Indian politics are complicated, confusing and often absurd. Darjeeling has been embroiled in a ‘political situation’ since independence, and while it’s gotten a lot less violent lately tensions remain high. The next few posts will be about the Gorkhaland independence movement, so here’s a brief rundown.
West Bengal is a state in India populated mostly by Bengali people, who share their language and heritage (though not religion) with the people of Bangladesh. Darjeeling and its surrounds are politically part of West Bengal, but the overwhelming majority of people are ethnically Nepali (or ‘Gorkha’) and have little to nothing in common with the Bengalis that actually run the state. The lack of Gorkha representation in West Bengal’s government has spawned numerous independence movements demanding a separate state for Nepali-dominated areas. Many states in India were drawn around ethnic boundaries (Assam, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, etc), so it’s not at all an unreasonable request.
Back in the mid-80s, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) started getting violent about the whole thing and a few hundred people died in the streets of Darjeeling. The Indian Army was called in, order was restored and the GNLF settled for a semi-autonomous “hill council” instead of a fully independent state. Nothing much happened until late 2007, when a former member of the GNLF decided that the Gorkhaland issue wasn’t over and founded the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The GJM whipped up dormant nationalist sentiments, recruited disaffected youth and quickly became a visible symbol of the revitalized Gorkhaland movement. Unlike the GNLF, the GJM espouses a devotion to satyagraha, Gandhi’s idea of non-violent resistance.
Sounds pretty okay, right? The problem is that the people running the GJM have no idea what they’re doing. They may have a commitment to nonviolence, but the tactics they’ve adopted are just as stupid and ineffective as indiscriminate killing.
We’ll talk about that on Monday!
Darjeeling has some of the best views in the world, but it isn’t sunny very often. Usually the clouds roll in as soon as the sun comes up and the rest of the day is cold, wet and overcast (maybe that’s why the British loved it here). Sometimes, though, the bad weather is almost as spectacular as Kangchenjunga – you’ll throw open your blinds, step onto your balcony and… there won’t be anything there. The fog is so thick you can’t see five feet, let alone the ground or neighbors’ houses.
Darjeeling is a weird town. It’s stuck on a ridge in the foothills of the Himalayas, two thousand meters above the pandemonium of Siliguri, and on a clear day you can see the third highest mountain in the world. It’s not always clear, though – some days the fog is so thick you can’t see ten feet in front of you.
You’ll hear a lot about how Darjeeling “isn’t really India,” and in a lot of ways it’s true – most of the people here are Nepali or Tibetan. India has so many ethnic groups that calling this one or that “not Indian” is absurd, but what gives the Darj a different feel is predominance of Buddhism. Prayer flags fly from the rooftops, hearty Tibetan cuisine is king and framed pictures of weird Buddhist folk-creatures hang from the walls of most restaurants. Many Nepalis are Hindu as well, but the only sign of Islam is the call to prayer belted from a lonely mosque on the outskirts of town.
But what makes Darjeeling really weird is the political situation. It’s all Gorkhaland, all the time and you can’t step out of your hotel room without being assaulted by coerced pleas for independence. We’ll get to that later.
SILIGURI -> DARJEELING, INDIA
Siliguri is only really significant because it’s the last major rail terminus before the Himalayas shoot up off the Gangetic Plain. The main attractions seem to be cows, angry dogs and children taking dumps on the river bank, so we hit the road early the next morning.
There’s a train from Siliguri up to Darjeeling (it scales 2100m up into the Himalayas and is actually a UNESCO World Hertige site), but it’s coal powered, takes eight hours and screw that. We opted for the two hour jeep ride. It’s far from comfortable and offers little in the way of leisurely views, but there will be plenty of time for comfort and views.
CALCUTTA -> SILIGURI, INDIA
Remember how I said the air outside the Kanchenjunga Express isn’t exactly fresh? These were taken out the window at about 9am on a cloudless day. To be fair, it could just be the season. Maybe the rain takes it all away.
The wonderful Tourdust has been kind enough to publish an interview of me. Go check it out!
“Ross Lee Tabak is a travel writer, photographer and author of the frequently exceptional We’re Lost and Everything is Dirty. Ross combines fascinating insights, punchy writing and sublime photography to drag the reader away from their laptop and into a completely different world. We are lucky enough to be able to publish his frankly brilliant responses to our interview questions“
CALCUTTA -> SILIGURI, INDIA
If you’ve ever heard anyone talk about Indian trains, they probably weren’t raving about what was going on the outside.
The inside of an Indian train car would put most American county fairs to shame. Men with cases full of scissors, combs and cigarettes prowl the aisles, Chaiwallahs come by every other minute and the whole spectrum of bizarre Indian snacks is available whenever you’re hungry. The cars are packed solid and, as The Foreigners on the train, everybody wants to talk to you. Unlike Southeast Asia, a lot of Indians speak fluent English and conversations will go way past the obligatory “Where you from?”
Surprisingly, the beds in fourth class are pretty comfy.
from Rita Willaert
Hello, dear readers. I’m going to Nagaland and I need three of you to come with me.
Nagaland is a small, autonomous state in India’s extreme eastern panhandle, situated in the Patkai Hills on the border with Burma. The Naga used to be a loose group of headhunting tribes, but heavy missionary activity in the 19th century converted most of the native population to American Baptism. At 75%, Nagaland is far more Baptist than Mississippi and “the only predominately Baptist ethnic state in the world.” For more than sixty years separatist movements have fought for the creation of an independent Baptist state founded on the principles of Maoism.
That’s pretty goddamned weird, huh? I want to go see what the place is all about. The problem is that the Indian government requires foreign tourists to have Restricted Area Permits, and the only way to get a permit is to travel in a group of at least four. So who wants to go with me?
The permits mean that all four people need to make a cold, hard commitment to this thing or no one gets to go. No maybes, no we’ll see.
The dates are somewhat flexible, but this would take about two weeks. We’ll leave around the last week of March and meet in either Darjeeling or Guwahati. There will be rickety trains, grueling bus rides, fly-blown dinners and the sense that maybe, just maybe, we did something a little different this year. Game? You can find out more here or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.