In a time of constantly being questioned what it means to be “Indian” and it's articulation through a discourse of aggressive Hindutva politics, it can become easy to forget or overlook the fragments of this identity. In doing so, we could often overlook the other struggles, which take place within the geopolitical boundaries of the nation. The question of Gorkhaland, broadly speaking, is one of self-determination. For purposes of conceptual coherence, we can understand, in the context of this work, self determination as a process of reclaiming subjectivity and a break away from being simply an object of discourse. However, to more meaningfully understand the process through which subjectivity is reclaimed, it is important to read the various sites of contestation, rather than leaving it as an abstract category existing “outside”.


At the outset, it is important to trace a brief genealogy of the evolution of Gorkha identity, something which is important for us to base upon our understanding of how this administrative identity is challenged and reconstructed by those who are shaped by it. As Bidhan Golay argues, the history of Darjeeling, and the narrative of migration, must be situated in prevailing colonial racist ideologies that identified particular sections of people as intrinsically and biologically suited for particular tasks. The “Gurkha” identity as a martial race is largely a product of ethnographical knowledge of the colonial state.

With the establishment of a “modern” regime of power in Darjeeling, the region was normalised gradually into a “hill station”, i.e. primarily a place of retreat for outsiders, an understanding which continues to remain operational in the post colonial context with regards to everyday attitudes about the region. Golay argues that the most significant impact of colonial capitalism was that through its civilising mission, it turned the hill population into a reified commodity, once again a form of identity production that has been inherited by the administration in post colonial India.

It can be argued that the Gorkha identity and life world is located both literally and figuratively on the margins of the imagined nation, continuing to be a subject of discourse, which denies them the subjectivity that a democracy promises its citizens.

Another important analytical category we need to understand while dealing with the question of Gorkhaland is the distinction Ayesha Jalal draws between a formal and a substantive democracy. A formal democracy is a genuine democracy insofar that it guarantees the right to vote and the freedom of expression. However, a compounded idea of the formal and substantive meanings of democracy refers to more than the exercise of citizens’ voting rights in elections or even free speech. Democratisations normative or substantive appeal derives from the empowerment of people, not as abstract legal citizens, but as concrete and active agents capable of pursuing their interests with a measure of autonomy from embedded structures of dominance and privilege.


Within the specificity of the Gorkhaland movement and its unequal relationship with West Bengal, one can locate it as a fight for realisation of substantive democracy. Why? Formal democracy is given. The GTA has regular periodic elections, has a bureaucracy, has all the trappings a supposed modern democracy should have, just like the rest of West Bengal. Further, although the the use of violence by the state machinery to quell the movement is condemnable in no uncertain terms, it is neither arbitrary nor antithetical to formal democracy. Ayesha Jalal argues, that democracy, as expressed in the formalisation of regular elections, can, and often do, coexist with inherently authoritarian tendencies of the state.

In fact, the violence can be read structurally as an attempt of the state to simply articulate its presence through the army in an area to formally restore its control over the area. The act of violence then becomes not only legitmised in a formal democratic structure for the state, but the act in itself largely becomes irrelevant for the state.

What matters to the state is the structural logic of the act.

Hence, in this context, the movement should be fought on grounds of the need for a substantive democratic experience and its establishment as a lived reality. Since it entails a reclamation of a concrete and active agency, by logical extension, it entails a reclamation of subjectivity. It entails the formal recognition of the move away from the margins, from an after thought, to a centrality of existence through formal, constitutional recognition.

The possessive attitude and the lack of political will of the state of West Bengal can also be read in the light of the idea of coloniality of power. Drawing upon the Descartian body/ soul binary, in which Descartes locates the soul to the site of rationality, and the body to be eternally the “object” of study, the epistemology of modern rationality and its impact on colonial rule, shaped a similar binary between the metropole and the colonies. For instance, the early anthropological knowledge production can be read in a similar light. While colonialism as a formal institution may have ended, we very well know that the logic system and knowledge production of colonial modalities have stayed on, adapting and reshaping themselves.

Perhaps at the risk of drawing a tenuous link, but one that I think is important to think about, this grounding of rationality in the metropolis and locking the margins as objects to be studied, can be found in West Bengal’s attitude today towards the hills. Rhetorical arguments about the region being too small or ill equipped to handle its own developments, can be read as a denial of rationality to the region, and hence subjectivity.


There are however no easy answers to this , just as there isn't to any other political question. Paulo Friere, in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argues that in the initial stages of struggle, the oppressed, or sections of the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation tend themselves to become oppressors or “sub oppressors”, and attempt to make it their private revolution. Whether the demand for Gorkhaland is a revolutionary one or not is a matter of a different paper to address and cannot be done justice to here, but we see strongly how the attitude of the political elite in the region reflects Friere’s concerns. What Friere calls “false charity” and I understand as accommodative hegemony, is best exemplified through the illusion of autonomy that the GTA as an institution is seen to provide. By making it a playground for corrupt politicians, the GTA in fact exemplifies the discourse on “administrative immaturity” of the hill population, which the West Bengal government wants to produce, hence justifying the need for the area to remain within the state.

Simply the institutional formation of Gorkhaland is not the answer; for, it would, if not critically thought about, result in a reproduction of the same structures of inequality with simply a change in the nature of the political elite. It is also intellectually and politically lazy to ground the movement on simply achieving the statehood demand and then deciding on what will happen after that. As Friere critically argues, in dialectical thought, not only are word and action intimately interdependent but also that action cannot be dichotomised from reflection. To fall in to this trap of thought/ action binary, I argue, will result in the movement ultimately coming to nothing but fullfilling the power ambitions of local elite.


Do we have a way through this? Yes, it lies in a dialectical understanding of the movement, and the grounding of the movement in people's claims to reclaim subjectivity. There is no fixed end, rather, it is a constant dialectical process between the desire to reclaim subjectivity and the attempt to be rendered as passive objects of discursive construction. The Gorkha identity here becomes crucial not only as a guiding force but also as the site of contestation. Again, it is important to understand that the identity imposed upon the populace by the political parties is not the one that can lead to transcendence of marginality, for it is rooted in the same institutional language that produced the marginalisation. Rather, it will have to be the Gorkha identity that is actively and creatively constructed by the “ordinary people”. As Golay argues that there has been for a long time, attempts by civil society in Darjeeling, to redefine a self identity based on the idea of kinship reflected by the term Nepali Daju Bhai. It is interesting that this categorical kinship, and the organisation of identity around cultural commonality is a strong political tool from below to actively reclaim the subjectivity by grounding it in language, the real, human , flesh and blood nature of a population that has for so long been abstracted as reified commodities or sources of wage labour.

It is in fact in this utterance and cognitive recognition of humanism that the transcendental potential of the movement lies.

The identity of “Gorkhali” is a categorical , cultural and political kinship between historically marginalised groups such as the ethnic Nepalis, Lepchas, and Bhutias. It is this fight for humanism and subjectivity which should be the principal sight of the movement. Institutional statehood, is no doubt the first step, towards achieving this, but it is only that - a first step. If we do not creatively think about what after that, we will simply see a reproduction of elite, selfish political and economic structures, and end up creating a vacuum for the entrance of right wing forces. That will defeat the very purpose of the struggle.

There is an unconscious, transcendental recognition of humanism and subjectivity in the movement, by moving, linguistically from an abstract population to real flesh and blood people, with real demands for a substantive democracy. Gorkhaland has to make use of this process, by immersing itself within the process and not mistaking the first step, i.e. state formation, as the final end.

Lastly, to tie up the broader themes, it is important to use the lens of difference between “history” and “memory” that noted philosopher Walter Benjamin posits to understand how a meaningful and more enriching Gorkha identity may perhaps be constructed through this understanding. Before that we need to understand the idea of relational space that social geographer David Harvey talks about, as that will help us grasp this difference more meaning fully.

Harvey argues that relational space is an idea of space which holds that there is no such thing as space outside the process which defines it. Processes do not occur in space, but define their own spatial frame. For Walter Benjamin, memory differs from history such that memory is a relational temporal concept. He argues that if a site, say in this case the Gorkhaland movement, is historicised, then it imposes a fixed narrative upon the movement. Memory on the other hand, Benjamin argues, has a potentiality that at times can flare up to reveal new possibilities. In this regard, one of the important questions I would like to raise is the reconstruction of the axis of the Gorkha identity. The “martial” attributes to the identity have largely arisen as a result of anthropological and colonial discourses, and has been historicised. Without in any way, demeaning the contribution of the Gorkha population to the defence of the nation, it is also important to reflexively question this aspect of the identity. For, at a larger level, the idea of the “army” is intricately linked to the same repressive state apparatus that was involved and still is involved in quelling the right to self determination. To valorise the Gorkha identity based on “martial” attributes, which, in the first place was a product of colonial discourse, is to ultimately reproduce a language of violence. To legitimise a community through its role as parts of a system of violence, is to dehumanise it, is to objectify it. Of course, as Benjamin argues, the legitimacy of narratives does not come from the past, but from the contemporary act of narration. Hence the constant repeating of this narrative by the political elite leading this movement is what lends it, its credibility. But a deeper look would reveal that the political elite leading the movement is still ultimately talking in the language of the same structural logic that is being used to quell the movement, albeit in a different context, and in no way really seeks to reclaim the subjectivity of the Gorkha population.

While individuals do not necessarily precede narratives, a reflexivity which a relational idea of space perhaps allows, would be useful to rethink the symbols of the community. To reclaim subjectivity involves rejecting discourses of objectification and languages of violence. For a more meaningful, substantive identity to emerge, the people, while recognising the contributions they have made to the army, must also actively rethink the logic that the army ultimately represents, and perhaps move away from such a marker which ultimately places their subjectivity in an institution that stands for structural violence, and is outside of them. The dialectics between a symbol that is valorised, and the fact that the symbol is a part of the same structure that is denying Gorkha right to self determination must be recognised in order to actively reclaim subjectivity.

There are and will emerge several sites of contestation as the movement emerges, but we must be aware that many of those contestations lie within.

[the writer is a Sociology graduate from Presidency University, Kolkata]