“We Came Here Along With the Land”: Examining the Angst and Apprehensions Towards the NRC Through Literary Engagements of the Gorkha in South Asia

Demand for Gorkhaland
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The exhibition of angst during the visit of the current Darjeeling MP Raju Bista of the BJP to Kalimpong forms the backdrop of the discussion in this article. The closure of the highway for the elected representative’s visit was engrained in the uncertainty concomitant of the NRC, CAA (CAB), and notions “Citizenship” and statelessness among the native Nepali speaking people (the Gorkha) in North Bengal. For over a century, the Gorkha in India has embroiled in a contest over authentic ethnocultural cartographic representation within the Union of India. They have been the regular suspect as foreigners, aliens, illegal, etc. The discussion in the paper by weaving across literary works including local plays in Nepali language attempts to bring to the fore the complex politics of representations, performance, and aesthetics of the contested claims to the Trans-Himalayan ‘Shared heritages’ of ‘Gorkha’ and being rooted as the ‘bhoomiputra’ across South Asia.

History as Vexed and Contested

History writing, interpreting history, and conceiving any event as history is markedly selective and therefore involves indeed ‘political’ choices and decisions. The methodology infused into the engagement and resource collection, as well as documentation, selectively attempts at familiarizing and de-familiarizing of select events. Thereby the event is perceived through what Foucault calls a gaze. In many senses, the gaze of history, which fills our knowledge and informs us, is markedly statist. History as a political engagement selectively erases and reproduces events through pedagogical enterprise. Understanding ‘History’ as a vexed exercise of claims-making by communities, the discussion attempts to complicate the issues of territorialization of the Gorkha identity around Darjeeling -the center-stage of movements for a separate state Gorkhaland. The vexed multiethnic contest over the cartography of Darjeeling and North Bengal at large makes it also the fertile ground for the germination of the cultural, artistic outburst. Like in other parts of the Northeast of India, where state censorship on overt political expressions has opened the avenues of emic community expressions through the medium of print or performance, Darjeeling, has had its share of the emergence of performance through literary and theatrical engagements. The arena of writing, singing, and performance in this sense opens up possibilities of alternative histories and meaning-making of events both at present and in the long past. Herein comes the weight of Chinua Achebe’s (the Nigerian novelist and poet) quotation of an African Proverb: “until the lions have their historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

The ‘Home’ and Outside

The claims and the contests to cling to (and thereby share) a trans-Himalayan Gorkha/Gorkhey identity are posed with multidirectional challenges. The contests, the claims, and the connections can be gleaned through the literary and theatrical engagements. Literary studies on the Nepali-speaking people would inevitably begin with full dedication to Bhanubhakta Acharya. Deviating from that trend, the discussion in this paper would skirt the ‘Adi Kavi’ and focus on Modern Nepali literature. Modern Nepali literature throughout the twentieth century engaged with the Gorkha/Gorkhey identity and its vexed exclusivities hemmed to a region in Nepal and, in that sense to a select group of people and the claims-making to that region-specific identity by those living outside the cartographic map of Nepal in its contemporary order. Nepali, known by various names such as Khas, Parbate, and Gorkhali, established itself as the primary language of Nepal on its emergence as an enlarged Kingdom around 1816. Benares had been the principal center of learning Nepali, as a large corpus of literary works were printed and published from there. Print nationalism from Darjeeling took control of the production of Nepali literature from Darjeeling. It shifted the center of knowledge creation, and articulation from a highly Sanskrit influenced Benares to a more indigenously engrained Nepali intonation from Darjeeling.

The year 2007 marked multiple milestones in the ever-changing mood of the articulation of the Gorkha aspirations for identity and self-determination. The most important being the rise of a ‘new political party’ claiming to be more pro-Gorkha people and by that logic aptly named the ‘Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha’ (Gorkha Peoples’ Liberation Front/Party). The leadership and the intelligentsia at the helm of affairs pronounced that the party was a peoples’ party and that the ‘Sachet Jagruk Janta’ (Informed Vigilant People) was the core of the new party. Following the political dislocation of the GNLF and Subhas Ghisingh from the hills of Darjeeling, there was a sudden wave of vigour injected into the realms of creativity and literary pursuits among the Nepali-speaking people in Darjeeling. ‘Being Gorkha’ began to take multiple meanings – from performance to aesthetics. Performing and displaying (this involved an elaborate programme of inventing, and re-discovering cultural, tribal, ethnic markers for defining and asserting the same) the Gorkha began to take a political project, and the new leadership encouraged those who exhibited and helped build that ‘Gorkha’ in sync with the political rhetoric of Bimal Gurung (the then GJMM leader). The poetry and literary creations of this phase were predominantly ‘GoJoMomized’ (those in Darjeeling pronounce the acronym GJMM in Nepali as ‘Go-Jo-Mo-Mo’ instead of the English ‘Gi-Je-eM-eM’). The bulk of the works produced after 2007 like the preceding genre of Indian Nepali poetry are replete with expressions of the lived experience of injustice meted on the Gorkha and their cravings for a cartographic recognition embossed on the nostalgia of ‘Nepal’ as the Mul Ghar (Original Home)’ and the image of the Bir Gorkha. Literary traditions as passed from the ‘Pranta Parishad’ continue to steer the course of such imagogical exercise and versifications of the embodied experience of spatial estrangements of the Gorkha in South Asia.

The Pranta Parishad reiterated the demand for inclusion of the Nepali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution even later after the GNLF marginalised it. In 1980 the Pranta Parishad, with the active role of Indra Bahadur Rai and the Nepali Bhasha Manyata Samiti, started a campaign to include the Nepali language in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution and converted itself as a formidable rival of Subhas Ghisingh and his GNLF. Ghisingh rhetoric that Nepali was not emic to the people of Darjeeling and the large section of people in India. Therefore it was urgent to invent a nomenclature for these people, and to him, ‘Gorkha’ and ‘Gorkhali’ were the correct nomenclature to refer to the people and their language. Ghising attempted to snip every link with Nepal the ‘mother country’ for the Nepali-speaking people and abhorred even the ‘Adi Kavi Bhanubhakta’ as a foreign poet, the only link that continued to cling to the said community was the name ‘Gorkha’ which interestingly was an import from Nepal. To counter the various literary giants of the time (such as Paras Mani Pradhan, Indra Bahadur Rai, Ishwarballav, Bairagi Kaila, Kumar Pradhan, etc., and also the past giants such as Rupnarayan Sinha) from Darjeeling who were consolidating their literary genius to dislocate the Benares Nepali literary enterprise, Ghisingh also took to writing and developed his style of print nationalism.

Mul Ghar among the Nepali speaking people refers to the original ancestral home/hearth. I conceive that ‘once you leave ‘home,’ the spatial and temporal change affects both the ‘home’ itself and the one that ‘moved out of that ‘home”. The Ghar bhitra (The one inside the home), and the ‘Ghar bahira’ (The one outside, the one who leaves) undergoes qualitative changes in a multitude of power relations; and the ‘Ghar farkine’ (The one who returns) as an outsider undergoes stringent test of positional power play as operative in the given society (here Darjeeling). Also, the sense of the ‘home’ is subjective and not as neat as presented in definitional categories. However, one cannot deny that the ‘home is where when you come, there is someone to open the door,’ that is acceptance by those at ‘home’ to those who come back.

Theatre and Performance

The notion of the ‘Home’ and outside has been the core of many Indian Nepali plays such as Ani Deorali Runcha (And the Hilltop cries: Man Bahadur Mukhia, 1972); Agoko Jhilkaharu (The Sparks of Fire: Mohan Thapa, 1976); Ani Bhaleymungro Runcha (And the Chameleon Cries: C. K. Shrestha, 1980); Durga Malla (The story of Durga Malla: Kiran Thakuri, 1980) etc. These plays staged in different years during and after the Chiyasi ko Andolan (violent phase of the Gorkhaland Movement) interrogated the question of the ‘Home,’ the land, the nation (and locate oneself into the rubric of the nationalist histories and historiographies) etc. These issues synced the immediate concerns and dilemmas faced by the Nepali speaking people throughout South Asia in an age when communities across the region were dabbling with the logic of caging people in the Westphalian frame.

Following a lineage of theatre clinging to the roots of shared heritages of Gorkha and connectedness to the ‘Mul Ghar’ (ancestral home) in Nepal, the contemporary performances in theatre, plays in Darjeeling uphold the same trend but with a durable injection of critical voices. Gleaning through the very popular drama in the second generation Gorkhaland phase ‘Bhanu ra Pala’ (2009) we can observe the intensity of the theatrics of ‘being, feeling and thinking Gorkha/Gorkhey’. The drama ‘Bhanu ra Pala’ through humour has injected a critique of the second generation Gorkhaland movement. This drama set on the hill politics post 2007 marks many interesting breaks from the other drama and theatre cultures of the region and the Nepali speaking people in India and across South Asia.

The Loop in the answer

The dilemma of having to ‘explain’ their identity/community appellation and hem it to a particular region/state is indeed perplexing, traumatising, and results in emotional exasperation. The Gorkha in the region has continuously been challenged by contending communities to prove their authenticity as citizens, their loyalty to the Indian nation, and prove their ‘Indianness.’ This challenge operates even at the ‘inter-community’ level of the said community. For instance, the Kalimpong Nepali speaking people versus the Darjeeling people, Darjeeling (as a whole) versus the Northeast Nepali speaking communities, Darjeeling versus Sikkim Nepali speaking people, Darjeeling versus Garhwali/Kumaon Nepali speaking groups, etc. The multiversal ‘ethnosymbolic’ connections to the shared heritages of Gorkha invites seemingly polarized notions of ‘being Gorkha’ in multiple geographies and projects a cacophony of contested frames of ‘Gorkhaness.’ These negotiations (also hybridisations) of identities and rootedness or connectedness to a ‘shared heritage’ (Gorkha heritage) enables the native Nepali speaking people across South Asia and beyond to meaningfully engage with the problematic of being ‘far from home’ and trying to find a home in themselves, or in other words ‘taking their home with and within themselves.’ Much in the lines of how the character Makare while confronting the uncle Chandrabir in Mohan Thapa’s Agoko Jhilkaharu (The Sparks of Fire: 1976), mentions: ‘the place where she (the newborn baby) is born is truely her motherland. We came here along with the land. This land was cunningly taken away from us by the British.’ In a single sentence, here, the community, through its literary engagement, dismantles the projection of the Gorkha as having come from somewhere else and, therefore, ‘foreign,’ migrants, and not respectable citizens. The native Nepali speaking people have thus claimed a position of the ‘bhoomiputra’ through the argument that with the gift of the deed of the land through which the territory of Darjeeling was transferred from the hands of the native states to the British Raj came the people therein.

The poetics, the theatrics, performances, and aesthetics of ‘being Gorkha’ among the native Nepali-speaking people in India showcase these rumblings of belonging and being rooted in the land as the ‘bhoomiputra’ and contest the contemporary citizenship debates churned by the NRC, and CAA in exceptional measure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.