20 MIN READ
February 25, 1988, afternoon. I was in Class 1, six years old. This is my memory of that day.
My father ran into Phupa, my uncle, near our front gate. Their house is adjacent to ours. Phupa was with Kailash, a friend of his. Both were in their fifties at the time. Phupa, an employee of the government of West Bengal, was balding and partially blind from glaucoma. He loved mutton and watching freestyle wrestling. I remember two things about him — the chocolates he would bring for me and my brother every day from work and me running up to his house every time the wrestling program was broadcast on the new black-and-white television in our house.
Baba asked Phupa why he wasn’t indoors. It wasn’t safe out. A 40-day strike was being enforced by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) — the principal party calling for a separate Gorkhaland state. Shops, schools, and colleges in the entire district had been shut down. All offices were closed. Officials hung suspended between heaven and earth — the state government was penalizing them for being absent but if they attended work, the wrath of the party would fall upon them. Two officials had recently been kidnapped by the party, roughed up for a couple of days, and let go with a warning.
Every day, the GVC, the Gorkha Vigilance Cell — the revolutionary arm of the party — was fighting pitched guerilla battles with state forces and the paramilitary. Curfews, gunfire, and raids had become routine. Every now and then, in times of curfew, the administration would issue ‘shoot on sight’ orders for men above 18 (women and children exempted). On the other hand, the GVC had mandated that young men should remain available for sentry duty. Their job was to stand next to electricity poles, clang them with metal rods to signal paramilitary patrols, and flee. This was as good as asking to be butchered. So almost all teenage boys and young men who weren’t part of the revolution had been sent away. Some to their ancestral villages in the interiors of the district. Others who had family and friends in either neighboring Gangtok or across the border in Nepal went there. During the worst of the violence, our family was forced to flee twice, once to my paternal village and once to my maternal.
That day, too, a battalion was swarming up the hill into our neighborhood. Soldiers were going house to house, seeking revenge for an incident that took place a few days earlier. The GVC was alleged to have laid crude landmines on the motorable road that runs 50 meters below our house. Some personnel had died in the explosion.
Phupa, in high panic, said, 'Bhai, the syarpi are coming. People are saying that they’re killing all the men.' Syarpi is the local colloquialism for the CRPF, one of India’s paramilitary forces.
My father tried to reassure him, 'Jwain, they won’t do anything to you. You’re a government servant. Just show them your service book.' When neither Phupa nor Kailash-uncle could be dissuaded, Baba asked, 'But where will you go? You can’t even see properly.' They weren’t clear, but said something about hiding in the family rice fields.
We live midway between Kalimpong town and Phupa’s village, where their ancestral rice fields are. These terraced fields, some distance downhill from the motorable road below our house, are crisscrossed by rivulets, irrigation channels, and steep footpaths. Paramilitary patrols usually kept to the motorable roads; it was unlikely they would make their way down — the terrain was unfamiliar to them and there were too many convenient spots for ambush. This was also a reason why the villages were safe havens away from the more urbanized towns.
To reach their hiding place, Phupa and Kailash-uncle would have to walk parallel to the motorable road over village footpaths, climb down a flight of stairs to the road, cross it, and walk down footpaths once more. At all points, they were likely to run straight into a patrol.
After a few more attempts at dissuading Phupa and his friend, and pleading with them one last time to go back, my father came home.
It was evening when the jawans of the paramilitary reached our front gate. They didn’t raid our house. Or Phupa’s.
February 25, 1988, morning. Phupa’s daughter, my cousin, was in college, 2nd year. This is her memory of that same day.
Sometime the previous night, a jawan had been killed in 10th Mile, a neighborhood about 200 meters up the hill from our house. A battalion of personnel descended from 10th Mile, screaming, banging their canes and rifle butts on the gates of houses, shooting men.
Phupa and his friend had already left home by then. Phupu, his wife, came out into the yard and saw my father heading up the footpath to their house, my toddler brother in tow. This was their daily routine. Phupa and Baba would chat, and have the morning cup of tea together while my cousin sisters and aunt made much of my brother. Phupu screamed, 'Daju, go home quickly. They’re coming!' She must have heard the banging on the electricity poles nearby. Baba picked up my brother and dashed back home. The jawans reached Phupa’s gate, screamed abuse, and struck the wooden gate with their rifle butts. They didn’t enter. They reached our house but skipped it and went into the house immediately below ours. Shouted at the residents. Broke open the almirahs. Tossed about their belongings. And left.
Our diverging recollections of that day come together after that. By afternoon, somebody came with news that Phupa and his friend had been kneecapped. They were lying in the fields, the family was told, and needed help. Phupu, her two daughters, and Kailash-uncle’s daughter rushed down.
Even during periods of total curfew, the grapevines of our villages would constantly twang with news, information, and mandates — of raids, of killings, of secret party meetings, of whose turn it was to offer voluntary service to the revolutionaries. And so it was that this terrible information diffused uphill, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. Perhaps it is a measure of collective compassion that the news arrived intact. Until the family members arrived, a faint hope remained that Phupa and Kailash-uncle were alive.
The pair never reached the rice fields. They had made it across the motorable road and set off downhill over dirt paths. Somewhere on the way, they were caught by a patrol heading up the hill. They had been shot in the chest even as they tried to make themselves invisible inside a declivity between the roots of a large tree clinging to the hillside.
With nothing left, some villagers and members of the family gathered and buried the bodies in shallow graves where they lay.
Hope died and another problem cropped up. The government would require paperwork to prove that Phupa, their employee, had died while still in service. His pension depended on the proof. This could happen only after an authorized postmortem. Some women got together and arranged for transport. A BSF (Border Security Force) platoon was stationed on the motorable road near the spot from where the pair had made their way downhill. They lent the women a vehicle. The bodies were exhumed and taken to the sub-divisional hospital. Afterwards, both were carried back to the rice fields and interred there. Curfew deprived them of a pyre.
Recounting the event 33 years later, my sister didn’t flinch. The only time a shadow gathered on her face was when she described her father on the slab. 'I was there. Who knows why, he was wearing his best suit. The entry point was small, but the exit wound was as big as two of my fists.'
On the day Phupa was shot dead, a partially deaf-mute man was killed in similar circumstances close to where Phupa’s and Kailash-uncle’s bodies were found.
That same day another government servant was shot point-blank in the chest in front of his children even as he approached the personnel at the main gate of his house with his arms raised high above his head.
On a different day during that time, the severed head of the principal of a local school was hung from an electricity pole in warning. The principal was a card-carrying member of the Communist party and Communists were considered to be the enemy of the revolution.
These incidents and numerous others like them passed gradually into memory. They acquired the comfortable sheen of hearsay — of ‘yesto bhayo arre’. They became myth and legend. Like the death of Phupa, they acquired different versions. Many were forgotten.
One of the most violent of these erasures is that of the massacre of July 27, 1986. What was meant to be a non-violent gathering to burn copies of the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950 in Kalimpong turned into a bloodbath when police and other security personnel opened fire in the middle of town. There are no real records of how many died, how many were injured and maimed. Or even what really happened that day.
This, our very own Jallianwalla Bagh, is one of the most compelling episodes in Chuden Kabimo’s Song of the Soil, the English translation of his seminal novel Faatsung.
A couple of decades later in college, I set out to sift legend, myth, and fiction for a project. I wanted to empirically trace at least the contours of the violence, if not record all the details. Conflict which was supposed to have resulted in 1,200 deaths, officially, would surely be in public records. In archived news articles. In books.
There was next to nothing.
I found one Ph.D thesis, a couple of charged, sentimental recollections of the July 27 massacre, and some scattered newspaper reports. It was a collective literary amnesia, almost as if an entire people wanted to not remember. Contemporary novelists note this forgetting too. Lekhnath Chhetri, author of Phoolange, remarks in the preface to his novel, 'To understand the socio-political psychology prevalent in Darjeeling during the revolution, I became interested in the works that might have been written at that time. I found nothing but disappointment.' (Translation mine.)
I too was disappointed and angry at this seeming callousness. Yet, looking back, I find many reasons for this lack of documentation. (More on this later.) Violence is foremost among them.
The revolution faltered almost exactly seven months after Phupa’s death with the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) on August 22, 1988 under the chairmanship of Subhash Ghising — leader of the revolution, GNLF supremo and self-proclaimed 'king of the hills'. The DGHC was a semi-autonomous body that looked after the administration of Darjeeling district. It lasted until 2008 when a bizarre set of circumstances involving a rebel leader of the GNLF; a contestant from Darjeeling in Indian Idol, the reality television show; and a public desperate for change combined into a popular uprising. Ghising was declared persona non grata and banished to the plains. He was made to resign his chairmanship. In 2012, a new formation, the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) replaced the DGHC.
When the DGHC was formed in 1988, it was a compromise far from the promise of a separate state of Gorkhaland. Yet it was a step. Only, we didn’t know if we were moving forward, backward, or just marking time. But while the district, its administration, and its citizens warily hunkered down to tug at the mammaries of the state, the killings didn’t stop. This time, the violence wasn’t inflicted by the state. This time, the violence was directed towards each other. At times it seemed driven by vendetta, at times to achieve a chilling effect, and at others, out of trigger-happy bloodlust.
A senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)], T.S. Gurung, was killed in 1989.
In 1992, Santosh Karki, secretary of the Kalimpong Municipal Committee, also a member of the CPI (M), was speared to death in broad daylight in the meat market in town.
In 1992, Rekha Tamang, a member of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the CPI (M), was kidnapped and allegedly raped before being murdered.
That same year, Sudarshan Sharma was shot dead. Sharma was the general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) and had been at the forefront of the bhasa andolan, which worked to include the Nepali language in the Indian Constitution.
This happened in 1996 or 1997: a schoolmate was friends with the daughter of a popular, flamboyant political leader from Kalimpong. He would frequently visit her at home. One day, my friend was exiting the leader’s house when his convoy swept down the driveway. Perhaps dreamy-eyed, my friend forgot to offer namaste to the leader. That evening, said leader made an appearance at my friend’s house, weaving drunk, shouting, and waving a gun. Everyone thought he had come to punish my friend for seeing his daughter. But his grouse was that the boy, then just 14 or 15 years old, had dared to not offer him a namaste. Our leader fired his gun once at my friend — he missed — before being whisked away by his minions.
The next day a package arrived — a basket covered with the party flag. Underneath the flag were an assortment of fruits and a bundle of 100-rupee notes. Of course, following time-honored tradition, my friend had already been sent away early that morning to his relatives in Gangtok.
In 1999, Rudrakumar Pradhan was cut down in daylight in the middle of Darjeeling market. Pradhan was a member of the DGHC, a councilor who had only recently won the local elections. Many believed he was murdered by a few disgruntled members of his own party.
In 2001, Subhash Ghising, the 'king of the hills', was himself ambushed on his way to Darjeeling. While he escaped with injuries, two security personnel were killed, some half a dozen injured. and one of the vehicles in his convoy was set on fire.
One year later, CK Pradhan, the flamboyant ex-chief of the Kalimpong branch of GNLF, and one of Ghising’s ablest lieutenants in the revolution of 86–88, was shot in the back in one of the busiest parts of town. He died on his way to hospital.
In 2010, Madan Tamang, president of the ABGL and one of the most vocal and articulate dissenters against whichever faction happened to be in power, was hacked to death by men wielding khukuris and swords. Not only did it happen in broad daylight, this was murder in the age of the cameraphone — images of the dying politician litter the web.
Since 1986, even before, the prevailing response to speaking out — or rather, speaking — has been ‘boliss ki mariss’ (if you speak, you die) or ‘chha inchi ghatai dinchu’ (I’ll lop off six inches from the top — a euphemism for a beheading). When politicians and strongmen were being picked off, men protected by the police and their own bodyguards, what hope could archivists, documentarians, and writers have? How could fiction be possible? Or nonfiction? To write is to probe, to find, to step on toes, to uncover that which is uncomfortable, or criminal.
Chuden Kabimo writes starkly in the preface to Faatsung, ‘I had penned something when I was still in higher secondary school. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I had written was political in nature. The ward councilor’s threat was conveyed to my village, “Tell him — he’s still a young boy; that is why we’ve spared him. He must never write something like this ever again.” For three days I lay in bed, shivering with fear. And inside my heart I announced to myself, “I swear on knowledge and on learning, never again will I write about politics.”’ (Translation mine).
In Song of the Soil — fortunately — he’s done exactly the opposite.
As befits a story about Kalimpong and the revolution, this is a novel of erasures and departures. Ripden, the driving heart of the book, dies in the first sentence, wiped out by a landslide. His father Norden has left home to join the revolution, never to return. Ripden has never seen his father. (We don’t meet his mother either.) Thus the narrator and Ripden run away from home to another village to find out what happened to him. There, they meet a mysterious stranger who tells them a story. At its core, the tale the mysterious stranger tells them is his own story, that of Norden’s, and of the revolution of 1986 — the massacre of July 27, the guerilla battles of the GVC, the tales of a motivated but ragtag band of amateurs punching way above their weight, homemade muzzleloaders versus Lee-Enfields, pipe-bombs versus grenades, Hawaii slippers versus jackboots, David versus Goliath.
It is also the story of child conscription, ideological confusion, political opportunism and naiveté, a crippling sense of not knowing one’s own place within the nation, and a hermetic lack of awareness about the outside world. A villager in the novel, Boju, asks one of the revolutionaries, 'Oh, I heard that Dhara 144 has been enforced in the bazaar … We face water shortages too. You young ones saw yesterday how bad things are. So I was wondering if we could get a dhara too. Please do this pious act. My blessings will always be with you.' Dhara 144 refers to the section of the Indian Constitution which prevents people from gathering in one place. Dhara also means a community water tap.
Growing up, we would laugh cruelly at the story of a woman who was walking to town from her village. When asked where she was going, she is said to have replied, 'Oh I heard they’ve brought curfew to town. I’m so curious to see what it looks like.'
Another — hopefully apocryphal — anecdote of the time goes like this. Two senior leaders of the revolution enter a restaurant in a city. A waiter asks them, ‘Your orders, sir?’ Senior leader says, ‘Bring me the menu please.’ And asks the junior leader, ‘So what do you want to eat, bhai?’ To which he replies, ‘I’ll also have menu, daju.’
Kabimo’s great strength is clear-sightedness. His characters aren’t only ‘hill-folk’ and they certainly aren’t ‘simple’. Divested of the need to become foils for other, major, characters — a role all too commonly assigned to ‘hill folk’ in Indian fiction — they appear fully formed and of the earth they spring from.
The village itself is also no idyll. Poverty is rife, casteism and migration are lived realities, and education is a farce. The town/city exerts an almost inescapable gravitational pull on the village and the narrator himself manages to tell his story only because he could escape his village for the city and gain tertiary education there. Lepcha guests at a wedding in a high-caste Chhetri household leave in disgust when they are made to eat separately. An elocution competition based on the subject ‘Your Village’ is organized in a school. A Dalit child pours out his woes before declaring, ‘… Raju-sir says, it is only the Hindus who have upper and lower castes. Among the Christians, everyone is equal. I will become a Christian after finishing my studies.’ The school is itself ‘more cowshed than school’.
However, where Kabimo succeeds emphatically is in bringing to life the foot-soldiers of the revolution — their glow of a common purpose, swigs from a common liquor-kettle, and the shared drunken haze, the thrill of aiming guns at enemies pointed out to them, the ease of blindly following orders. Yet, ultimately, the larger picture he expertly paints is of these very foot-soldiers as blunt weapons misguided by narrow-minded commanders in an ideologically-bereft, inchoate revolution, doomed to failure at the moment of its inception.
Norden stands as a striking metaphor for this failure. In the penultimate chapter, Norden, on a mission to acquire more guns, is fleeing for his life. He isn’t running away from the state forces but from members of a splinter group of his own outfit.
Violence undocumented is violence denied, violence unexpressed is violence forgotten. From the Holocaust and the World Wars, to other wars across the globe, the Partition of India, the conflict in Sri Lanka, and the Nepali Civil War — it is writing that has always borne witness. Diarists Anne Frank, Victor Klemperer, and others wrote their experiences even as the Gestapo and the SS hunted them. In their books, Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi recorded harrowing accounts of living in concentration camps, which are also philosophical inquiries into what it means to be human in the face of extermination. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich clinically describes what a Soviet gulag does to an individual.
In India, the website www.1947partitionarchive.org is a formidable online repository for writings on the trauma of Partition.
Samanth Subramanian, Nayomi Munaweera, Jude Lal Fernando, and Anuk Arudpragasam have all written movingly about the Sri Lankan Civil War.
In Nepal, Manjushree Thapa, Prashant Jha, Aditya Adhikari, and others, have effectively chronicled not only the decade-long Civil War but also the process of state formation.
Apart from mainstream literature is also the repository of informal material — photographs, video clips, and testimonies, among others. This material, often collected in real-time and at personal risk, is frequently the ideal counter-narrative to those peddled by the state or by a people. Holocaust denial comes to mind. In 2011, British television station Channel 4 broadcast Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, an investigative documentary composed largely of videos shot on mobile phones by civilians and soldiers in the last days of the Civil War. The documentary uncovered multiple evidences of horrific human rights abuses that have consistently blown holes in the state’s narrative.
Darjeeling was set up by the British as a ‘hill station’, an idyll for the weary and the jaded of the Raj to rejuvenate and recreate themselves. It was also the site from where the adventurous, the brave, and the foolhardy set out to test their mettle against the Himalaya. The British left in 1947 but the idyll remained. Only now, it exists to serve consumers of peace, relaxation, harmony, and oneness with nature.
But an idyll cannot have a history of its own. A history interferes with the consumers’ enjoyment of a product which exists solely for their gratification. The product must be complete and whole, it cannot have any rough edges. And this is how Darjeeling and its surrounding regions have imagined themselves. Other than systemic violence, this self-fashioning is perhaps also the cause for why such little writing about the conflict exists. Combine this with the site of the violence — a marginalized community that exists as part of a state within a much larger Union, and the erasure is complete.
Yet — again — violence undocumented is violence denied. And new writing from Kalimpong and Darjeeling — a clutch of fiction, non-fiction and poetry — is correcting this historical wrong. These writings are bringing stories of the revolution, identity-formation, and the resulting chronic, far-reaching conflict and violence into mainstream literature. Among these are the novel Phoolange (Fruits of the Barren Tree) by Lekhnath Chhetri; a soon-to-be published memoir of the time by Babita Maden; Sanjay Bista’s lyrical novel GL-1786; Basudev Pulami’s in-progress work; Sandhya Chhetri’s story collection Parakampan (Aftershocks); and Rajendra Bhandari’s firebrand poetry best represented in his collection Itihaas ko Baaduli (The Hiccups of History). This is of course a partial list and many more are surely published or are in the works.
We need more of everything — novels, novellas, plays, songs, short stories, poems, memoirs, photographs, testimonies, documentaries, films, and oral histories. We are at a fortunate cusp. Local politics is changing — the former single-party domination has been more or less dismantled. The discourse too, in the age of social media, is less permissive of violence. As an entire generation — victims and actors of the revolution — grows old and dies out, it is vital we collect their memories. It may be that what we remember is distorted by time. Regardless, they all need to be put on record. Much time has already passed, and we owe this to ourselves. The process of forming our identity within the Indian Union is far from complete; the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland is on its own tortuous, uncertain path. In such circumstances, documentation and a shared history is the only roadmap we will ever have.
Anurag Basnet Anurag Basnet is the Head of Department, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, at SRM University, Sikkim. Before switching to academics, he was an editor for 15 years. He has worked with Penguin Books India (now Penguin Random House India), Rupa Publications, and his last stint was as Managing Editor with Speaking Tiger, an independent publishing house. He is also a translator with two published works: 'Is That Even a Country, Sir!' by Anil Yadav and 'The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation' by Ravish Kumar.
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