By Ashwin Sharma
The seed for the demand for a different administrative setup can be traced back to1907, when the first draft for the demand was submitted by a conglomeration of the hill people to the British colonizers. The 1980s witnessed the first form of an organised political movement of Gorkhaland taking shape, with the Darjeeling Hills now witnessing multiple phases of this movement and aspiration for a Homeland. Over time, the evocation of these aspirations have been appropriated by multiple stakeholders for political gains and rhetoric, completely disregarding the aspirations, sacrifices and losses suffered by the masses.
This body of work attempts to address the oppression and injustice meted out to the people of the Darjeeling Hills, by revisiting the traumatic and painful memory of 1986 or Chyaasi, etched into the memories of the people. Through a revisiting of this period of Darjeeling Hill’s history, memories of the people who faced the direct oppression of the state in 1986 offers a crucial window to both introduce and make sense of the current crisis in the political history of the Darjeeling Hills. The 1986-1988 era is remembered as the ‘Black Days’ where the clashes between the people and state forces led to immense loss of lives and property in and around the Darjeeling Hills.
This project explores Chyaasi from the events that unfolded in the town of Kalimpong. Re-centering the most painfully remembered incident of the public firing on peaceful protestors in Mela Ground; the massacre which occurred on 27th of July is remembered and compared to the Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy; which over time has been silenced from public memory. Through oral stories and memories of this period, this project locates the ‘peaceful, quaint town of Kalimpong’ in this historical moment which witnessed violent, traumatic scale and intensity of state induced violence in the Hills during this period. Tragically, these histories while painfully kept alive by the people remain publicly erased from collective memory by the state and later political stakeholders.
On 27th of July,1986 a peaceful protest was organised under the leadership of Late Subash Ghising where it was proposed that the Indo-Nepal Treaty (a treaty which allowed free movements of Nepalis in Nepal and Indian Nepali to move across borders and settle) would be burnt at Mela Ground in Kalimpong. The symbolic burning of the Indo-Nepal Treaty was a reiteration of the Gorkha National Liberation Front’s (GNLF being the political organisation leading the movement under the leadership of Subhash Ghising), political demand that the treaty be abolished due to the confusion it created over the identity of the Gorkhas/ Indian Nepalis. This rally of peaceful protestors were met with open firing by the state military forces, resulting in the death of 13 people, as officially reported, including women and children while leaving others severely injured, rendering those dead as martyrs and the day remembered as ‘Black Day’¹.
Upon speaking with families and people who witnessed these events and what followed, I was met with narratives, vague and fragile at times, but the memory and recollection of these events being held on to even after 36 years of the tragic event; still awaiting closure. Working with memory is difficult and not easy, however, the only ‘documentation’ of this day survives in oral testimonies, each unique, varying from person to person, defining their position, agency and understanding of the period. Despite variation in recollecting exact ‘facts’, inconsistencies around ‘dates’, the common underlying emotions of sufferings, injustice, pain, and loss endured by the people during Chyaasi remained constant.
Conversation on the agitation of 1986 stills triggers trauma and fear among people who experienced it. The stories of mass killings, random house raids, arrests and torture by the armed forces (Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces) Siyarpi also proved to be a recurring theme in these oral testimonies which otherwise remains completely irrelevant to political discourses on the Darjeeling Hills. The 1986 period was one defined by immense violence, as has been aptly and profoundly captured in recent writings such as the Son of the Soil/Fatsung by Chuden Kabimo. In remembering this ‘culture of violence’, it is also pertinent to locate the role of the state in inducing this violence which till date remains problematically erased from the political history of the Darjeeling Hills. There have been movements after the 1986 agitation, with variation in scale, intensity, and forms of violence completely incomparable to what conspired in 1986.
Speaking with the families directly affected by the impact of the political violence of 1986, one is confronted with the reality of these families still seeking closure- in the form of a homeland as more than an aspiration, as a Cause worthy of the sacrifices they endured in the loss of their loved ones for the Cause. Every moment, during this project, I have confronted this question- ‘Can ‘seeing’ these help them overcome the trauma in some way or not?’ As an outsider, the opening of these private, personal spaces rendered the families vulnerable, probing, reopening wounds, and trauma of the most difficult days of their life and trying to revisit these memories of what they went through felt very difficult. I acknowledge this dilemma as a practitioner and worked through the pauses, the gaps, the sadness, and the heaviness of these memories. It has been a journey allowing me to unlearn and reimagine conflicted histories through the sense of loss, pain and trauma endured by families, still dreaming of Gorkhaland.
Notes and References
Ashwin Sharma is a Photographer and a Video Editor based in New Delhi, India.
This blog story is an outcome of the India Foundation for the Arts' Art Research Grant funded project titled Stories from Within (2021).