Gathering storm in the tea gardens of Darjeeling

As a Gurkha separatist campaign is relaunched, the region’s most famous export is hit by a strike and the eviction of tourists

Tea time at the Darjeeling Planters Club and Major J.S. Rana settles into a wicker chair on the veranda, taking a long slow slurp from his afternoon brew. It is picking season and the club should be crowded with tourists, planters and buyers talking shop or admiring the view over the Himalayan foothills.

Today, however, the terrace is deserted – as are the billiards room and the mess where British planters once devoured 12-course meals, smashing the plates after each one.

“I can’t remember seeing it like this,” says the major, club secretary since 1998. “It’s very worrying.”

There is trouble brewing in Darjeeling, whose unique geography produces some of the world’s most expensive teas. The ethnic Gurkhas (or Gorkhas) in this part of the state of West Bengal have relaunched a campaign to create their own state within India – to be called Gorkhaland. Last month the newly formed Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) called a sporadic general strike, shutting roads and businesses and evicting the tourists who come here to escape the summer heat.

“It’s a question of identity,” Bimal Gurung, the GJM leader, told The Times. “Still today we are beasts of burden. We’ve been labourers for others for 200 years. Now the time’s come for change.”

The one million Gurkhas of Darjeeling have long complained that their Government denies them education and jobs while plundering their natural resources: of 87 tea gardens here, none is Gurkha-owned.

In 1986 Gurkhas began an insurgency that killed 1,200 people – and formed the backdrop of Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss. That ended in 1988 when Subhash Ghising, the leader of the movement, struck a deal allowing Gurkhas limited autonomy through the Darjeeling Gurkha Hill Council. Two decades on, the Gorkhaland movement has been reignited by, of all things, the Indian version of Pop Idol.

Last September a 25-year-old Gurkha policeman called Prashant Tamang entered Indian Idol – and came up against a Bengali in the final. When an Indian radio DJ mocked Mr Tamang as a chowkidar, a disparaging term for a watchman, Darjeeling erupted into protests and violent clashes between Gurkhas and Bengalis.

Misjudging the mood, the elderly Mr Ghising failed to endorse the Gurkhas’ accidental hero. Meanwhile, the more savvy Mr Gurung organised a text-messaging campaign to propel the policeman to victory – and then recruited his young fans to the GJM. Mr Tamang, now recording an album in Bombay, insists that he had no political agenda when he entered the contest, and still has none: “I’m happy I kept the Gurkha name alive. But I don’t interfere in political things.”

Back in Darjeeling, the movement he inadvertently revived has taken on a life of its own. The GJM calls the 1988 deal a betrayal, pointing to the abysmal state of public services and roads, most of which have not been resurfaced in 20 years. Gorkhaland, it says, would focus investment on tea and tourism without public funds being diverted in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal. Most Gurkhas appear to agree, especially the young, who often have to go to other states or overseas to find work. “However long it takes – we’re ready to pay the price,” Mingma Gyalmo, a 19-year-old Gurkha student from Darjeeling, said.

The GJM insists that it is non-violent, and there will be no repeat of the 1980s, but the Government is taking no chances: last week it called in the army to prevent further clashes between Gurkhas and Bengalis.

The Communist government of West Bengal has reluctantly agreed to hold trilateral talks with the GJM and the central Government, and offered the Hill Council greater powers. However, it remains firmly opposed to Gorkhaland – as does Delhi, anxious not to encourage several other separatist movements in the north east. “We want peace in the hills,” Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the West Bengal chief minister, said last week. “I have asked the GJM leaders to think if they really need a separate state. I think we can stay together. But yes, Darjeeling needs more development.”

At the heart of the dispute is the tea industry, which supports half of Darjeeling’s 1.6 million people and generates millions of pounds in tax revenues. Darjeeling produces 9.5 million kilograms of tea annually – 2 per cent of Indian production – but output has been stagnant for 20 years because of poor management and outdated labour laws. The GJM says that the solution is to evict negligent plantation owners by revoking their leases, thus giving Gurkhas a chance to buy.

Some in the industry agree but others say that the GJM is only hurting the economy of Darjeeling, including its better-run estates.

Among those affected is Happy Valley, founded in 1854. Closed in 2005 after decades of mismanagement, it reopened in March with new equipment and a deal to supply Harrods – only to be hobbled by the strike, which forced the cancellation of two tea auctions in Calcutta.

Industry leaders say that production will drop by 30 per cent this year because of poor weather and the strikes. “I don’t expect anything like the 1980s,” said R. K. Babycon, deputy head of the Darjeeling Tea Association. “But this has to be resolved soon, or there could be repercussions.”

Indian insurgencies

Kashmir More than 68,000 killed since an Islamic separatist rebellion began in 1989

Assam More than 10,000 killed since a separatist insurgency began in 1979

Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura More than 30 small separatist struggles have left thousands dead since 1947

Punjab Separatist conflict killed several thousand in the 1970s and 1980s

Naxalites Maoist insurgency has killed more than 6,000 since 1967, including 837 last year

Darjeeling Gurkha separatist insurgency killed 1,200 between 1986 and 1988

Source: Times Archive

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