As you wander around Darjeeling, you are struck by how different it is to other parts of West Bengal (the capital of which is Kolkata), culturally as well as geographically. Here the people describe themselves as “mountain people”, speaking Nepali and there is also a significant Tibetan influence – a world away from their Bengali speaking urban counterparts. Originally Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim (at that point, a kingdom independent of India) but by 1850, it had been annexed by the East India Company and thereby was brought into the British Raj and remained popular among the British wishing to escape the oppressive heat of other parts of India. Presumably it was during this period that Darjeeling gained its nick name “Queen of the Hills”. It was only on Independence in 1947 when Darjeeling became part of the state of West Bengal but this merger remains an ongoing (and often, volatile) issue for much of the local population.
You see signs for “Gorkhaland” all around Darjeeling, a reminder of the area’s ongoing demand to be a separate Indian state. On various occasions, this struggle has taken a violent turn, most notably in 1986, when over 1200 people died. Only last year (June to September 2017), there was another agitation following the imposition of the Bengali language as a compulsory subject in all schools. The protest against this took the form of a general strike crippling the local economy (which is based on tourism, timber and tea, all of which were impacted at the time) and there were occasional violent protests and a small number of deaths (c12). We heard stories of men sleeping rough in the jungle outside of the villages for fear that they might be rounded up in the middle of the night and carted off to jail (perhaps because of participation in rallies) although how widespread an issue or reality this was in practice is, of course, very hard to judge. When you talk to locals, they sound bitter: in their view, last year’s strike ended having “achieved nothing”. Many of the key participants/leaders were either bought off or imprisoned and so in the end the strike was called off.
The locals see other small states (most notably, their neighbour, Sikkim) having their own independence within India and want that for Darjeeling so that the taxes they pay locally are reinvested locally and local industry is developed rather than everything (in their eyes) being sent to the capital (Kolkata) and spent for the benefit of people on the plains rather than in the mountains. They see a lack of competent economic development in their beloved region. For example, in Sikkim there are apparently government backed agricultural loans provided to farmers with highly beneficial (perhaps no) repayment obligations whereas in Darjeeling, we were told the loans remain fully repayable regardless of the state of the harvest etc. They also talk of a two tier system/racial divide between Bengali and Nepali ethnic groups both within the state of West Bengal and also in the wider country where Nepalis from Darjeeling have to take lower wages (because they are discriminated against) despite perhaps having better qualifications. One local guide told us that some people see a greater affinity with Britain even than they do with their Bengali cousins and referenced the abundance of English flags that are displayed across the state during tournaments such as the football World Cup (given England’s diabolical performances in these tournaments to date, surely this is a very sad state of affairs, but maybe this year can change all that?).