Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Freedom in the hills of Darjeeling

The fanfare and enthusiasm with which the people of Darjeeling district celebrated  Independence Day surprised visitors from other parts of India. Will that legacy survive on the backdrop of current political problems?

school children participating on  I-day celebrations 
Nostalgic past

The Independence day in Kalimpong (Darjeeling district) wasn’t  just a national holiday but a festival that everyone awaited for. As a school student growing up in one of the Anglo – Indian boarding schools in Kalimpong, my friends and I eagerly looked forward to that day. 

The preparation to celebrate the Independence Day began almost a month before with the school band rehearsing the melodious tunes celebrating valour, victory and patriotism. Alongside the band, the school football team trained hard for the coveted Independence Day inter-school championship – the finals were played on the 15th August.

On the eventful day, the boarders got a daylong outing to the town with an extra pocket money! Soon after the special breakfast, the principal would hoist the national flag and distribute sweets, and we then were allowed to go the town centre to be a part of the celebrations.

In the town, thousands of people would pour into the high street to witness the grand march -past by the students of the school, their bands, police and the military. The town stadium, know as Mela gound, would be packed with people to watch the national flag hoisting, the speech by a local politician, cultural programmes and  the much awaited football final.

The atmosphere in the town was like a village fair: local families would even buy new dresses to be worn on that.  Hundreds of street food  stalls would spring up for a day selling  tea and hot meals. The weather often played a spoilsport with incessant drizzle but the people got used to it.  Everything about it was grand, majestic and people felt proud to be an Indian.

Gurkha agitation 

The memories of the Independence Day in the hills during my school days came rolling back when a friend lamented about the on-going political situation. He said the boycott of  the Independence Day by the local politicians is unfortunate, and he was deeply worried about his family.

The Darjeeling district is on an indefinite strike; the Nepali speaking population is demanding a new state- Gorkhaland (to be carved out from the east Indian state of West Bengal). 

The demand, which has been on since 1980s, intensified after the recent creation of a new state: Telengana, in south of India.

The strike has already crippled the local economy.  A local tour operator in Darjeeling told me that there have been thousands of cancellations on bookings by tourists for the upcoming festival season.

Darjeeling town deserted 
Tourism, Victorian-era schools and the world famous tea gardens should have made this tiny Himalayan district one of the richest in the country, but in the last 20 years, when India’s economic growth soared , the people in the hills  became poorer.

Lack of unemployment, the closure of tea gardens and poor government policies have forced  the people to live on the edge.  Many migrated to the bigger cities to look for jobs. (Read previous post:

Thousands of girls are directly or indirectly have fallen prey  to the nuisance of human trafficking and are directly or indirectly into prostitution in bigger Indian cities.

A broker in Delhi told me that the business is highly profitable; the girls have no choice.  Maya(name changed), who was trafficked to Delhi three years back, tells me that it’s very difficult to get out of prostitution business once you are in. “I earn over Rs 80,000($1200) a month without any qualifications. I am able to take care of my mom. No other job can pay me so much. I don’t care about the future.”  says Maya.

The girls are in demand in bigger Indian cities because of their oriental looks, fair skin colour and tender nature.

Many other young boys and girls have taken up jobs in India’s booming retail sector. “They are fashionable, got looks, and speak English, hence are perfect for the jobs”, says a Bangalore based corporate professional.

Clearly from the rhetoric coming form the hills, the issues of livelihood and systemic degradation of the society are hardy being debated.  

Mr Gurung, a school teacher and an author from Darjeeling tells me over phone: “the public sentiment is high but it does not mean  that they understand  everything. It is more about misguided ethnic pride. The initial enthusiasm by the youth whenever a strike is called is high but how long can you sustain it?” 

Many question how are the poor people going to benefit even if  the statehood is granted.  “Those half –educated politicians will become super -rich  but my life will still be the same” says Rohan a migrant from Darjeeling in Delhi. I am sure when the Gorkha Territorial Authority was signed, they ( the politicians) received a lot of money. What happened to that?”

United we stand, divided we fall

Dividing India on ethnic lines and for  vested political interests can be dangerous and can set a wrong precedence.

The people of Darjeeling need to consolidate their economy and need a model of development that can bring prosperity  by optimizing the resources. The local people need to benefit from the tea and tourism industry: a sincere policy  to that effect by the government should be a welcome step.

A long -run political agitation can be self- defeating as it will destroy the economy.  The entire  region will slide back by at least  10 years. Recovering from that point, even if the statehood is granted, will be an uphill task. The people of the hills including their political leaders needs to exercise wisdom and take measures that will bring equitable economic and social benefits to the people.

The  Gurkhas have made tremendous sacrifice for India. Their bravery is India’s pride; the welfare and the prosperity of  the hills should be a concern for all.

The people need to ensure that the din of freedom is heard once again from the Queen of the Hills on the Independence Day.