The bloodshed in Darjeeling highlights how foolish it was to try to make Bengali a compulsory school subject even in a Nepalese-majority district. But the agitation that flared up had been simmering for more than a century and concerns not just West Bengal but India as a whole. The ascendancy of an authoritarian, monocultural party at the Centre greatly increases the likelihood of minority groups seeing the state as “the prison house of nationalities”, Lenin’s term for Tsarist Russia. The turbulence in Jammu and Kashmir is the most obvious instance of this gulf between nation and region. Whatever the outcome, strife will not end so long as the Kashmir revolt is dismissed as only the outcome of Pakistani mischief, jihadist terrorism and black money. As A.S. Dulat, the perspicacious former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, pointed out, there can be no solution until the Kashmiris themselves have been won over through a process he called “selling peace through a sustained dialogue”. That demands a sympathetic approach and some knowledge of the historical background. I am reminded in this connection of the legendary Ranjit Gupta’s response to my outrage at alleged human rights abuses against the Naga tribes. Known for suppressing Naxalites when he was Kolkata’s police commissioner, Ranjit Gupta was interested in anthropology and was aware of history.
“Don’t forget,” he said, “that India was an imperial creation and can be kept together only through imperial methods!” Far from admitting that modern India was an imperial creation, the change of place names — will the Gateway of India be the next victim? — suggests that many Indians would like to deny that the British ever ruled us. Not for them the view that “to strengthen their attempt at developing an India-wide response to the India-wide rule of the British” the Congress, virtually the sole opinion-maker then, “invented the idea of an ancient ‘Mother India’ to which all Indians had once owed allegiance.” Mother India means nothing to Nagas, Mizos, Meteis or Kashmiri Muslims. The past is specially important as today’s regional dreams are rooted in the memories of yesterday’s experience. It can’t be glossed over to suit contemporary ideology. The Young Mizo Association’s 10-point agreement with the British explicitly provided for opting out of post-colonial India. The Naga Club formed in 1918 submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission, claiming sovereignty and asking the British “to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times” once colonial rule ended. The Naga National Council proclaimed Nagaland’s independence on August 14, 1947, and claimed “99 per cent” support for a “sovereign Naga state” in the “referendum” it conducted in 1951.
People in these areas still refer to the rest of the country as “India”. They still talk of “loyal” and “hostile” Nagas. Accompanying an administrative officer on tour, I noticed that his entourage carefully avoided “hostile” villages and visited only “loyal” ones. Loyalty has a price. Mr Dulat says that “money in Kashmir goes back a long, long way.” It does in the rest of entire country too, specially in regions where New Delhi’s rights are contested. The Centre’s per capita subvention figures tell an intensely political story. One of the elders (gaonburas) of a loyal village we visited said the British came first and the Nagas were loyal to them. Then followed the Indians and the Nagas were loyal to them too. But the Indians were not honest, he complained, trotting out a litany of grievances that all boiled down to funds and subsidies. Darjeeling’s Nepalese — or Gorkhas — have not lagged behind Mizos and Nagas. When the Minto-Morley Reforms were being considered, the Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum demanding a separate administrative setup. Ten years later it sent another memorandum seeking a separate administrative unit for Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. The Hillmen’s Association again raised the demand before the Simon Commission, and followed it up the following year with a joint petition, also endorsed by the Gorkha Officers Association and the Kurseong Gorkha Library, demanding separation from Bengal. In 1941, Rup Narayan Sinha, the Hillmen’s Association president, urged New Delhi to convert Darjeeling district into a chief commissioner’s province.
But there’s a problem. The now forgotten Gorkha National Liberation Front founder, Subash Ghising, mentioned “the ‘identity problem’ of the nine million Gorkhas in the country”. That’s what Morarji Desai meant by saying that Nepalese was a foreign language and couldn’t be included in the Eighth Schedule. Settlers from Nepal fanned out along the Himalayan foothills and all over India and into Sikkim and Bhutan long before the British began importing Nepalese labour or established recruitment centres at Ghoom and Gorakhpur. Darjeeling had only 1,900 people in 1850, including Lepchas and Bhutiyas. The Nepalese share of Darjeeling’s population rose from 54 per cent in 1901 to 58.4 per cent in 1971 because already settled families invited their kin to join them, like migrants worldwide. Rajiv Gandhi’s refusal to countenance citizenship for post-1950 immigrants was explicable in view of the reported growth of over 700 per cent between 1951 and 2001 in Darjeeling’s Nepalese population. It would be ideal if the Nepalese, Kashmiri Muslim, Naga, Mizo and other minority labels could be submerged in an enlightened Indian identity. But the warning of another future lurked in the memorial the undivided CPI sent to the Constituent Assembly asking that “the three contiguous areas of Darjeeling district, southern Sikkim and Nepal be formed into one single zone to be called Gorkhastan”. As the old pop song had it, “Que sera, sera/ Whatever will be, will be/ The future’s not ours to see/ Que sera, sera/ What will be, will be.” Much will depend on the spirit of accommodation in the rest of the country.