Book Review | Recovering, Rewriting History: The Gorkhaland Movement

The book jacket of Gorkhaland Diaries by Satyadeep S. Chhetri states that it is the first English novel to trace the Gorkhaland movement that swept the hills of Darjeeling, and the Doars and Siliguri, during the 1980s. The beginnings of the Gorkhaland movement can be traced as far back as to 1909, when a demand for a separate state carved out of West Bengal was demanded for the Nepali speaking people who lived in this region. The demand for a different state was put forth as the people of this region felt that they shared little in terms of “language, cultural ethos and lifestyle”  with the rest of the state they were a part of.

A certain sense of being exploited while being marginalised at the same time, also fanned a sense of discontent. As the division of states post Independence was done along linguistic differences, the fact of a lack of a shared language further triggered matters.

The movement, however, gained momentum in the 1980s with the rise of Subhash Ghisingh with the formation of the Gorkha National Liberation Front in 1986. The movement came to some sort of culmination with an uneasy peace established with he formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988. The movement was punctuated by acts of violence that saw many paying the ultimate price with their life. As with most such separatist movements, the youth were galvanised by the calls to action given out by the political leaders and, again, unfortunately, as one has seen with similar movements, were ultimately left directionless, disappointed and disillusioned.

Gorkhaland Diaries
Satyadeep S. Chhetri
Bee Books

Historical fiction

Much of fiction that has emerged from Northeast India can be categorised as historical fiction that aims at recovering, rewriting history that has been neglected or completely silenced by mainstream Indian history. The region that can be termed Gorkhaland is obviously not in the Northeast, but there are several similarities not only in terms of geography, culture, ethnicities, but also economic and political issues.

Therefore, the impulse that drives the telling of Gorkhaland Diaries shares much with fiction from the north-east. The narration is done primarily through the life of Rajen – who was part of the “most deadly and feared group called the Gorkha Volunteer Cell,” drawn into the political whirlpool as a college-going youth, and who is then left with a walking stick as a reminder of the bullet that shot him splitting his right femur, leaving him with a permanent limp. Interestingly, we are told that Rajen is the son of an Indian army officer and the grandson of Sub Major Suryaa Bahadur Rana who was part of the British army and a veteran who had fought in the Second World War.

Caught in the crossfire

It is perhaps his unique background of being somebody who was very much an active participant in the insurgency, though belonging to an armed forces family, that gives the narrative an insightful and balanced perspective.

Right from the beginning of the novel, one is plunged into a life full of hardships, owing to the general lack of development the region suffers from; a life stitched together by meagre means of livelihood for most, one which is constantly threatened to be torn apart by violence. The idyllic image that one often paints of life in the hills is almost consciously thus painted over by a more realistic depiction. What is reiterated is a life constantly interrupted by bandhs, rallies, firings and raids; where even something like a regular outing to buy groceries could turn out to be a dangerous, even fatal one.

Apart from the senseless and brutal and cyclical presence of violence, the other pervasive sense that emerges from the novel is a complete sense of disillusionment with the political class – at the centre, and locally. The novel is fairly suggestive of the fact that all political leaders are primarily motivated by the lure of power, and shift goal-posts at their whim, completely unmindful of the promises made to the people, mostly using the young, the poor and the innocent as mere pawns for an endgame that they are rarely aware of.

Beyond Tiger Hill and momos

The focus of the novel – as suggested by the very title – is very much on the political movement, and therefore at times, the literariness of the work takes a backseat. For somebody invested in the politics of that region, it may not be an impediment but otherwise, the novel does tend to acquire a certain documentary-like quality at times. However, the stories of relatively minor characters like Birey Daju and Bijay particularly, not only bring about some relief but also make both the narrative and the human element at the centre of the political struggle more believable and relatable.

These relatively minor characters are also important because Rajen, the main voice of the novel, belongs to a fairly privileged class and at times one feels that that it protects him the kind of fate that awaits those like Binay – equally committed to the cause, albeit misguided.

Gorkhaland Diaries is an important novel because it brings to attention a history not very well known to the rest of India. It is a history well worth revisiting because we perhaps owe it to the people of “Gorkhaland” whose beautiful hills we take great pleasure in visiting, but make no effort whatsoever to discover about what lies beyond the scenic sunsets and the mouthwatering momos.

Shibani Phukan teaches at a Delhi University college.

Featured image: Protesters rally on the streets of Darjeeling demanding Gorkhaland. Credit: PTI