Despite the initial excitement for many over Prashant Tamang’s Indian Idol win in September, the unfortunate repercussions of that victory continue to drag out – in court, on the streets, and in the region’s media. On 24 September, the day after the finale on Sony TV following a five-month televised competition, a Delhi-based radio DJ made allegedly racist remarks against ‘Gorkhas’ that subsequently turned Siliguri into a battle zone. Thousands came out onto the streets to show their anger, with the authorities ultimately calling out both the army and the Border Security Force. Over in the Indian capital, the Information Ministry banned the station, Red FM, for one week, and a Darjeeling court eventually issued an arrest warrant for R J Nitin, the DJ. By the middle of November the Supreme Court had gotten involved, staying the arrest until it could hear the case.
Despite this bittersweet experience, when all is said and done it has been heartening to see the Gorkha (or Gurkha) community uniting behind these causes on a nationwide level: first to crown Prashant Tamang the champion, and then going all out against a racial slur in distant Delhi. Nonetheless, these past few months have also been difficult, with feelings of discomfort amongst India’s hill communities being unable to subside very easily. These incidents have not only brought about a resurgence of tension among India’s Nepali/Gorkha populace, but have also further opened up a national debate on the very meaning of the term Gorkha itself.
Red FM certainly cannot take all of the blame. Well before that incident there was the Indian Idol episode in which Prashant was dressed up like a chowkidar to sing the famous song “Hum bolega to bologe ki bolta hai”. This massive hit had originally been sung in the 1974 film Kasauti by the actor Pran, who had likewise dressed up as a chowkidar and had done much to cement in the public’s perception the false conflation of the Gorkha/Nepali and the chowkidar. Neither was Prashant’s performance the first time that such racist slurs have been aired by Sony TV. In February 2007, during the first episode of Comedy ka Baadshah, a performer enacted a parody of the famous song “Suno gaur se duniya waalo”. He sang Hindi words to the effect of, “Listen people, do not lay your eyes on our houses. Because till the time there are gates on our houses, Nepalis will be there to guard them.”
This merging of stereotypes extends well beyond the confines of pop culture in India. Pankaj Mishra, in a review of The Inheritance of Loss, blithely tossed out terms such as “Nepali Gurkha mercenary” while discussing the uprising in the Darjeeling Hills, casually including the last modifier with nary a second thought. In another instance, Suketu Mehta, in his extremely successful book Maximum City, said of a senior police officer in Bombay, after he had rejected an offer to take charge of security for a multinational company, “He won’t be anyone’s Gurkha.” Needless to say, such a denial could easily have been narrated without this comment from the author.
People like Mishra and Mehta are part of a group who profess to belong to an educated, enlightened, casteless society. Yet, they seem to be perfectly happy to further false stereotypes. Such misconceptions are deepened by people such as Sudeshna Sarkar, the IANS correspondent in Kathmandu, who took it upon herself to attempt to link Prashant’s win as a step down the road to a Greater Nepal – referring to the purported hope, following Indian Independence in 1947, that Nepal too would at some point be able to take back some of its wrested lands. It is this type of hack writing that makes the nationality and identity credentials of Indian Nepalis or Indian Gorkhas repeatedly come under the scanner.
Even government documents indicate these misconceptions. The Pune police recently came out with a list of safety guidelines for the public. One of the points was: “All traders of a particular area can collectively appoint a Gurkha or Watchman for night duty.” The same goes for a 2005 notification by the Andhra Pradesh government, which advertised for two temporary “Gurkha-cum-Watchman” posts. Another notification, also by the AP state government, defines one of its pay categories as “Watchman/Chowkidar/Gurkha Chowkidar”. Indeed, it is rather depressing to know that, in the land of Mohandas K Gandhi, community-specific posts remain in the government to this day.
The media is certainly not blameless. Take this 2001 example from the Ludhiana Tribune, which reported the murder of a watchman belonging to the Gorkha community as follows: “The police have succeeded in solving within three days a blind murder case involving the killing of a Gurkha/Chowkidar named Man Bahadur.” This report went on to educate readers that Gurkha is simply another word for a chowkidar. The same goes for Rediff, which interviewed the actress Perizaad Zorabian on the release of her 2003 film: “Joggers’ Park is the most universal film that I have done so far,” she said. “It may appeal to even my gurkha [colloquial for watchman].”
In all of this, it is surprising, somewhat heartening and thoroughly confusing to realise how the West feels about the celebrated Gorkhas. Indeed, there is a statue of a Gurkha soldier, beaming with pristine glory, right in Westminster. In the interests of populist enlightenment, here is what Wikipedia has to say, somewhat ungrammatically, on the subject:
Gurkha, also spelled as Gorkha, are people from Nepal and parts of North India, who take their name from the eighth century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath … The Gurkhas were designated by British officials as a ‘Martial Race’ … a designation created by officials of British India to describe ‘races’ (peoples) that were thought to be naturally warlike and aggressive in battle, and to possess qualities like courage, loyalty, self sufficiency, physical strength, resilience, orderliness, hard working, fighting tenacity and military strategy. The British recruited heavily from these Martial Races for service in the colonial army.
Yes, that is what Gorkha means, at least at base – and there is no reference to chowkidars at all! During the Gorkhaland Movement, however, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front leadership took it upon itself to define Indian Nepalis as Gorkhas. Even during the debate over the Nepali language being officially recognised as a national language in India, there was a vehement rhetorical tussle between the MPs from Darjeeling and Sikkim – Inderjit Khullar and D K Bhandari, respectively – as to whether the language to be included should be known as Nepali or Gorkhali. A slightly exasperated L K Advani, in his support for Nepali, took it upon himself to remind everyone that he was “not fighting for the word, I am fighting for the language.”
This is, perhaps, of some importance. From today’s perspective, when the whole paradigm of nation and nation-building is changing, it is crucial that we are able to hand over a correct set of words and ideas to the next generation. First and foremost, it is the responsibility of the media to be very aware of the language they are using. One wrong step and we could have a host of Nitins, Sudeshna Sarkars and the like – purposefully or otherwise – leading to communal flare-ups.
-- Satyadeep S Chhetri is a lecturer at the Sikkim Government College, Gangtok.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)