The Darjeeling tea industry has been going through a difficult three months. Tea business owners and tea lovers read any news article they can find on the situation because their beloved Darjeeling tea stocks have been taken hostage for the sake of Democracy. Although there are some political and philosophical reasons why the Darjeeling tea industry has gone on strike, tea lovers should focus on what is really important if they wish to taste the beautiful terroir of Darjeeling tea again. It is uncertain if the central government of India is ever going to give Gorkhaland to the people of Darjeeling, but what is known is the passion and pride Gorkha people have for making Darjeeling the best it has ever been.
There is much argument about the indigenous origins of the people of Darjeeling. Gorkha people I have met on my travels to Darjeeling tell me that several different Gorkha ethnic groups were inhabiting the area way before the tea industry developed, while all documented history on the subject make claims that the Gorkha population current in Darjeeling was a direct import of labor for the industry. Regardless of the depth of the roots of Gorkha in Darjeeling, one can not deny that Gorkha people have the deepest roots of anyone else that has ever been a part of the area.
The start of the Darjeeling tea industry saw British and European pioneers developing systems to best utilize the skills and efforts of the locals in the area. Although the system was a mimic of the colonial slavery system of America, it has been said by many historians that there was a level of mutual pride between the European tea planters and local people to make a high quality product that was mindful to the condition of the environment and people of the area. When India gained its independence about 70 years ago, all tea estates of Darjeeling were sold to wealthy Indians (no Gorkhas) and the Darjeeling tea industry turned from a pioneering pride into a business. The new owners did not have a hereditary connection to the environment and people, so over time the locals became marginalized.
The current strike in Darjeeling is directly linked to the demand of the local people to manage their own affairs under their own state of Gorkhaland rather than being controlled by politicians in a far away place; Kolkata, as part of West Bengal. When I first heard about the strike and the Gorkhaland movement I simply asked “Why doesn’t the central government make Gorkhaland?” It seems easy enough and would be a great way to uplift the current situation of the Darjeeling tea industry which was already suffering before the strike began with low production profit margins and questionably unethical treatment of tea farm workers.
Over three months of suffering and the central government has not given any sign of Gorkhaland. The internet has been shut down for the area and leaders and activists for the Gorkhaland movement have been arrested and imprisoned, despite the nonviolent nature of the current movement. The government is controlling media and sharing a story that the movement is violent. Due to the politically hostile environment for the movement it is clear that us Darjeeling tea lovers must see beyond Gorkhaland and the current tea industry and look at the only thing that is going to survive this situation; the Gorkha people.
Gorkha people are the most peaceful and community-oriented people that I have ever met. On the other hand, I have heard of the legendary warrior spirit of the Gorkha people that shows their strength and ability to stand up for themselves. There is a pride they have for their heritage and community that I believe is going to make Darjeeling tea better than it has ever been before. Slowly, tea estates have been failing in the area and local people have claimed the leases on the land to harvest their own leaf to sell to the factories. They are employing archaic organic practices through intuition and have a desire to learn to make higher quality tea. With the help of knowledge exchange with other tea makers around the world it is possible that the future of Darjeeling tea, when managed by the Gorkha people, will be something that the tea world has never seen.
Not all hope for Darjeeling is lost. Although the tea bushes of the famous estates have overgrown this season and 2017 tea stocks have run dry, there is still hope for Darjeeling tea because of the local people. The Gorkhas can and will make Darjeeling tea better than it ever has been–we just need to understand their passion and support them as much as we can. Look out for vendors that are sampling and selling teas made by Gorkha small growers of Darjeeling and see the quality of their tea improve and their communities prosper.