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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

Recasting Tradition: Dress, Difference and Dissent in Darjeeling Hills

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Swatahsiddha Sarkar


As a non-verbal mode of communication clothing often represents the cultural identity and cultural value premises of a group living in any society. Within its space biased and time biased limits of operation the clothing pattern is capable enough to negotiate between the distinctiveness of a cultural self, expressions of group conformity and individual status, and the malleability of individual taste and sense of aesthetics all at once. Furthermore, a specific dress code may be indicative of ethnic distinctiveness, or may appear as a significant diacritical sign to dispose of differences or even to regurgitate the sense of belongingness to a community. Thus within the realm of politics, which contains myriad sites of inter-ethnic confrontations, the salience of clothing pattern may be well appreciated. This is what has happened in the Darjeeling hills in the recent past, when the present-day local leadership under the banner of Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM) declared its mandate regarding the com-pulsory maintenance of the traditional Nepali costume (for example, Doura Surwal for men and Choubandi Choli for women) by the hill people as a form of political action that would show off the ‘cultural difference’ of the Gorkhas to a larger audience (that is, the tourists who, it was hoped, would remain present in the supposedly peak tourist season) between October 7 and November 7, 2008. Since the declaration was made public in early September 2008 it created a hue and cry among the masses as the decree attempted to recast tradition for reaffirming cultural differences and thereby add a new vitality within the renewed call for the Gorkhaland movement. The present endeavour is just a preliminary attempt to unravel the relationship between dress, difference, and dissent as experienced in the past and present social processes in the Darjeeling hills.

The social history of the Darjeeling hills provides ample opportunity to pinpoint how the forms of articulating a particular clothing have been used as a symbol of cultural identity in the socio-political landscape of the area. Thus, one may look at the varying contexts in which clothing has played a communicative role to convey the message of cultural distinctiveness in the Darjeeling hills. The point is that movements which last long have to innovate newer issues for mobilisation and on this ground Bimal Gurung’s recent diktat of the traditional dress code would certainly add a new feather in the supposedly “Gandhibadi” cap worn by the GJMM supremo since October last year to unleash the protracted agitation of the Indian Neplais/Gorkhas settled in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal for a separate homeland (called Gorkhaland) within the Indian Union. But if one becomes a little more introspective regarding the issue, a number of analytical questions would crop up for review as an obvious outcome of the proposed cultural ‘invention’.

Cultural invention or for that matter the imagination of a community on the cultural plane ( in which dress code could be one element among many) is a path of nation-making that emerged out of the experience of modernity. If the whole issue is assessed on the pretext of the cultural framework of inventing a nationhood (as outlined by scholars like Hobsbawm, Anderson among others) then it may be well argued that the historical process of developing nationhood among the Indian Nepalis/Gorkhas settled in the Darjeeling hills has been an early twentieth century affair which was made possible through linguistic unification of the diverse hill communities having varied ethnic backgrounds (incorporating Mongoloid and Indo-Aryan races into one fold called Nepali/Gorkha, possibly by deconstructing the traditional caste Hindu Nepali identity). The deconstructed image of the Nepali nation in the Darjeeling hills (as opposed to its formation in Nepal) perhaps elevated the hill society from a ‘closed social system’ to a open-liberal one in which the system of caste and its very many manifestations (like endogamy, commensality, hereditary occupation, food habits etc.) gradually waned with the onslaught of modernity. It would be no exaggeration then to argue that the general social processes of the 19th and 20th century Darjeeling hills had represented the surge of Western modernity at every walk of life, which looked down upon a ‘traditional Nepali’ but overwhelmingly showed up English education, British style of life, and modern (white-collar) occupational pursuits as those resources which facilitate one to attain the positions of social and economic acclaim. The political elites of that period of time (like S. W. Ladenla, Rup Narayan Sinha, and Deo Prakash Rai to name a few), who had been the harbingers of today’s Gorkhaland movement, were all products of the above mentioned processes.


It needs to be remembered that the emergence of the Gorkha identity in the Darjeeling hills had been entirely a modern phenomenon that delinked all its relationships with the traditional dress pattern and embraced the Western prototype of the same for obvious ideological reasons ever since the middle of the nineteenth century. The colonial experience of the relationship between the Gorkha identity and dress pattern may be gauged by arguing that initially the Western apparel had mirrored, if not mimicked, within the ‘Gorkha self’ which in later days received the image of a ‘disciplined dress code’. During Ghising’s time the delinking was far more prominent. Ghising himself had denied the Sixth Schedule status for the Darjeeling hills during the time of the settlement in 1988 and self-assuredly announced before the media: “Am I looking like a tribe? Look at me; I am wearing a three-piece suit, tie and shoes. Why should I accept Sixth Schedule status since it is meant for the tribes?” Although Ghising had sported Western costume throughout his political career, he at all times kept the typical Nepali cap as the modicum of Nepali tradition. Thus under Ghising’s tutelage Western dress pattern among the common masses had a communicating message of being modern and the archetypical Nepali cap epitomised the cause of tradition within the heavy load of Western modernity exemplified by the society at large.

It is interesting to note that, while the earlier indigenous political elites had disfavoured the cause of traditional attire, which they could have well maintained, and took on the Western dress code as their own, the present-day leadership, after century-long exposure to modernity, is setting out on the path towards traditionalism. It is no less important to note that neither Bimal Gurung (the GJMM chief) nor even his associates within the GJMM have ever maintained the traditional dress code prior to the release of the diktat meant for the masses. And even today, except in public spaces, they still decline to comply with their own decree. Apparel, in the present instance, thus appears as the ‘dominating cloth’ that attempts to re-establish political hegemony (that might be at stake) under the gamut of ‘tradition’. This is also revealed in the very act of blackening the faces of those who did not maintain the traditional dress code in the recent past. The present mode of agitation, while recasting tradition, has stymied the entire public life in general and infringed on individual freedom, and the essence of Western modernity in particular.

Earlier the tourists (for whom the entire process was supposed to be designed), while roaming in and around the Mall or at certain pockets of the Zoo or Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) or at Gangamaya Park or even at Batasia Loop in Darjeeling, had seen the traditional garments hung by some local people (dressed in Western style, of course) more in the form of a ‘museum culture’. Tourists used to wear those traditional dresses mainly for taking photographs that had a sustainable message of ‘difference’ which the plainsmen used to bring back with them and the photographs (in which a typically posed non-hill man mimicked a hill man by wearing doura surwal, the Nepali cap and a khukri in his waist) has indeed had a lingering effect of ‘difference’. It also needs to be mentioned that ‘difference’ is not merely a diacritical sign nor does it lie only in the eyes of the beholder; rather it hardly conveys any meaning unless one brings into consideration the perceptions of the ‘other’ regarding the metaphor called ‘difference’. Hence, the present innovation of dress code hardly reasserts the notion of ‘difference’ which the tourists had already kept in their mindset even knowing fully well that the hill people, in general, have a long-standing craving for Western fashion not only in dress pattern but also in hair style, piercing and tattooing the body. What would the GJMM do when a hill guy wears the traditional garments along with the ear-rings, pony-tails, tattooed body, Nike shoes, latest sun-glasses and heavy duty motor-bikes? Will this carry the message of ‘difference’? Can it be labelled as the recasting of tradition in anyway?

In fact, social change is a ubiquitous process that goes on spontaneously and forced cultural innovations (like in the present case under consideration) may create social change but what is worth assessing is their possible consequence for the society at large. There are good reasons to believe that the entire hill folk have acceded to the proposed edict regarding dress code without any hum and haw. Far more tension and anxiety would have become unavoidable if such a proclamation of Nepali dress code had appeared as mandatory especially for the Lepchas, Bhutias, or any other non-Nepali hill men/women merely on the pretext that ‘bhasa le ek bhaye pachi besbhusale pani ek ho’ (after linguistic unification dress code also needed to be unified). Perhaps the apprehension of such a possibility led Bimal Gurung to have second thoughts and make a public declaration instantaneously (on September 10, 2008) that non-Nepali speaking communities like Bengalis, Biharis, or Marwaris were freed from the aforementioned stricture of dress code. Again, by another announcement the Bhutias and the Lepchas, who had their own scripts, languages, religiosities, and traditional clothing patterns, were also exempted and all communities living in the hills were appealed to put on their respective traditional outfits during the above mentioned period. All said and done, the decree of traditional attire which appeared more as ‘dominating cloth’ has generated mixed public response. In most cases traditional dress was worn by the people whenever they remained outside their private space and such was course of action has represented, in the true sense, an ‘indoctrinated selfhood’ of the Gorkhas.

One must note that ever since the declaration regarding the dress code was made public, the GJMM leadership had taken pains to make the proposed ‘programme of action’ a success. And for that purpose they had either hired the tailoring communities from Nepal or imported the traditional clothes from Nepal and Sikkim, since the tailoring community in the Darjeeling hills (more often than not represented by Muslims and not by the Damais, the traditional Nepali tailoring caste) hardly possesses the knowhow to sew the traditional Nepali costume. The present traditionalism is thus merely an eye- wash to enliven the project of political one-upmanship in the name of the Statehood movement. It needs to be also remembered that the Nepalis of the Darjeeling hills and elsewhere in India or even in Nepal had time and again decried the Bhutan Government’s policy of imposing the traditional Bhutanese dress code as mandatory on all its citizens (including the Nepalis too) as an act of encroachment on the human rights of the Nepalis settled over there. One sincerely hopes the Gorkha ethnicity in the Darjeeling hills would not turn out to be hypocritical!

The author is a Lecturer in Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling.

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