Contested Imaginations of Darjeeling – Gorkhaland as an “Alternative Geography”

Miriam Bishokarma, University of Zürich

Since its independence the Indian nation state has been in a process of reorganizing its internal administrative boundaries. This so-called state-reorganization process is often described as an expression of the inherent tensions between a pan-Indian ideal on the one hand, and demands of ethnic and regional groups for more autonomy, on the other. Research on these ethno-regional movements has so far mainly focused on the role of ethnicity, identity, and developmental demands within these movements. Yet, space and territorial aspects and demands or these movements were neglected. By viewing these ethno-regional movements basically as expressions of contestations about and in space, I aim to identify the conflicting imaginations of borders, boundaries and affiliations of the claimed territories, including contested ideas about the functions that these areas attain for different groups and actors. These imaginations are part of an attempt to establish an alternative geography of the claimed territory.

Such a contested space is the region of Darjeeling and its adjoining areas of Dooars and Terai in northern West Bengal, where the so called “Gorkhas” are struggling for a separate state of “Gorkhaland”. The struggle over territory does thereby also reflect a struggle over political spaces of participation, and over spaces of identity and re-cognition as Indian citizens.

An important aspect of these contested spaces are geographical imaginations, referring to normative constructions, inventions and representations of geographical space beyond a physical territory.

In my presentation I want to elucidate how various actors construct these imaginative geographies of Darjeeling, Dooars, and Terai in order to legitimize their claims on the territory. These imaginations can be strategic, and are often deeply rooted in selective accounts of Darjeeling’s history, present, and future. The antagonists include i.e. various parties demanding Gorkhaland, also nationalist outfits in Nepal, claiming Darjeeling as part of Greater Nepal, Adivasis, claiming 6th schedule status for the region, and the state. Their imaginations are not only used as frames to legitimize demands, and to mobilize political support, but also create a kind of Utopia, an invented space that is yet to become reality.

This space-related perspective focusing on geographical imaginations enhances the understanding of ethno-regionalism in India.