When I was in Darjeeling in February, it became immediately apparent that something different was happening there. One of the things that grabbed my attention was the sight of hand written signs everywhere with the word Gorkhaland written on them. In addition, I often would see trucks loaded with men driving around honking and chanting loudly Gorkhaland!, Gorkhaland! I began to inquire about it. Here is my limited understanding of what I discovered and what is currently occurring in Darjeeling today.
Darjeeling is situated in West Bengal Province, India, on the border of Nepal and very near the Himalayan mountains. It is quite magnificent. As most of you know, Darjeeling is tea country. Not just any old tea; the Darjeeling area produces some of the finest teas in the world; often referred to as the Champagne of Tea. The myriad tea estates there employ thousands of people to help manage, grow, harvest and manufacture the tea. Many of these workers are Gorkhas. The Gorkhay are an ethnic minority from Nepal, some of whom live and work in Darjeeling. They are a legendary race of people known for their fierce fighting ability as well as outstanding strength, courage and loyalty. For this reason, the British government created regiments of Gorkhas in their colonial army. The Indian government still uses Gorkhas to guard their borders.
Despite a history of loyalty and courage fighting for the British and recognized work ethic demonstrated in Darjeeling, they have felt mistreated and unappreciated by the West Bengalese for a very long time. In fact, they have been protesting for almost 100 years. As a result, the Gorkhas have been seeking independence from the West Bengalese government to form their own Gorkhaland government. I was told that while there is an attempt to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the WB government, by whom they have always felt mistreated, I understand they are seeking acceptance under the jurisdiction of the Greater Sikkim government.
Beginning in June, one of the leading political parties of the Gorkha, the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha (GJMM), initiated work stoppage protests throughout Darjeeling. This work stoppage has had serious consequences in the area in all businesses and services. It has stopped all tourist visits and, in fact, there was a temporary cessation more recently during which time all tourists in the area were evacuated. At this point in time, the protest has taken on serious consequences for the tea industry in Darjeeling as well. Although the tea plantations have been exempt from the protest and workers allowed to continue their work there, all transportation to and from Darjeeling has been blocked. So, although the tea continues to be produced, it has become much more difficult to transport it out of Darjeeling. According to my dear friend, Rajiv Lochan, who is the Secretary of the Siliguri Tea Traders Association, this protest has caused the industry over $470,000 dollars a day in lost tea revenues. Although Darjeeling tea only accounts for roughly 7% of total tea exports in India, he says that the entire Indian tea industry is seeing a 20 – 25% drop in value of it’s exported teas because the orthodox Darjeeling teas are worth 6 times the value of the traditional CTC teas. This comes at a time when they were expecting to see a 25% increase in tea exports.
It is clear that regardless of the legitimate claims made by the Gorkhay, this action by the GJMM is causing widespread hardship and distress for everyone; from the workers to the merchants. There are other political factions that are not in agreement with how the GJMM handled this widespread work stoppage. One such party is the All India Gorkha League (AIGL), led by our friend, Madan Tamang, who is president. Although the AIGL also supports Gorkhaland independence, Madan has strong convictions of what constitutes constructive civil disobedience and has been outwardly critical of the methods used by GJMM leader, Bimal Gurung.
What the full impact this will have on our access to the wonderful teas of Darjeeling is uncertain at this point. Although I’m sure we will feel the loss of the opportunity to enjoy some of our favorite teas from Darjeeling, that pales in comparison to the loss and hardship experienced first hand by all the individuals affected by this protest. Our hearts and our prayers go out to everyone in Darjeeling in hopes that a productive and amicable agreement can be reached by all.