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Reimagining the Geographies of the Gorkhaland Movement

Biswanath Saha ( is a senior research fellow and Gorky Chakraborty ( teaches at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.

While the demand for self-rule is not unknown in the Darjeeling hills, the recent triggers for the movement demanding the creation of Gorkhaland can be traced from the time the Trinamool Congress won the civic body election in the hill areas and imposed the compulsory adoption of Bengali language in schools. This prompts one to look critically at the imagined geography of a place, as envisioned by the government, as well as by those protesting for the creation of a new state, to understand whether and how a regional movement threatens the concept of nationalism.

The authors are highly grateful to the anonymous reviewer for the comments and suggestions they extended.

The dream of achieving self-rule in the hill areas of colonial Bengal—presently the hills of Darjeeling and surrounding areas—is roughly 110 years old. Starting from 1907, this aspiration moved through various phases till it gained a feverish momentum during the latter half of the 20th century, with the demand for the creation of a separate state named Gorkhaland by bifurcating West Bengal. The bargaining by the different stakeholders1 of this movement has been noticeable throughout the much debated history of this movement. Moreover, the largely plains-based ruling party of the state—the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC)—had won in the Mirik Notified Area in the civic body election of May 2017. This victory has smoothened its passage into the region, where it was hitherto a political “pariah,” being a plains-based party since more than three decades.

What was expected to follow after this electoral victory was the ubiquitous mantra of the ushering in of “development,” as a panacea for the ills ailing the hills, but what followed was the declaration of the introduction by the chief minister of Bengali as one of the compulsory languages (under the three-language formula) to be taught in schools. As a consequence, the hills erupted in protest against this draconian measure of the “imposition of Bengali,” as protesters would call it. Although the mandatory provision was subsequently relaxed for the hills of Darjeeling by the ruling party in West Bengal, the collateral damage was already done. In a nutshell, this provided the background for the present spate of mobilisation and movement in the hills, and the demand for Gorkhaland once again reached its crescendo. We will elaborate the scenario further in the later part of the article, prior to which, a brief theoretical understanding may help us contextualise the issue further.

Theoretically speaking, many scholars often treat regionalism or regional movements as opposed to the principle of “nationalism” (Wenner 2013) and there is always an underlying assumption to “contain” these movements. Otherwise, the scholars propose, these movements pose a threat to the nation (Behara 2007: 91 cited in Wenner 2013). But, sub-national movements need not necessarily be a threat to nationalist principles. Rather, they reproduce the same idea through their mobilisation tools. In fact, subnational imaginations coexist with the pan-Indian national imagination (Baruah 1997: 501). Thereby, to perceive all “sub-regional” movements as a threat to the idea of nation is erroneous. Moreover, Benedict Anderson (1983: 49) identifies nationalist communities as imagined ones because, according to him,

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

It is also debatable here as to whether they themselves become prey to their own imagination or they are being made to imagine themselves to be a part of that nation. Moving forward, the definition of imaginative geographies, however, needs immediate attention while talking about imagined communities, which is about the discursive constructions around places that are made and remade within the cultural vicinity (Radcliffe 1998: 275). However, Edward Said (1978) understands imaginative geographies in terms of power relations. To him, it is the stage-show of the power of tailoring and presenting the world as spaces of “ours” and “theirs” (Said 1978), which is ultimately the physical and mental appropriation of space (Gregory 1995 cited in Wenner 2016).

Henri Lefebvre (1991: 281) castigates the modern state as a form of violence directed towards a space. According to him, 

each state claims to produce a space wherein something is accomplished, a space, even where something is brought to perfection namely, a unified and hence a homogenous society.

But, “the space that it homogenises has nothing homogenous about it” (Lefebvre 1991 cited in Brenner 1999). Thus, the imagined communities created by the state lead to imagined geographies within which the state attempts to homogenise those social relations which have nothing homogeneous about them. Within this context, we take into account some of the imaginative geographies associated with “sub-regional” movements in the Darjeeling hills—for example, “plains versus hills” and “our culture versus their culture”—and associate them with the different stakeholders associated either in favour of or opposed to the movement, for a nuanced understanding.

Spatial Imaginations

Darjeeling has a very complex history. It leads to different spatial imaginaries too. One such imaginary is related to the origin of the Gorkhas. In Nepalese tradition, the Gorkha dynasty was said to have originated from the Kancha family, a descendent of the Rajput dynasty of Chitor. There exist two versions of the debate regarding the Chitor Rana episode. One version talks about the fleeing of the Rana, Bhupal Rana Rao, from Chitor to the Himalayan Kingdom in order to avoid the atrocious might of a Mohammedan invader (Subba 1992; Kar 2012), who wanted to marry that Rana’s daughter (named Sadal) (Kar 2012). After settling in the Himalayan Kingdom, the Rana had two children, namely, Kancha and Mincha. The descendent of this Kancha family is said to be the founder of the Gorkha dynasty (Subba 1992; Kar 2012). Another version explained by T B Subba (1992) says that the Gorkhas are of Rajput origin by citing Daniel Wright (1877),

The Gorkhas, or Gorkhalis, so named from the former capital of their country, are the dominant race. They formerly occupied the district around the town of Gorkha, which is about forty miles west of Kathmandu. They are said to be of Rajput descent, and to have been driven out of Rajputana on the occasion of an invasion by Musalmans. They first settled near Palpa, having passed through the Kumaon hills, and gradually extended their dominion to Gorkha. (Wright 1877 cited in Subba 1992: 52)

It is interesting that Subba (1992) proves the Rajput thesis by referring to the writings of Wright (1877), whereas Kar (2012) establishes them as tribal by taking F Hamilton’s account. Here, it is praiseworthy to note that the writers of both interpretations agree to the view that on being attacked by a Mohammedan emperor,2 the Rana of Chitor, a Rajput, fled. But, thereafter, both the interpretations digress. Without dealing with the points of differences between these two scholars, it can always be argued about how the successor of a Rajput family became tribal. Does this imagination arise due to the change in geographic location, that is, from Chitor to the Eastern Himalayas? This argument regarding the tribal origin of the Gorkhas thereby seems to be debatable (Saha 2016).

The necessity for dealing with this imagination is warranted only to understand the debate associated with the oft-repeated question of the Sixth Schedule with relation to the proposed state of Gorkhaland. During 1986–88, Subash Ghisingh declined to provide the area Sixth Schedule status by saying that it is meant for tribal areas and that the Gorkhas are not tribal. But, later on, in 2000, he demanded the same for Darjeeling by saying that the Gorkhas are tribal and should be brought under the ambit of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (Sarkar 2013). However, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) strongly opposed the move to bring Darjeeling under the Sixth Schedule as the provision is pro-tribal. If Darjeeling is brought under this, it means that the region will be ruled by tribes, which, in other words, means that there would be a minority ruling the majority in the hills, as
believed by the GJM (Saha 2016).

Presently, only 35% of the people in the proposed Gorkhaland have a tribal background (Telegraph 2006). Contrary to the above, interestingly, there is a growing “tribalism” among some sections of the people from the hills of Darjeeling who are renouncing their otherwise ancestral “Hinduised” identity in order to get the Scheduled Tribe status, so that they can bargain well with the Government of India (Tamang and Sitlhou 2018). This phenomenon reasserts the point of the Gorkhas having a dynamic identity. This dynamic shifting identity of the Gorkhas coupled with their debatable origins, often boils down to their contemporary identity assertion, which then spills over to the politico-administrative arrangements imagined for the proposed state, and has wider ramifications for the movement and its resolution.

Territorial Reorganisation

Moreover, if we closely look at R Moktan’s (2004) compendium of documents, it will be clear that most of the areas of this proposed state of Gorkhaland have been subjected to attachments and de-attachments to various kingdoms in the recent historical past. Darjeeling has undergone repeated territorial reorganisation, from being a part of the Kingdom of Sikkim till the 1770s to becoming a part of the Gorkha Kingdom in 1778, until the British forced the Gorkha king to cede his areas to become a part of the British Crown through the Treaty of Titaliya in 1817. Later the British took Darjeeling from Sikkim through a “deed of grant” in 1835 (Subba 1992; Sarkar 2013). Kalimpong also has a similar history. Originally it belonged to Sikkim and Bhutan ruled it from 1706 to 1864 after capturing it from Sikkim, and the British wrested it from Bhutan in the 1865 Treaty of Sinchula (Subba 1985).

Here, it is important to note that, when the Government of West Bengal declared that it would upgrade Kalimpong from a subdivision to a full-fledged district, the GJM chief Bimal Gurung reminded it that Kalimpong was part of a lease from the Kingdom of Bhutan to the Government of India (Ravidas 2016), and asked if a state government could change its status without giving rise to diplomatic implications. The overlapping of geographical and political imaginaries is thereby apparent here. Historically, Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim and this imaginary still haunts the perception of a section of the leadership in the hills. It continues to be one of the mobilising themes for Gorkhaland as well. One such imaginary, a wall poster by the Gorkha Rashtriya Congress3 reads, Singur is not our history, Sikkim is our history. Add it in our syllabus.”

Interestingly enough, we can question the cultural status of the 21-kilometre-long corridor often referred to as the “chicken neck,” the stretch of land that geographically connects India with its North East. Starting from Sikkim in the north-west to Arunachal Pradesh in the extreme east, it constitutes India’s North East, which in its administrative imaginary consists of eight states. Samir Kumar Das (2010: 344), a scholar on the region, states that it

forms the cusp where South Asia becomes less and less South Asia and more like South East Asia. To him, the geographical imagination of the cultural settings of Northeast goes well beyond the political borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh to ultimately form an imagined space called extended Northeast.

While there can be absolutely no doubt about the claim of cultural extension of the North East into South East Asia, doubts arise about the selective amnesia, on the part of the officialdom, regarding the geographical stretch that links the two ends of the official imaginary of North East India. Ironically, the hills of Darjeeling appear to be a part of the cusp that links the two ends of the North East. To any dispassionate observer, the lifestyle, attire, and culture of the hill dwellers in Darjeeling appear to be an extension of the hill areas of the North East, with relation to the plains of West Bengal. This gives rise to another imaginary often observed in the public domain in the hills of Darjeeling.

Language Agitation

It is well established that the identity crisis among the hill dwellers has been the main driving force for the demand of Gorkhaland (Subba 1992; Samanta 2000; Sarkar 2013). To do away with this identity confusion, the Nepali-speaking people (specially the academia, intelligentsia, leaders, etc) from Darjeeling started advocating the importance of Gorkha identity. While doing so, they even tried to bring all the existing ethnic groups (Lepcha, Sherpa, Tamang, etc) of Darjeeling under the Gorkha banner during the post-1920s Nepali Bhasa Andolan (language agitation). The efforts of identity assertion by the hill dwellers were tamed in 1992 by the inclusion of Nepali language into the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (Subba 1992). It is in this context that the ongoing language agitation by the hill people in Darjeeling should be analysed, after the Government of West Bengal’s alleged declaration to teach Bengali compulsorily as one of the languages in the schools, which the leadership in the hills termed as “linguistic imperialism” (Indian Express 2017). It is also to be remembered here that the government has yet to issue an official notification, although the chief minister of West Bengal made such a statement soon after she claimed victory in a civic body in the hills.

At the heart of the debate centred on language, the colonial exclusionary policies, coupled with the intermixing of different people migrating from neighbouring areas, fuelled a strong sense of linguistic nationalism in the hills during the second decade of the 20th century. Subba (1992) notes that the formation of Nepali ethnicity has been a post-1920 phenomenon. Before that, the Limbus, Rai, Mangars, Tamang, etc, maintained their distinct ethno-linguistic identities (Subba 1992: 38). However, S Sarkar (2013) opines that the Lepcha, Sherpa, and Bhutia had their own respective cultural assertions. This sense of strong nationalism is reflected in the figures of the Census of 1961.

Due to the appeal of the intelligentsia and other cultural organisations to push Nepali nationalism hard, they urged different ethnic communities in the hills and surrounding areas to record their mother tongue as Nepali in the census declaration. As a result, the percentage of Nepali-speaking people in Darjeeling, as per the Census of 1961 was recorded as 59.09% of the total population (District Census Handbook 1961 cited in Sarkar 2013: 55). The sudden increase in the Nepali-speaking population of Darjeeling, from 19.98% in 1951 to 59.09% in 1961, was probably due to this nationalistic appeal of the intellectuals and leaders, who mobilised other ethnic groups (Lepcha, Sherpa, Bhutia, Limbus, Rai, Mangars, Tamang, etc) to declare themselves as Nepali speakers (Sarkar 2013) (Table 1).

It was recorded that the percentage of Nepali-speaking people in Darjeeling was only 19.98% in 1951, but this figure was questioned by the intellectuals in the hills. The Darjeeling District Hill Peoples’ Language Implementation Committee had strongly questioned the sudden decrease of Nepali population from 67% in the 1941 Census to 19.98% in 1951 Census (cited in Subba 1992: 94). When Snehamoy Chaklader (1987) attributed the sudden decrease of the Nepali population between 1951 and 1961 to large-scale migration, Subba (1992) asked as to how the figure came down to 19.98% in 1951 from 67% in 1941. Sarkar (2013: 56) suggests that the census report not only talks about the ways in which the state perceives its people, but also the way people perceive themselves.

In this context, Bernard Cohn (1969) highlights that the Indian census, rather than simply doing the task of data collection, imagines a new form of category-identity, which shapes mobility and status politics in postcolonial election struggles in India (cited in Appadurai 1993: 316). Many writers (Kothari 1989a, 1989b; Shah 1989 cited in Appadurai 1993: 315) have shown how the interplay of caste and communitarian politics also shaped the politics of representation in the 20th century. Even the colonial census has a big role to play in the politics of representation (Thapar 1989 cited in Appadurai 1993: 315). It was actually the beginning of a long process whereby the census categories created a sense of linguistic identity in many areas, which included the Darjeeling hills as well.

This continued in the postcolonial period too and, in this regard, the hill dwellers allege that the response of the state seemed to suppress the demand of the movement, that is, to include Nepali as an official language in the hills. This statist imaginary, in other words, reflected the inherited bureaucratic imagination of the postcolonial Indian state for strategic control, as espoused by the colonial state. However, it seems that such an illusion of bureaucratic control was inspired by numbers in the postcolonial scenario as well (Appadurai 1993: 317). In other words, as the production of a category in the censuses is a well-thought-out propaganda of the state, the interpretation of the data so produced is what Michel Foucault (1980) calls the interplay of power on knowledge. The reimaginations of all such historical imaginaries might be an important reason for the sudden outrage of the people in the hills, when they were being “forced” to learn Bengali as one of the three languages, already suffering from a threat perception that “Nepali language is in danger.”

Imagining Self-rule

The political equation in the hills got disturbed after the ruling party (the TMC) in the state secured a thumping victory in Mirik in the West Bengal municipal elections of 2017. The party has also succeeded in making its visibility prominent in the hills by winning some wards in the rest of the civic bodies. This is the first stride for any plains-based party to make inroads into the hill civic bodies, since the establishment of the Ghisingh-headed Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988 (Chhetri 2017c). The TMC felt ambitious about opening its political account in the hills after the party won a student-body election of the hills-based Bijanbari Degree College (Chhetri 2017a). The TMC’s inroads into the hills were possible probably because the hill masses might have thought about a change after the political incumbency of successive politico-administrative formations such as the DGHC and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration was visible enough to attract an alternative.

Soon after that, to realise the dream of acquiring the hills, the TMC expedited its “development” plans to pump the hills with funds. On 30 March 2017, it announced the completion of the cadastral survey for granting land rights to Mirik residents (Chhetri 2017b). The question of land rights has always been an important issue in most of the movements running on ethnic equations and thereby, “identity and land” appears to be a rallying fault line in the ethnic movements of the North East as well (Ray et al 2017). Interestingly, a person from Mirik was quoted saying in a press briefing,

Whether it is in Gorkhaland or in Bengal, the land issue has to be solved. Since the land is not registered in our names, we get nothing. Every land transaction is unofficial. We cannot avail ourselves of house loans or even agriculture loans from government. Even to get an electricity connection, one needs a no-objection certification from the tea garden. (Chhetri 2017b)

If we observe the vote share of the ruling party, we see that it has risen from a meagre 2.4% votes4 in the Darjeeling constituency in the 2006 assembly election to 16.81% in the Darjeeling municipality in 2017 (Table 2). There appears to be an indication of the party’s rationale behind its ambition to imagine its overwhelming dominance in the hills (see Table 2 for vote shares).


The recent response of the state towards this movement has been fundamentally flawed. Even when there was the movement for the recognition of the Nepali language, the state imposed the politics of census enumeration until the language was recognised by the Constitution of India in 1992. Moreover, although Nepali was recognised as an official language of the state in 1961 by the West Bengal Official Language Act, there were only a few universities that offered Nepali as a subject, as Subba (1992) notes. Even in the contemporary times, some stalwart universities in West Bengal—like University of Calcutta, Jadavpur University, and Presidency University—do not offer Nepali as a university subject.

It seems that all the stakeholders associated with the movement are prisoners of their own imaginative geographies and desperately seek to legitimise them. While the central government is in no hurry to deal with the issue urgently, in order to avoid issues associated with the governance of small states, as well as highlighting the geostrategic location of the Darjeeling hills, the establishment in Kolkata swears by the sentiment of a “united” West Bengal, often raising the bogey of Bengal being the victim of continuous partition from the colonial to the post-colonial era. In contrast, the narratives of the pro-Gorkhaland activists often refer to the complex history of the hills, that Darjeeling had never been a part of Bengal/West Bengal. This view also suffers from a lack of clarity regarding the politico-administrative arrangement for the aspired state, that is, a special constitutional arrangement under the Sixth Schedule or a continuation of historical and cultural precedents by merging it with Sikkim. All imaginative geographies suffer from their own cartographic anxieties (Painter 2008), while the hill dwellers remain in a state of perdition.


1 Here, stakeholders mean different ethnic communities within the Gorkha community—Lepcha, Bhutia, Sherpa, etc—apart from Nepali, Bengali and the Government of West Bengal.

2 In the interpretations of Subba (1992) and Kar (2012), there was hardly any detail about the name and origins of the Mohammedan emperor.

3 It has been noticed by one of the authors of this work somewhere on the way from Rohini to Kurseong in his recent visit to Darjeeling.

4 This information is taken from the official website of the West Bengal State Election Commission (2017).


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Updated On : 7th Jun, 2019


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