Darjeeling appears as a small speck in the map of India, nestled in the mountains of the eastern Himalayas. It is inhabited by the Gorkha population. The Gorkhas have been demanding a homeland within India for the last hundred years or so, and the demand for the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland within the framework of Indian federation has its history ever since India’s independence. The hills saw a bloody agitation for separation from West Bengal and for the creation of a separate Gorkhaland state within the federal structure of India in the 1980s, after which a hill council was formed. The developmental benefits have, however, failed to percolate down to the people even after thirty years of anxious wait. The second wave of protest movement started in 2007. The Gorkha community resides, both ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ on the margins of the imagined nation. With the advancement in education and urbanisation, the 80s saw a rising middle-class intelligentsia who emphasised on ethnicity. While embracing a modern way of living, this group of aware people realised the need to preserve their own distinct identity. The movement flared up 2017, resulting in a 104 day long strike. At a time when the embers of a violent agitation for Gorkhaland were slowly dying down, I travelled to Darjeeling in an attempt to understand the situation in the hills and its people. This work is a memory of my time in the quaint hill stations. Through drizzle and impenetrable fog, I became a part of the lives of the people I spent my days with. I travelled from one village to another, living with families who welcomed me into their homes and offered me food and shelter. As I spent more time in this place, my understanding about the Gorkha community as well as the Gorkhaland movement began to change and my conscience demanded me to relook at the notions I had in the past. I began to realise that the fight for Gorkhaland is not merely a demand for territory – its roots lie far deeper. It is essentially a fight for social identity. I sought out its history: a land of incomparable beauty originally inhabited by the Lepchas and other tribes; the British who took it for themselves in the mid-1800s so they could remember home; the vast tea gardens with which the British replaced pine forests to produce the world’s finest tea; and a demand for statehood which was almost a 100 years old. In the enmeshed lives of the people I photographed—of various castes, tribes, religions, and cultures—lived at the measured pace of a small town, I discovered a society which managed to endure even under threat from cynical politics and a fading identity. With this work I have tried to look at the notion of identity and the sense of uncertainty in everyday life, merging memory with politics, to create a portrait of a place and its people.
© Riti Sengupta