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Tranquility, Tradition Torn Apart by Gurkhas' Violent Separatist Movement : On India's Famed Tea Plantations, a Battle Is Brewing

November 27, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

DARJEELING, India — The Takvar Estate is the oldest and largest of the great Darjeeling tea plantations. For 134 years, the finest tea in the world has been plucked by hand from its emerald green hillsides.

The sprawling estate in the shadow of majestic Mount Kanchenjunga has survived, practically untouched, the fall of the British Empire, a war with China, the election of a Communist state government and the red rust blight.

However, one day this month, it was a battlefield. Takvar Estate manager S.M. Kambat looked down from the teakwood veranda of his colonial bungalow to see armed combat in the tea fields. Five hundred men from the Gurkhaland National Liberation Front, flashing the curved kukri knives that are the trademark of Gurkha warriors, confronted 200 men from a tea workers union affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Violent Clash

"It was war," Kambat, 41, said. "They had rifles. They had kukris. They had spears. Thank God the police arrived just in time or 20 to 30 people would have died easily."

One man did die after police opened fire on the combatants. Eight tea workers' homes also were destroyed in the melee.

India's famous mountain tea country is one of the last bastions of British colonial traditions; tweed-jacketed planters still gather over gin at the Darjeeling Club to discuss the "first flush" of the tea bush. Now it finds its tranquility and traditions torn by a violent separatist movement.

The movement has disrupted the tea harvest, spread fear among the planters and presented the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with yet another test of its ability to keep India together despite feuding linguistic, religious, tribal and caste forces.

Separate State Sought

Inspired by similar movements in other parts of India, including the Sikh separatist struggle in Punjab, Nepali-speaking residents in the Darjeeling hill districts have demanded a separate state to be called Gurkhaland, after the famous Gurkha soldiers who serve in the British and Indian armies.

Inside Nepal, the term Gurkha --it literally means "protector of cows,"--is used to describe a particular tribe of Nepalese known for their fighting skills. Like the Sikhs, the Gurkhas were identified by the British as a warrior race. Inside India, however, the word has been expanded--probably because of its heroic connotations--to include all persons of Nepalese descent.

The proposed new state of Gurkhaland--it would be India's 24th--would theoretically have a population of about 1.4 million residents in what is now the northern tip of West Bengal state.

'Kukris Are Forever'

Gurkhaland National Liberation Front leader Subash Ghising, 51, is a retired Gurkha trooper in the Indian army who writes romantic novels and poetry. He is a thin, dapper man who speaks in the style of the pulp novels that he writes; for example, "Guns may run out of bullets but kukris are forever."

At a recent interview, he wore a wool plaid jacket and matching vest, jogging shoes and a brightly colored Nepalese topi cap.

Ghising insisted that the proposed Gurkhaland state would remain as part of India. "Our demand," he said, "is for a separate state within the framework of the Indian constitution."

Ghising claimed to represent Indians of Nepalese origin who live mainly in the Himalayan hill country on the Nepal border.

Since a 1950 bilateral treaty, Indians and Nepalese have been able to cross the border and live without few restrictions, although they are not permitted to vote. About six million Nepalese live in India. About the same number of Indians, including many merchants and traders, live in Nepal.

Homeland Stressed

Ghising claims to represent those Nepali-speaking Indians who have spent generations in India, mostly in the eastern Himalayan range area surrounding Darjeeling. His purported constituency includes the 250,000 Nepali-Indians who live on the tea estates. Ghising himself was born on an estate.

He claims that these Indian Nepalese, to whom he applies the term "Gurkhas," will not be fully accepted as Indians until they have a homeland. Their status would be imperiled if relations soured between India and Nepal, he said, noting that during India's 1962 war with China, hundreds of Chinese living in Darjeeling were expelled.

"We are creating a homeland for the sake of our identity. Only the name Gurkhaland can identify us as true citizens of India. Otherwise, at any time, we could be kicked out," Ghising said.

Ghising's movement gained impetus this summer when the government of nearby Meghalaya state expelled several hundred Nepalese who were working in the Jowai Hill coal mines on the grounds that they did not have proper credentials. Then the same workers were expelled from Assam state.

Divided Nation

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