RETHINKING GORKHA IDENTITY: OUTSIDE THE
IMPERIUM OF DISCOURSE, HEGEMONY, AND HISTORY
The primary focus of the paper is the study of the colonial construction of the Gorkha identity and its later day crisis. Taking the colonial encounter as the historic moment of its evolution, the paper makes an attempt to map the formation of the Gorkha identity over the last two hundred years or so by locating the process of formation within the colonial public sphere that emerged in Darjeeling in the early part of the twentieth century. The paper tries to cast new light on the nature of contestation and conflation between the colonial identity or the martial identity inscribed on the body of the Gorkha by the colonial discourse of “martial race” and the cultural identity that was emerging in course of time. It also tries to establish the fact that the colonial forms of representation of the “Gurkhas” as the “martial race” is still the dominant form of representation foreclosing all other forms of representation that had become possible as a new self-identity emerged with the cultural renaissance in Darjeeling and elsewhere. It also looks into the problem of double consciousness of the deterritorialised Gorkha subjectivity that is torn between two seemingly conflictual impulses of a primordially constructed notion of the Gorkha jati (community) and the demands of a modern nation-state. The paper also argues that the Gorkha identity has somewhat failed in securing a political space for its cultural identity leading to deep fissures in its multi layered identity.
“Critique is the movement by which the subject gives itself the right to question truth on its effects of power and to question power on its discourses of truth…in a word, the politics of truth.”
The phase we are living in is one of the most crucial in human history. It is a phase marked by contradictions and confusions, and a phase that is increasingly characterised by the interplay of two seemingly opposing and yet complementary forces of essentialism and hybridity. At one end of the continuum is a growing tendency in global political and economic forces towards greater integration – one that is stoked by the continual movement of people and their cultural baggage across the boundaries of nation-states, throwing up new forms of trans-national practices, locations, solidarities, and institutions that do not strictly conform to the demands and logic of the nation-state. In fact, theorists like Arjun Appadurai have already written obituaries of the nation-state.1 At the other end of the same continuum, still newer forms of micro politics have secured moral legitimation, marking a distinctive shift towards the fragmentation of the cultural landscape.2
In the backdrop of this, the question of identity has saddled itself firmly at the centre stage of both academic and political debates. The argument in essence is that the old identities that had stabilised the social world for so long are in decline, giving rise to new identities and fragmenting the modern individual as a unified subject. The ‘crisis of identity’ is now increasingly seen as a part of a wider process of change which is dislocating the central structures and processes of modern societies and undermining the framework which had until now given the individual a stable anchorage in the social world.3 In the rarefied terrain of academics we are witnessing debates that raise significant questions about the very legitimacy of the fundamental axioms of enlightenment and the way ‘history’ has been conceptualised as an irreversible process of modernity. With this movement, the earlier notion of a universal human subject has come under serious attack and the notion of a ‘decentered subject’ seems to be acquiring greater salience in academic parlance.
1 Arjun Appadurai, “Patriotism and Its Futures”, in his Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 158-177.
2 Yogendra Singh, “A Life-World of Disenchantment: Modernity, Ethnicity and Pluralism”, in Sociological Bulletin, Vol.4, No.2. September 1998, pp. 155-165.
3 Stuart Hall, “The Question of Cultural Identity”, in Stuart Hall, David Hall, et. al. (ed.) Modernity and Its Futures, Polity Press, in association with Open University, 1992, p. 275.
It is in such an academic climate that this paper will try to understand the emergence and formation of the Gorkha4/Nepali identity in India spanning a period of over two hundred years and its continuing crisis. The crisis of identity is nothing new to the Gorkhas in India. It was co-opted together with the people as they were introduced to ‘Civilisation’ and ‘History’. And with the passing of time it has only become that much more convoluted and complex. At a much deeper level, the problem of identity is in fact the problem of modernity. One of the most enduring and lasting features of modernity is the necessity of all modern subjects to organise themselves around the normative idea of nation.5 The modern identities circumscribed as they are by the symbolic boundaries of the nation are mediated by the complex discursive structures of national culture and national identity. In such a situation the problem of Gorkha identity cannot be understood in isolation. The need here is to locate it within the complex matrix of nation, space, territory, culture, race, and history. It is by understanding the nature and dynamics of the discursive formations of these structures that our effort to deconstruct the Gorkha identity may come to fruition. This paper in that sense is a preliminary attempt to theorise the Gorkha identity by locating it in these discursive structures. In what follows, I will make a modest attempt to contextualise the emergence of Gorkha identity in nineteenth
4 The word `Gorkha’ comes from the small principality (now a district) in Nepal by the same name. The kingdom of Gorkha was established by Drabya Shah in 1559. It is located 40 miles west of Kathmandu. The names `Gorkha’ and `Nepali’ are used interchangeably in India although political movements at different times have favoured the use of the word Gorkha over Nepali in order to differentiate between the citizens of Nepal and India. T B Subba has devised an ingenious way differentiating them. He spells the citizens of Nepal as “Nepalese”, and the Nepali speaking Indians as “Nepalis”. See his, Ethnicity, State and Development: A Case Study of the Gorkhaland Movement, Vikas, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 67-74.
5 Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that European imperialism and third world nationalism have together achieved the universalisation of the nation-state as the most desirable form of political community. See his “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for the Indian Past?” in Padmini Mongia (ed.), Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997, p. 240.
century colonial India, tracing its origins in the British colonial discourse particularly in their ethnographical writings on “martial race”. Taking the colonial encounter as the historical moment of its evolution, the paper will try to map the formation of the Gorkha identity through an inter-textual discourse study within the context of the colonial public sphere and the liberal nationalist historiography of colonial India. Further, I shall argue that the problem of Gorkha identity exits at two levels. One, the very idea of Gorkha identity is inscribed on the body of the individual Gorkha by the colonial discourse. At another level, the historical experience of the Gorkha creates a sense of a deterritorialised Gorkha subjectivity, torn between two seemingly conflictual impulses of a primordially constructed notion of Gorkha jati (community) and the demands of a modern nation-state.
The poverty of academic research and the question of Gorkha identity
The ‘life-world’ of the Gorkhas in India is located both literally and figuratively on the margins of the imagined nation. This ‘marginality’ is not merely a location but a byword for the oppressed and dispossessed. It is characterised by the dispossession of narratives, the cannibalistic appropriation and the continuing colonisation of their epistemological grid. For the most part, it occupies a peripheral location in relation to the metropolitan academic research. It remains an under-researched terrain, in which the standards of the scholarship emerging from these locations struggle to measure up to the standards set by the `mainstream’ academia, which on its part forms a peripheral location vis-a-vis the metropolitan academia. The Gorkhas who were historically subjected to the Orientalist gaze of colonial humanist anthropology continues to remain the subject of discourse. From such a standpoint, the academic discourses on the problem of Gorkha identity, emerging both from within and without appears skewed and stifled by the disciplinary contours of traditional methods of social enquiry. Their narratives revolve around the idea of the Gorkhas as an exclusive ethnic group juxtaposed with the liberal nationalist imagination of the Indian nation. There does exists some commendable works on identity formation, particularly the importance they have laid on collective memory of home and the experience of migration, and the changing structure of caste and village settlements.6 However, a comprehensive study of the contributions of social and cultural movements in Darjeeling and elsewhere towards the formation of a distinct Gorkha identity still eludes us. What is clear in these scholarships and other forms of utterances, especially the ones that have come from within, is the evidence of the fundamental fissures that are located in the interstices of the subjectivity of the Gorkha. Barring a handful of works which can be called insurrectionary, majority of these tend to revolve around the celebration of the famed “bravery” of the “Gurkhas”.7 Girdled by the colonial constraints of valour and its validation, the Gorkha subject appears ambivalent towards colonialism. Colonialism is often understood in a periodic sense rather than a well-defined set of discursive practices outliving the formal end of the more brutal forms of rule.
What is completely missed out here is the reality of the continuing discursive colonisation of the Gorkha identity. Similar is the case with the studies on the more recent movements of the Gorkhas for statehood. There is a marked tendency in these works to explain it away as stemming from economic causes like relative deprivation or internal colonialism – one that informs the paternalistic policies of the Indian state – or it is simply pitched as a case of ethnic exclusivism and “separatism”. Both forms of scholarship suffer from reductionism. Either it is an instrumentalist understanding of the problem, or worse still, it is about constructing an identity in the most essentialist image. The missing link in both these genres of works is colonialism. It is not as if these interpretative gestures and exercises have ignored the colonial history, but where they have failed is in the diachronic
6 On the factor of migration and memory, see Kumar Pradhan’s Pahilo Pahar, Shyam Prakashan, Darjeeling, 1982. On the changing nature of caste structure, see T B Subba’s, “Caste Relations in Nepal and India”, in Social Change, Vol.15, No.4, December 1985, pp. 23-26.
7 In Western writings, the word Gorkha is spelt as “Gurkha” or “Goorkha”.
comprehension of the colonial primaries of the Gorkha identityformation. We shall return to discuss all these, particularly the relations of power as it is reflected in our historiography and nationalist imagination, a little later.
Identities are as much self-constructed as it is constructed by the other. In that sense there appears a fundamental difference in the manner in which the Gorkha identity or the Gorkha ‘jati’ is imagined by the ‘self’, and the way the Gorkha identity is conceptualised in the metropolitan as well as in the `mainstream’ Indian academic discourses. There appears a significant gap in the meanings of the word jati. Even while admitting that the word jati is a loose term that allows a wide array of meanings within its semantic field, Gorkha jati in the culturally specific sense signifies a cultural identity, expressed through imageries and symbols derived from its composite culture.
8 The Indian `mainstream’ academic discourses in their turn have merely derived from the metropolitan academia. Since the `mainstream’ academia looks at the peripheral identities and their narratives through the Western lenses, it takes a derivative form.
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