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Whither ‘labour’? Shortfalls of the ethnic discourse in Darjeeling

By Miriam Wenner

Demands for new Union States function as carriers of hopes and aspirations. However, as the case of the demand for Gorkhaland underlines, the new State contains different meanings for those involved in the agitation. As my paper illustrates, the hopes and aspirations of those in whose names the new State is demanded are not represented by political leaders. To underline this, I here focus on accounts from tea plantation labourers who form a major constituency for political parties in Darjeeling, and a major mass-base for the statehood movement. Discrepancies between political leaders’ rhetoric and labourers’ aspirations emerge especially around the importance of the labour-and class-discourse in their accounts. I draw on observations and accounts from plantation labourers collected during extended stays on three different tea plantations in Darjeeling hills where I lived with host families and joined labourers during their work in 2012 and 2013.

Exploitation, labour and land – tea plantation labourers

Tea plantation workers answered the question of why they wanted Gorkhaland by pointing at three aspirations: First, they saw in Gorkhaland the vehicle to bring a thorough improvement of their livelihoods; second, they believed that Gorkhaland would guarantee their legal land-ownership; and third, they regarded Gorkhaland as a guarantee for full recognition as Indian citizens. Such mixed aspirations became clear in the statement of a female worker:

“We don’t have our own land. We need our own land so we cannot be evicted. The [tea] factory would be in our own land, the children could get educated. Right now everything is in Bengal’s hand” (May 2012).

As the following elaborations on the three outlined dimensions show, such aspirations were clearly situated within a socio-economic context framed by the tea economy.

Livelihoods

Most labourers experienced their employment on the plantations as exploitative and of “minor” value. Especially women expressed lack of self-esteem by saying, “We are people from the ground” (muniko manche), or “We are dispensable” (juse-muse). They often described their own positions as the lowest in a hierarchy on whose apex non-Nepali “outsiders” stood. Not only are the proprietors of plantations mostly non-Nepali business-men, also positions of managers or assistant-managers were often held by Bengalis or other non-Nepalis. In this context, respondents drew a connection between their economic or class position and their ethnicity as Gorkhas, suggesting an intermingling of their class and ethnic identities.

Importantly, often the “outsider” managers were not only perceived as exploitative but also as lacking knowledge in sustaining the tea plantation. Against this backdrop, for many, Gorkhaland held the promise of managers who were themselves committed to, or held accountable for providing the full facilities[1]. Part of this aspiration was the expectation of higher wages. Workers also expected more investment into the economic and ecological sustainability of the plantation (e.g. replanting old with new tea bushes). But Gorkhaland also held promises beyond the tea economy, such as employment opportunities outside of the plantations, and improved access to education for children which would help them finding other employment. All these aspirations underline the wish to climb up in the social hierarchy and fulfil demands of a modern lifestyle which cannot be attained under the given conditions.

Land ownership

Connected to such aspirations is the longing for legal land-ownership. The land on which people’s houses are built is owned by the West Bengal State and leased out to the plantation proprietors for certain time spans. Thus, the land on which workers’ houses are build is not their own. In fact, the Plantation Labour Act 1951 holds that all those not employed on the plantation have to vacate their houses, a rule which – although not enforced anymore – lingers upon the families as a threat of losing their homes. Gorkhaland, they believe, would path the way for legal land-ownership, and, therefore, provide security against the fear of eviction. Such concerns underline the “material” value of Gorkhaland.

Identity

The fear of eviction relates to the third concern voiced by plantation workers, which is the so-called “identity-crisis”. Coined by Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) leader Subash Ghisingh in the first movement for Gorkhaland in the 1980s, this “crisis” refers to the Nepali speaking Indians’ perceived lack of belonging to the Indian nation, where they continuously feel stigmatised as “citizens of Nepal”. This experienced discrimination generates fears of eviction from Darjeeling, as had happened to Nepali speaking Indians in the North East in the 1980s or the Lhotsampas from Bhutan in 1990. In these terms, Gorkhaland would provide a “symbolic” space of belonging to an Indian nation.

Summarising, the statements reflect aspirations for a better lifestyle and attempts to escape from the rigid plantation system. They express hopes to improve one’s position in the socio-economic fabric of Darjeeling, where plantation workers are sometimes derogatorily named “Sundays” or “talako ketaharu” (boys from below, often blamed for instigating violence in the towns) by urban population. Although many workers mentioned their perceived stigmatisation as citizens from Nepal, their emphasis on socio-economic betterment suggests the class-based foundations of their imaginations of Gorkhaland.

Nevertheless, although a majority of interviewed labourers saw in Gorkhaland the solution to their problems, a few critical accounts questioned the salvation power of an own State. Some mentioned that “We will still be the same” even if Gorkhaland was attained, and that “only the rich and educated” would benefit. Others pointed at the role of political leaders in constructing the vision of Gorkhaland, expressing an awareness of power relations which stop people from openly criticising leaders of the ruling GJM party, as people fear social boycott, exclusion from developmental schemes, or even physical violence.

Identity and ethnicity – Party leaders’ rhetoric

Contrary to the concerns of tea plantation labourers, who emphasised their hopes for an improvement of their positions in (or outside of) the tea industry, and gave equal importance to the material and symbolic dimensions of Gorkhaland, political leaders of the ruling Gorkha Janmutki Morcha (GJM) seemed to ignore such aspirations.  Their continuous stress on the “identity-crisis” (and thus the symbolic dimension of Gorkhaland) and on the ethnic roots of the perceived discrimination tends to obscure the political economy behind the plight of tea plantation workers. Moreover, prominent leaders of the GJM even ridiculed the genuine demands of workers. The president of the GJM’s tea plantation labour union, P.T. Sherpa, said in a speech in front of party workers:

“We should not be fighting for petty things like money for firewood, slippers, shoes or baskets. Because petty/unworthy ‘politics’ causes problems for the organisation. We should be satisfied with what we have and focus on our main aim: Gorkhaland” (speech at Gymkhana/Darjeeling, 14.6.2012).

Although the GJM occasionally utilises its power to press for wage hikes (e.g. in 2011 by blocking the export of the first flush tea to the plains), and sometimes managed to support the reopening of shut-down tea estates, the ruling party has so far neither spoken in favour of (nor practically engaged for) systemic changes in the tea industry in Darjeeling, which would attack the hierarchies visible in outsiders’ dominance over Darjeeling’s land and people, and the labour relations in more general. Such neglect is reflected in various accounts pointing at the hobnobbing of local union leaders with the plantation management, where unionists allegedly easily attain better employment positions, or get the fuel for jeep journeys to attend party’s meetings sponsored. Also insiders’ accounts on the financial sponsoring of the upper level GJM leadership by some tea proprietors raise the question on the party’s commitment to seriously challenge the existing power relations in the tea economy. Confronted with this, GJM president Bimal Gurung, however, strongly denied such allegations (interview, July 2012).

While the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) would suit to accommodate workers’ class-interests, the political pressure to prioritise statehood in ethnic terms before labour justice in class-terms forces the party to assign a labour-movement to a back position. At the same time, people’s dislike of the “red flag” which awakes memories of the civil war of 1986 (where CPI-M and GNLF cadres fought) adds to historically grounded apprehensions towards class-based parties.

Gorkhaland as a solution?

While statehood demands function as containers for hopes and aspirations, the discussion raised the serious question of the representation of the masses by their political leaders. Although plantation labourers’ and political leaders’ accounts overlap in expressing feelings of ethnically based discrimination, the former see in Gorkhaland mainly a device to improve their socio-economic position in class terms. Such class-based aspirations are translated into an ethnic agenda, as only a separate (ethnically based) State is seen as a solution to address socio-economic problems. On the other hand, the refusal of party/movement leaders to take the labour question seriously suggests that– under the given conditions – engagement in a movement for Statehood might not be the best (and most immediate) option to address the socio-economic problems of tea plantation labourers. Since the beginning of the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s, the lack of a thorough improvement of labourers’ position further raises the question whether such issues could better be addressed by a labour movement. Yet, for this strong unions and a united labour front would be required which is at the moment unlikely, also due to the close intermingling of unions with the ethnic-based party-politics of Darjeeling.

[1] These include working utensils, blankets, ration, firewood, education, medical treatment.

Author:
Miriam Wenner attained her Master in Geography from Friedrich-Wilhelms University, Bonn (Germany), in 2010 with a thesis on the effects of food assistance on small-scale farmers in Mugu district/Nepal. Afterwards, she joined the Department of Human Geography at the University of Zurich, where she recently completed her PhD thesis on the Gorkhaland Movement and Darjeeling politics. She is now working as a post-doctoral researcher and teaching associate at the same department. Besides researching movements for state reorganization in India, she is interested in broader questions of democratisation and changing state-society relations in South Asia.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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