By Nirvan Pradhan
How are you? You must be in Jawaharlal Nehru University. It is spring, so nature must have made the campus come alive. I have pleasant memories of how delightful the arrival of spring is on the campus after the dullness of winter. The blooming of bougainvillea flowers must cover the campus in a pink shade. Yellow amaltas must have blossomed around the campus, and the warm weather is perfect for long walks around the ring road. I love the University for its vibrant spirit, active campus politics, dhabas, exciting hostel festivals, engaging professors and culture of intellectual discourse. However, I miss the beautiful campus and the freedom it allows everyone to engage and unlearn.
It was the year before the COVID-19 pandemic when I was in the second year of my PhD programme at the Centre for Political Studies in the School of Social Science. The University guidelines require students to meet the Research Advisory Council every six months during the PhD programme. The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate the progress of our research. On a warm, balmy morning, I squatted on the floor of our department with other Ph.D. students, chatting about the recent events in the country and exchanging nervous apprehensions about the upcoming meeting.
I entered your dimly lit cabin, with other committee faculty members also present. You were on my committee as one of the faculty advisers. On that particular day, I had high expectations of receiving stellar feedback on my work about the research methodology employed and the relevant themes explored. On the contrary, you regarded my research topic on the precarious existence of migrant labourers in the Eastern Himalayan region with derision. You commented— “You are working on your own region. No paternalism. Okay!” Another professor chipped in, laughing, “It would be so fun to do fieldwork in Darjeeling.”
On that particular day, I remained quiet and contemplated over this experience. As an individual who loves speaking and engaging in dialogue, I reflected on that meeting and wondered what stopped me from sharing my opinions. In retrospect, through this letter, I wish to convey what I wanted to share that day. Had there been a possibility of a dialogue or a safe space to be able even to share these thoughts, I would not be writing this letter today. Perhaps it is reflective of the power structures within these spaces.
Your words still ring in my ears. Over the journey of writing my thesis, I surmised your abhorrence of such topics was not with me (the researcher) but with the research subjects. Your statement contained an implicit opinion you articulated but with a note of caution about the ‘ethics’ of being politically correct. I later deduced the underlying implication of your assertion— and this is what was being implied ‘that stories of our communities hold no significance, our suffering did not matter, and our social groups lacked the requisite value or intrigue to warrant consideration as research subjects.’ Audre Lorde, a Black feminist writer, emphasised the importance of diverse perspectives in storytelling and knowledge production. Lorde challenged dominant narratives and power structures that exclude marginalised individuals and communities from participating in knowledge processes. Embracing the stories of people from marginalised communities is essential for creating an equitable society.
Our journey, as a few of us make it into the hallowed spaces of higher educational institutions, introduces us to subaltern ideologies and the imperative of decolonising our minds. Nonetheless, academic departments and academia in India are guilty of co-opting and reproducing the worst form of prejudice and systemic injustices. Numerous empirical studies have demonstrated the presence of discrimination against individuals from socially disadvantaged groups, specifically Scheduled Tribes, religious minorities, Scheduled Castes, and Other Backward Classes, within and outside educational settings. Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other higher education institutes have a long ignominious history where students from depressed classes commit suicide within its halls. These experiences are varied in nature, form and content, and more nuanced and covert forms of prejudice remain obscured, defining the vast experiences of individuals belonging to different places with complex and oppressed histories.
I recall this anecdote to highlight the embedded and inherent discernible bias in academic departments in prestigious institutions in New Delhi. The syllabi employed in academic departments suffer from a narrow perspective, imbued with prejudices, and deeply entwined with political ideology. The syllabus fails to address or acknowledge texts about marginalised topics— such as the Northeast region, radical caste issues, queer literature, racial injustice, and the lived experiences of those occupying the peripheries of our nation.
Academics in New Delhi hold rigid beliefs about the research that should be conducted, contributing to their sanctimonious disposition. Gatekeeping and mainland bias contribute to certain scholars viewing hometown scholars who aspire to study marginalised populations condescendingly, consciously perpetuating discriminatory practices and hierarchies. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I did not encounter monographs and essays from India’s peripheries as part of the prescribed curriculum. In promoting literature and works of scholars only from the mainland, the constantly reproduced idea is that academics hailing from certain privileges are accepted as ‘knowledge producers’ who can comprehend India, with their perspectives purportedly epitomising the country’s essence. However, such a presumption is unfounded, biased and prejudicial in theory and practice.
Dear Professor, in this context, I want to write to you about my hometown and explain my decision to investigate the challenges faced by individuals living in that area through this letter.
In India, the public discourse surrounding Darjeeling stereo-typically commences with the imagination of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains and lush tea gardens. Darjeeling served as the quintessential British hill station with its Victorian-era churches, verdant tea plantations, charming bungalows, dhuppi trees (cryptomeria japonica) lining the roads, forest trails along the borderlands, thriving ecology, mist-shrouded mountains, prestigious British-style boarding schools, and meandering fog-draped streets.
In Kaalobhaari: The Black Burden (2021:95-96), Shanker Deo Dhakal, a Nepali writer, beautifully captures the region’s beauty.
On sunny days, Darjeeling was like heaven on earth. The Bungalows would twinkle with the light emanating from their windows… Darjeeling, also known as the queen of the hills, had the beautiful Khanchendzonga, which was like a crown to the queen. The lush green tea garden was like the eternal princess gown… When you looked across the valley from Sonada, the beautiful orange orchards around Mirik would be covered in these coppery mandarin orange balls. The area around Sonada would be full of cabbage and cauliflower farms. The small houses scattered across the hill would have flowers that would spread its aroma in making it even more magical. The small girls and boys would be dressed up in their best attires, creating an overall joyous aura in unison with nature. Darjeeling would smile back at them.
© Dr Graham's Homes Colelction/TCC Photo Archive
The commodification of Darjeeling as a tourist destination overshadows the local people’s ongoing challenges. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Darjeeling is renowned as a tourist destination and famed for its opulent tea. Rune Bennike (2017; 2018) has observed that it has been subject to “commodification”, resulting in its extensive observation, representation, and circulation. For visitors, this holiday destination represents an ideal retreat from the oppressive heat of the plains. Nonetheless, the aesthetic appeal of the hills obscures the harsh truth of the local people’s ongoing challenges. As Amish Raj Mulmi (2023) argues, popular imaginations of the Himalayas often fail to see the indigenous people and their life struggles.
On a recent visit to my hometown, the deplorable condition of things caused me immense sadness. The region’s dwindling tourists became apparent when I observed the extensive construction, unplanned urbanisation, piles of concrete waste, and poorly maintained roads and drainage systems. A plethora of socio-economic challenges have characterised the post-colonial period in Darjeeling, affecting and reflecting all aspects of life and livelihood in the Hills, resulting in limited access to dignified living standards.
Under such dire conditions, many young individuals have been compelled to seek employment in precarious positions across the globe. From being a destination for labour migrants in the nineteenth century, Darjeeling has become a locus for outflow migration two centuries later. Due to the dearth of employment opportunities, many young individuals converge upon recruitment agencies in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Siliguri, endeavouring to equip themselves for eventual migration bahira (overseas).
My research uses feminist methods to develop and bring in a feminist perspective by listening to research participants. Sara Ahmed (2017) advocates attuning our hearing senses and becoming a “feminist ear”. Ahmed (2017) introduced this concept in Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed (2021:4) argues that to “hear with a feminist ear is to hear who is not heard, how we are not heard”. In a world in which we are taught to tune out certain people—a feminist ear gives us insight into the lives of people living on the margins of society who have been “unrecognised”, which Thomas Blom Hansen (2012:97) defines as “a willed incomprehension derived from a lack of desire, intimacy and respect”.
During my ethnographic fieldwork, I met people across a broad spectrum, listening to and collecting stories based on their lived realities and experiences. Although I could not solve their problems, as a researcher, I developed the ability to listen to these complaints, think them through, and explore them in archives, journals, and books, believing that writing was where I could do justice to these stories. Listening: With a sense of feminist empathy and curiosity about people’s complaints indicated I was willing to receive complaints. The stories they shared with me carried the weight of injustice, transmitting a history of failing systems and exploited workers. I want to share two stories I encountered in the field.
After fourteen years, amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, one of my neighbours returned to Darjeeling. On a rainy, foggy day—one of the migrant workers, Thendup Yolmo, returned home after living for fourteen years in America. In Soureni— a quiet hamlet fifty kilometres from Darjeeling in West Bengal his return was highly fussed about by neighbours. In his absence, his son graduated high school and college while his mother’s black hair had turned hoary. However, after spending five sweet months with his family, he had to leave all his work to provide for his family. This is the harsh reality of many individuals. They are forced to live away from their families due to chronic unemployment in the region.
Rinchen Tamang was a migrant worker from Kurseong who has been a domestic helper in Singapore since December 2019. Her duties involve cooking and taking care of two children. Unfortunately, on the morning of December 21, 2020, she experienced extreme dizziness and partial paralysis on the left side of her body. She was immediately taken to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital in Singapore, where medical examinations and scans revealed that she had suffered a significant haemorrhage.
The medical professionals performed an urgent operation and transferred her to the intensive care unit, where she was pronounced comatose. Being a migrant labourer and lacking social security benefits, the hospital expenses were charged at the rate for private patients, resulting in a growing accumulation of bills after over a week in the hospital. Despite maid insurance coverage of only S$ 20,000, the ultimate statement, which included additional tests, scans, and surgeries, was projected to surpass S$ 50,000. The family wished to transport her back via air ambulance for proper care, estimated to cost around S$ 60,000. The family requested financial assistance from the community through crowdfunding. Unfortunately, Rinchen passed away, and her remains had to be transported back in a coffin.
The commonality between Thendup and Rinchen is their shared sense of suffering; in their journey as migrant workers, their pain emerges from this sense of alienation from their homes. Thendup had to live most of his life away from the comforts and love of his home. Rinchen had to pay the ultimate price while working for a better life. As a nation, we have let them down by failing to ensure access to primary, decent jobs where they can experience life’s small joys from the comfort of their own homes.
A child grows up without his father, and a girl loses her mother in a foreign land. Multiply these stories a thousand times, and we have a snapshot of the lives unfolding in the Eastern Himalayas, unravelling the harsh truth of life in the region.
Migrants forced to leave their homes due to unemployment often face many challenges when they arrive in foreign countries. They encounter language barriers, discrimination, and difficulty finding housing, employment, and healthcare. In addition, they struggle to adapt to a new culture and social norms, which can lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, and loneliness. The financial burden of migrating can be significant, leaving migrants vulnerable to exploitation and poverty. Despite these hardships, people like Thendup and Rinchen leave their homes searching for better opportunities for themselves and their families, highlighting the importance of addressing the root causes of unemployment and poverty in their home countries.
Hidden behind the picturesque mountains and romanticized pictures of Darjeeling lie a darker underbelly of the migrant economy. During my fieldwork, I observed, as did Jason De León (2015) of Latin American migrants, families whose lives had been fractured by transnational migration. Many children who are left behind struggle to make sense of their lives when their parents are absent. Despite economic stability, migrants’ children often felt abandoned and neglected. Families' choices regarding migration extend beyond selecting between exploitative recruitment agencies or dishonest agents. Instead, these decisions arise from the restricted and unfavourable alternatives accessible to them.
The challenges faced by migrant families go beyond work and encompass issues of mistreatment, alcoholism, and inadequate care for loved ones left behind. Kids raised without a mother, or sometimes even without both parents, reported experiencing injustice and bullying when living with relatives. Many migrant spouses turn to excessive drinking because they feel frustrated and disappointed due to their spouse’s extended absence. To understand the intricacies of being migrant workers, we must first understand and reimagine them as sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, wives, and workers. We must view them as individuals who are doing their best in the circumstances they have been given. Alcoholism, abuse, loneliness, solitude, and depression are embedded into the lives of migrant families and their everyday existence. As our young people migrate to provide care in Japan and Israel, the elderly and younger generations bear the costs of inadequate care back home.
What are the actual costs of labour migration for families in the Eastern Himalayas? Anthropologists have argued that transnational families maintain relations through the flow of remittances, revealing the role of money in constituting affective relations and reproducing kinship ties across borders. Migration has significant consequences and is a profoundly moral and political process. Through writing my thesis, I often encountered families who braved the personalcosts of migration. While remittances sustain kinship ties, the absence of a spouse or a parent also disrupts kinship bonds— revealing the agonizing costs of migration.
The deaths of workers like Rinchen are not isolated events. Certain families residing in the Eastern Himalayas have encountered challenges when bringing back the remains of their loved ones who died in foreign lands. The costs of foreign migration for workers are high: paralysis, mental health crises, depression, and frustration. Then, there are cases when labourers lose their lives, leaving their families to deal with the aftermath without insurance coverage or typical labour regulations.
Guras/ © Aditi Subba
I want to share another incident with you. During my undergraduate days, I recall a statement by a professor who follows the Islamic faith and teaches at Delhi University. I actively participated in the debating society at our college. The professor mentioned that the contestants could communicate in any language they felt comfortable with during a debating competition, including Hindi, English, or Urdu. Another professor scornfully commented— “Yeh log Urdu to badhawa nahi denge, toh kaun dega?” (If these people do not promote Urdu, who will?).
Even though you and the other professor made your comments at different times and in various universities, your perspectives emerged from a commonly held worldview. In Indian higher education institutions, scholars from lower castes, Dalits, marginalised backgrounds, minority religions, disturbed areas, LGBTQ community, gender non-conforming individuals and backward regions are often frequently perceived as solely focusing on and studying only their own community. The rest bask in the sanctimonious glory of portraying themselves as more intelligent as they study ‘important topics’ having broader research frames. They do not question their situated position within structures of knowledge production. Individuals participate in research under a particular context of identity, belonging and individuality, allowing them to express their true selves rooted in their background freely. The personal experiences and conditions of the scholars influence academic work. Most scholarship is imperative to the circumstances of the scholars. As someone fortunate enough to have studied in private schools and belong to a middle-class family, I recognize the privileges and opportunities these circumstances have afforded me.
Mabel Gergan and Sara Smith (2015) argue that the issue of race and racism confronted by students from India's North-East remains prevalent in the present day due to enduring colonial portrayals that associate them with nature and tribal identities. Despite students from Northeast India facing racial discrimination in Indian cities, systemic changes are missing, and mindsets remain prejudiced. It is crucial for society to actively address these deep-rooted prejudices and work towards creating an inclusive and equitable environment for all individuals, regardless of their backgrounds.
Additionally, the implication, whether stated or not, is a charge against these hometown scholars— is that in choosing such topics, they reveal their incompetence in conducting research beyond their community. They cannot transcend their afflictions and personal backgrounds, and their scholarly work is perceived to lack national and international relevance. Subsequently, their work is seen as not being not suitable for being published in reputable journals. This is a political viewpoint which is deeply flawed and prejudiced.
Before making any unwarranted presumptions, an essential inquiry must be posed: What will be the prospects for growth and prosperity of these subjects and regions in the absence of scholarly involvement? Moreover, the likelihood of a literary production seems dubious in the absence of scholars from marginalised communities and areas dedicating their efforts to these topics. Additionally, due to the lack of prior publications, the relevance and impact of such works will remain questionable. Dolly Kikon (2022), writing about peer review, makes a similar argument:
But who decides what is an intellectual project? The bewildering stories of reviewers in the academy, I believe, deserve an honest conversation among academics. There are unspoken questions of multiple hierarchies in the academy, but who are the priests and priestesses who stand at entrance of the high gates of knowledge also known as peer-reviewed journals? What are the voices and arguments they demand of academics to be considered worthy of being published in certain “top-tier” journals?
Sara Smith (2021) argues that knowledge builds on what came before. Institutions producing knowledge, such as presses, think tanks, universities, and laboratories, do not represent the diverse population range, excluding those from the marginalised sections such as Dalits, frontline workers, invisible migrants, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. Knowledge is situated and is inseparable from power relations. These perspectives mentioned above and viewpoints have political implications, as their inherent biases deleteriously affect underrepresented scholars.
Within Indian academic spheres, many professors adhere to these viewpoints, perpetuating bigotry and discrimination, thereby hindering the educational pursuits of aspiring scholars seeking admission into institutions of higher education and publication in Indian journals. It is imperative to address this systemic prejudice not only within universities but also in the broader society. Scholars have pointed out that the literature many read and the lenses and tools used to understand the world are anaemic.
Power operates in different ways in divergent contexts. The phenomenon under consideration manifests itself even within a highly reputed institution such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, which purports to be a bastion of progressive left-liberalism. My letter is not motivated by any rancorous sentiment. Instead, the motivation is to underscore the power and positionality of those holding positions in academic departments throughout India to advance the process of decolonising academia. By decolonisation, I mean to ask about the relations between the ideas produced and the political context from which they emerge. These double standards — especially by those in positions of power— privilege certain scholars’ reflexivity while undermining marginalised scholars as lacking objectivity.
Carole McGranaham (2020:3) argues that as anthropologists, we write in the hope that the knowledge we share will be transformative and, if not, to give a complete understanding of human experiences. We are often guardians of other people’s stories, and the responsibility to tell the stories entrusted to us is immense. These stories are lost if scholars from the margins of India are not given opportunities to share them.
I hope you are enjoying the spring at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Spring is also a reminder of hope and rebuilding despite hardships and disappointment. Recently, a friend in Gangtok accompanied me on a Sunday morning hike, and I was pleasantly surprised that springtime in Sikkim looked vividly different. White and pink flowers bloomed around. On vast, expansive fields, I saw ripe papayas, rows of green broccoli, cabbages, and spinach ready to be harvested. I realised that the hues of spring are different across our beautiful country. There are so many different shades, colours and varieties of spring. It took me three years away from the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus to realise that spring’s colours differ from what I previously thought. Experiencing spring in a new city has taught me the importance of broadening my perspective beyond a narrow focus and acknowledging the richness and variety of cultures, individuals, spaces, and geographic locations. This is especially crucial now, with leadership trying to fit everyone into the same mould.
Thank you for everything you have taught me. I trust I have also conveyed some of my ideas to you by writing this letter.
I hope you have a great semester ahead.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bennike, Rune. 2017. Frontier commodification: Governing Land, Labour and Leisure in Darjeeling, India. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 40 (2):256-271.
Bennike, Rune. 2018. “A Summer Place: Darjeeling in the Tourist Gaze” In Sara Shneiderman and Townsend Middleton, eds., Darjeeling Reconsidered: Histories, Politics, Environments. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Deo Dhakal, Shanker. 2021. Kaalobhaari: The Black Burden. Translated into English by Satyadeep Singh Chhetri. Notion Press.
Hansen, Thomas Blom. 2012. Melancholia of Freedom. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Kikon, Dolly. 2022. “Reviewer 2 Has Raised Concerns: Peer Review and Editing in the Academy.” Polar Journal. https://polarjournal.org/2022/06/13/reviewer-2-has-raised-concerns-peer-review-and-editing-in-the-academy/
McGranahan, Carole. 2020. Introduction. On Writing and Writing Well: Ethics, Practice, Story. Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mulmi, Amish Raj. 2023. Whose Himalaya Is It? Himal SouthAsian. https://www.himalmag.com/himalaya-keay-fatland-douglas-western-narratives-indigenous-histories/
Smith, Sara and Mabel Denzin Gergan. 2015. “The Diaspora Within: Himalayan Youth, Education-Driven Migration, and Future Aspirations in India.” Environment and Planning: Society and Space 33(1):119-135.
Smith, Sara. 2021. Political Geography: A Critical Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.
Dr Nirvan Pradhan is an Assistant Professor , SRM University, Sikkim.
Aditi Subba is a software eelsengineer bases in Delhi and from designer from the Darjeeling Hills and currently based in Delhi.