The Darjeeling plains: Citizenship as Minority Disenfranchisement in a Border District

By Abhishek Bhattacharyya

The Nepali cultural group Laali Guraas – Red Rhododendron – performs at an anti NRC-CAA-NPR event in Siliguri on 23rd February, 2020. Photo by author.

Although the Islamophobic CAA purportedly allows many non-Muslims excluded from the National Population Register and National Register of Citizens to gain fast track citizenship if they can prove they fled from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, there are no such provisions for anyone who could be accused of being from other neighbouring countries, such as Nepal.[1] As Hindutva posturing looks to consolidate votes by conjuring the spectre of a Muslim other, there is increasing discontent with the new citizenship policies among other marginalized communities. Protests by these communities occurring across India since last December, and indeed around the world, have galvanized new conversations about Indian nationhood and its exclusions.

I have conducted fieldwork in the Terai (plains) region of Darjeeling district since 2017. It is a place made famous as “Naxalbari”—after a peasant uprising there in 1967 gave the name “Naxalite” to different strands of leftist politics in India.[2] A number of my conversations during fieldwork have been off the record—unsurprisingly, given the types of organizing work that I study. Even so, I did not expect to be asked to keep the conversation I discuss below off-record. I had been chatting with a Nepali comrade, listening to his stories from the 1960s onwards.[3] After a while, I requested permission to turn on the recorder for a few usual questions, and proceeded to ask about his parents’ names and his birth details. For that, he said, you will have to turn off your recorder. Although he was born in India, he was unsure what documents he could prove that with, if NRC were implemented in West Bengal. Even the documentation that he had contained discrepancies, so he did not want to go on record with one version.

This conversation was in June 2019. It wasn’t entirely clear at that point if the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now an act, the CAA) would pass. We are in a different place today, but the act does not provide any cover from NRC exclusion for Nepali-speaking Indians, who often battle anti-Nepali prejudice and discrimination in the region. This could also affect non-Nepali communities in the Darjeeling plains areas, such as Rajbongshis, who live across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, or Dhemals, who live in India and Nepal. There are also Bhupalis—ethnic Nepalis who fled persecution in Bhutan—who would have a hard time with documents. From the Darjeeling hills, a demand for separate Gorkhaland continues to be raised, and its latest flare-up started as a pushback against the West Bengal state government’s attempt to impose Bangla on school students in a Nepali majority region.

Some hope that India’s 1950 treaty with Nepal will provide a safeguard for Nepalis/Gorkhas, yet it is uncertain if that will be the case. Even if it is, no one is certain who will be considered protected under the terms of the treaty. The threat is hardly hypothetical. As the immediate precedent shows, the Assam NRC is estimated to have excluded about 100,000 Gorkhas from the citizens’ list, and the CAA, even if rigorously implemented, will provide them no succour. It is likely to be devastating for this very diverse district that shares international borders with Bangladesh and Bhutan, as well as an open border with Nepal, and that is home to large Adivasi and Dalit communities. People cross back and forth between India and Nepal without any documents; they travel for a variety of reasons, ranging from work and marriage to visiting a doctor or doing the week’s shopping.

During a visit to the region this February, NRC-CAA-NPR had become a recurring topic of conversations. There were protests and publications. Tea garden union organisers drew attention to the many factors that made it legally impossible for working people to obtain documentation: the Forest Rights Act hasn’t been implemented in the area; there are no land deeds or entitlements for those who live and work in tea gardens; those who live on Darjeeling Improvement (DI) fund land wouldn’t have papers. A comrade from an Adivasi family in the plains laughed at the idea of needing to show lineage documents—”no one in this village will be able to show them anything!” She is among many who intend to refuse cooperation with the NRC-CAA-NPR process by declining to show any recent documentation they may have acquired.

A recent short story in Nepali by Chewang Yonzon, titled “Sere Dhok,” foretells with metaphorical precision how NRC overturns one’s life.[4] Buddhiman, the male protagonist of the story, is searching frantically through his old belongings, uncovering and scattering all kinds of forgotten items. An old muffler triggers a tender memory for Menuka, which is narrated as a story of young love in the Darjeeling hills, and its gendered recalling. When brought back to the present, we realise the two protagonists are now married, caught up in domestic chores. And Buddhiman has been going through his old belongings desperately in the hope of finding some kind of lineage documents for the NRC hearing to which he’s been called.

Whether one is adjudged a “citizen” or not by some mechanism, NRC-CAA-NPR form part of larger processes that seek to overturn the regular functioning of life and to create new divides. Any border region is characterised by flows of people (and shifting borders!), and making or unmaking people as citizens is bound to mark a disruption of the everyday. By February itself—long before the March 24 nationwide curfew started, with a new set of travails in its wake—Covid-19 had fed into local politics over citizenship. Two Nepali comrades shared concerns that there was a racialization of COVID-19 as a “disease from Nepal or China.” A comrade from the Rajbongshi community, who has family members in Nepal, worried the disease could be used as an excuse to increase policing of the border.

Although the BJP had its best electoral performance in the Terai region during the April-May 2019 national parliamentary elections, rising discontent with NRC-CAA-NPR has turned some heat on them.[5] As a participant in different protests in Delhi and Kolkata over February, and among the organisers of a few in Chicago since December, the most exciting thing to observe has been the emerging connections amongst variously localized conversations. From conversations at occupations about mainland Muslims leading protests with the Indian national flag and Kashmiris protesting the imposition of the Indian nation; to Nepali organizers in a border region discussing Trumpian rhetoric on the USA-Mexico border—difficult theoretical, political conversations erupted across protest sites, rethinking what the nation means.

Abhishek Bhattacharyya is a PhD candidate in the departments of Anthropology and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His dissertation combines ethnographic and archival research with literary analysis to explore questions about revolutionary praxis, borderlands and anti-caste struggle in South Asia.

Notes

[1] I am grateful to Ambika Rai and Samik Chakraborty for their feedback on an earlier draft of this article, and to Syantani Chatterjee and Natasha Raheja for theirs later on.

[2] In official terms the Terai is known as the Siliguri Subdivision of Darjeeling district. Today it is comprised of the Siliguri Municipality, and four Community Development Blocks: Naxalbari, Phansidewa, Khoribari and Matigara. The uprising was staged primarily by the rural peasantry in this region. And Naxalbari is also the name of a village, located within the much larger CD block of the same name – moreover this block was differently configured in 1967. The uprising’s initial flashpoints on May 24th and 25th occurred in two places near the Naxalbari village, and under the then jurisdiction of the Naxalbari Police Station. This made ‘Naxalbari’ the oft-cited location of this uprising, though the more accurate terms for the overall region are either the Terai, or the Siliguri Subdivision.

[3] ‘Nepali’ is an ethnic or linguistic identification, which is distinct from being a citizen of Nepal.

[4] First published in a local Nepali newspaper, Himalaya Darpan, on 24th November, 2019. The title refers to a weighing block measured by the unit of ‘ser’ or ‘seer’ – 1 seer is just short of a kilogram. The story is available in Bangla translation by Samik Chakraborty as ‘Arai-seri batkhara’ in the little-magazine Aainanagar, Issue 6, January 2020, pp. 123-126.

[5] The Darjeeling Lok Sabha (national parliament) seat is comprised of the five Vidhan Sabha (state assembly) segments in Darjeeling district, and one each in Kalimpong and Uttar Dinajpur. In the Darjeeling hills influential Gorkha leaders have leaned towards BJP for some time, contributing to a BJP win from this seat for the previous two elections. One important change in BJP’s third win in 2019 however were their leads in many polling stations across the Terai. They had flooded the region with propaganda and flags through an infusion of large amounts of money, as also WhatsApp forwards and social media campaigns; there were anti-incumbency factors; they had generated an Islamophobic buzz which was difficult to miss in roadside conversations; RSS’s schools have proliferated in the region for some time; they have had Hinduisation projects with varying success in different communities; they cleverly politicised festivals such as Ram Navami.

Alongside its importance as a border region, given the 1967 uprising this area has high symbolic value for all political groups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi (BJP) visited the Terai very close to the elections, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (TMC) visited different places in the Terai including Naxalbari. Amidst all this high drama, there is active jostling between different groups on the ground, including a whole host of radical left organisations, and other political formations such as tea garden unions. Often these tensions play out very publicly – I recall witnessing, after the election results were declared, BJP’s victory rally entering Naxalbari, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star was holding Naxalbari day celebrations at the bus stand, leading to a tense situation.

The political configurations of the region are quite complicated – even leaving the hills aside. The Siliguri Municipality, a powerful body in the region, remains the only Communist Party of India-Marxist led municipality in the state. The other two state assembly segments in the Terai – Naxalbari-Matigara and Phansidewa – are held by Congress (INC). The Naxalbari village panchayat (local government), symbolically important, was controlled by CPI-M till their recent loss to Trinamool Congress (TMC), who hold a slim majority over CPI-M now. For the 2019 national elections, I heard from various local politicians in rural areas that BJP did not even have enough cadre to be polling agents. They had to pay people for the role, which other major parties did not need to do. It is within these contexts that we have to understand the brewing discontent over NRC-CAA-NPR, and how it is playing out in regional politics, given the threat it poses to different people across the Terai.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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