing insiders’ perspectives on the movement. They have the capacity to promote introspection among the people of the region and perhaps lead to some sort of reconciliation with the violent past. “There are still innumerable stories waiting to come out from this region,” said Basnet, calling for institution-backed memory projects and oral history projects that would attempt to document the true scale of the violence and its impact. One dares to hope that such projects will give primacy to the voice of the women, who were in most cases the silent victims of the violence perpetrated by different people for different reasons during 1986 and beyond.
These authors are not only fighting against the erasure of the truths of an important historical event, but also setting the record straight. The post-Chhyasi generation, like Kabimo and Chhetri, have especially taken advantage of their temporal distance from the agitation to take a more objective view of it. They are not afraid. They do not sugar-coat. Their spirit is best captured in the words of a character in Lekhnath Chhetri’s Fruits of the Barren Tree: “Learn the alphabet and become someone who tells his own story.”