Land Question and Ethnicity in Darjeeling Hills

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Journal of Rural Social Sciences, 25(2), 2010, pp. 81–121. Copyright © by the Southern Rural Sociological Association

THE LAND QUESTION AND ETHNICITY IN THE DARJEELING HILLS SWATAHSIDDHA SARKAR UN IVERSIT Y OF N ORT H BEN GAL

ABSTRACT Although economic factors are often considered as essential for augmenting ethnic movements, the analytic relationship between economic issues and ethnicity is far from being clear cut. In an attempt to address the problem of ethnicity in a non-Marxist theoretical plane, most of the studies on ethnic problems inadvertently indulge such logical inconsistencies. Such a critical reading led us to conceptualize ethnicity as a lived-in category – much like the concepts of class or caste – where both the material and cultural domain of routine life congregates. With the help of a case study of the Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling Hills (India) and the input of a particular field of material predisposition – namely, the issues related with land and agrarian social formation, this paper attempts to argue that ethnic movements are a dynamic podium wherein the encoded meanings of material and/or economic issues/grievances are decoded in cultural idioms.

Even if the discussions on ethnicity have an inbuilt tendency to develop a theoretical plane that criticizes Marxian class analysis and demands an autonomous conceptual frame duly encouraged by post-Marxist and poststructuralist/postmodernist theoretical renditions, literatures on ethnicity for the most part have stressed economic factors, in some way or the other. Hence, finding available studies, which have made considerable advances in understanding the problem of Gorkha ethnicity, that have concentrated their focus on economic factors as the root cause of ethnic antagonism and conflict in the Darjeeling Hills (West Bengal, India) is common. ‘Economic stagnation’ (Dasgupta 1988), ‘uneven implementation of development policies’ (Chakrabarty 1988), ‘economic deprivation and negligence’ (Bura Magar 1994; Lama 1988; McHenry Jr. 2007; Nanda 1987), ‘petty-bourgeoisie aggrandisements against the dominance of monopoly capitalists of the Centre and the State’ (Sarkar 1988), ‘economic negligence, exploitation, and unavailability of white-collar jobs’ (Chadha 2005), ‘growing unemployment and step motherly attitude of the state regarding the overall development of the hill areas’ (Timsina 1992), ‘uneven development’ (Dasgupta 1999; Datta 1991), ‘endemic poverty, underdevelopment, and the perception of being “malgoverned”’ (Ganguly 2005), are some such factors many scholars put as the root cause of the Gorkhaland movement in the Darjeeling Hills. However, none of these studies have made it abundantly clear how economic conditions – the domain of the material – are linked to the desires of ethnic separatism, which conceptually remained under the rubric of culture – the non-material. Again, if the economic factors remarkably remained so significant, as the studies show, then why ultimately the cultural warpath (i.e., 81

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JOURNAL OF RURAL SOCIAL SCIENCES

ethnic conflict) and not an economic one (i.e., class conflict) appeared as a suitable remedial strategy? One obvious question arises thus: how the ‘material’ is transposed into ‘cultural’? The present paper is an attempt to answer such questions by analyzing the case of the Gorkha ethnicity and movement as it emerged out of the people’s grievances experienced through their quotidian life processes cloaked in their relative positions within the structural inequality. In fact, ethnic identity much like the issues of class or caste is a lived-in category that emerges out of the perception of reality and receives constant reformulation, since the reality is itself dynamic. In our treatment ethnic identification – much like all other identifications – is overall rooted in the larger canvas of social experience, which determines the processes of framing contending relationships between and among...
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