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Land Question and Ethnicity in Darjeeling Hills Essay


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 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 groups based on their varying capacity of possessing the valued and scarce resources available in the society. Instead of pinpointing the causes of the movement, our analysis attempts to show that the assertion of Gorkha ethnic identity has had payoffs with respect to resource access and utilization and that the protracted struggle of the Gorkhas for separate statehood is that trajectory wherein both the cultural and material aspects of routine life coalesce. Sometimes this happens even without an immediate ethnic ‘other’. This is particularly the case, as the study shows, with the hill agrarian sector.

It thus becomes imperative that the problem should be studied in a historical plane putting utmost emphasis on the social formation of the Darjeeling Hills, which would help us focus the pattern of resource distribution on an ethnic plane vis-à-vis the question of structural inequality. The importance of treating the issue of Gorkhaland movement as a historical phenomenon can hardly be ignored, especially when one finds that the Darjeeling Hills has experienced a century long historicity of protest – sometimes accommodative, sometimes violent – to achieve a separate politico-administrative arrangement for self rule.

Moreover, the historical perspective is needed to show the fundamental changes that have taken place within the social formation of the region since the colonial days and had corresponding effects for furthering the cause of the movement in the post-colonial period. Therefore, a proper historical analysis of ethnicity can help us understand how the grievances of the masses were articulated and were translated into the courses of violent action, how new equations came up because of state intervention and how the overall dynamics of the movement kept on rolling, putting ethnicity at the center stage.


Indeed, there can never be a single cause of an ethnic movement that stretched over a century.1 However, our concern regarding the causes of Gorkhaland movement is not about degree but of kind, by which we mean that Gorkha ethnicity, or for that matter the Gorkhaland movement, is embedded in the social formation of the Darjeeling Hills. It is neither entirely the product of primordial sentiments nor even the result of elite manipulation, but had been the outcome of a dynamic social formation that reproduced its productive forces, relations of production, as well as the relations of subjugation and exploitation meted out by its incumbents. The onus of social formation in augmenting the cause of social movement has been stressed by most of the major theoretical paradigms in some form or the other.

For example, functionalism, though lately emerging from its erstwhile position of bracketing social movements as pathological social behavior, became increasingly concerned with the analysis of social movement as a variety of (normal) collective action and showed the necessity of framing a general hypothesis on the social system while analyzing social movements as a collective phenomenon of some sort. Likewise, symbolic interactionism and resource mobilization theory, in their attempts to analyze social movement, put stress on the relational structures and on the complex processes of interaction mediated by certain networks of belonging, respectively. The Marxist tradition, perhaps, has given utmost emphasis on the necessity to view social movements in relation to structural arrangements available in the social formation.

Each social formation is rooted in a particular structure of relationship and movement is not the cause but the outcome of the differentially arranged social order in which privileges and rewards are more in possession of some minority groups compared with the majority others. Even the post-Marxist or for that matter the New Social Movement (NSM) perspective in their zeal to study the identity-based movements as manifestations of post-material claims hardly denied the importance of social formation while understanding the so-called post-material claims of the NSMs. In outlining the principles for the analysis of collective action, Melucci (1996:24) – a prominent figure of NSM school – points out that the analytical field of the NSMs depends on the systems of relationships within which such action takes place and toward which it is directed.

The recorded history of the Gorkhaland movement suggests that the first spurt of the movement can be marked out in the year 1907 when the hill people submitted a memorandum – for the first time – to the colonial government urging separation from the then Bengal and the need to formulate a separate administrative arrangement for the Darjeeling Hills. ALTHUSSER, SOCIAL FORMATION, AND THE DYNAMICS OF RURAL DARJEELING Taking a cue from the centrality of social formation in the study of social movement as analyzed above, an attempt has been made to focus on the social formation of the Darjeeling Hills2 and its contribution to the development of a protracted ethnic movement in the region. Our treatment of the concept of social formation is Althusserian in inspiration and is viewed as a complex whole composed of concrete economic, political and ideological relations that provide the pretext upon which the consolidation of selfhood of the individual or the group within a given social space becomes feasible.

It is worth mentioning here instead of using such terms like ‘social system’, ‘social order’ or for that matter ‘society,’ Althusser (1997) preferred the use of ‘social formation’. Since he believed while terms like ‘social system’ and ‘social order’ presupposes a structure that reduces the form of all its emanations, ‘society’ as a concept is loaded with pre-Marxist humanist conception that treats social life as ultimately the product of individual human beings. Althusser has used the concept of social formation with some broader theoretical appeal. He problematized the so-called base-superstructure module by bringing together the notions of social system, order, and society closer to his postMarxist formulation of social formation.

Social formation, for Althusser, is constituted of a complex of concrete economic, political, and ideological relations, bound together and given their particular character as capitalist, feudal or whatever by the fact that economic relations, is the ‘determinant in the last instance.’ Conceived in this manner the concept of social formation presupposes that under this model social reality is neither determined, nor to be explained by a single causal variable but always by the whole structure (a notion that he labels as ‘overdetermination’), which remains amenable to the economic determinant only in the last instance. The uniqueness in Althusser’s concept of social formation lies in the fact that it problematizes the ‘base-superstructure’ relationship (that remains central, almost invariably, to the whole realm of post-Marxist scholarship) to that extreme of Darjeeling has been one of the prominent hill stations developed by the British in colonial India.

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