The people of eastern Himalaya are turning ethnic politics to their advantage
Starting in 2009, eggs were declared as contraband items for almost three years by the government of the eastern Himalaya state of Sikkim, India.
Imposed at the height of the avian flu pandemic in 2009, the ban turned many ordinary people into temporary smugglers of poultry items—items sold less than 500 meters away from the official border between Sikkim and the Darjeeling district.
Although the ban was never officially lifted, the administration now permits the entry of eggs into the state. Since then new items have entered the list of contraband goods, such as flavoured betel nut and tobacco-based mouth freshener, which—just like the eggs—continue to be consumed, facilitated by the existence of a different set of rules and an open border between Sikkim and Darjeeling.
The eastern Himalaya is a geographically, ethnically and culturally contiguous area stretching from eastern Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling Hills—the areas that are the focus of this article—and Bhutan to Arunachal Pradesh. Historical and cultural contact within the area prevailed before and after the coming of political borders in the eighteenth century.
Borders were crucial in determining the political history of the region, but just like the contraband eggs, there has always been an uninterrupted exchange of people, ideas and even political trends across them, which is evident through the near simultaneous evocation of ethnic identity as political identity.
The rich cultural history of peoples of the region incorporates a political history, shaped by the ethnic identity of various groups who occupied different positions within the matrix of hierarchy and power under feudal systems like Sikkim’s and east Nepal’s and colonial systems like Darjeeling’s.
The continued persistence of ethnicity in regional politics is best evinced by the contagious wave of revitalisation and politicisation of ethnic identity—or at least the tangible aspects of it—of different ethnic groups subsumed under the larger Nepali category, a trans-border ethnolinguistic group spread across the eastern Himalayan borderland.
The aim of ethnic politics and activism is to create channels to facilitate a better dialogue with the state for increased control or access to public and developmental goods. Demand for a separate homeland for the Gorkhas of India, ethnic federalism in Nepal and recognition as Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Sikkim are dependent on the successful articulation of an exclusive, essentialised notion of ethnic culture which fits around the parameters that have been defined or approved by the state. For instance, most ethnic groups vying to be recognised as ST in Sikkim have to satisfy a long list of state-defined criteria that emphasise non-Hindu religious belief system, socio-economic backwardness and distinctive culture.
In 2008, an ethnic dress code was enforced in Darjeeling for three months with the sole purpose of exhibiting the tangible culture of the Gorkhas to tourists. In eastern Nepal, the Limbu ethnic group’s claim on land and other natural resources is based on their successful cultural reproduction of their indigenous history with strong emphasis on visible, material differences from other ethnic groups.
The prolific success of ethnic politics in the eastern Himalaya has made political actors and elites out of a wide spectrum of ordinary people who previously might not have thought of their actions as political at all
The eastern Himalaya is thus abuzz with the rediscovery, revivalism and modification of ethnic cultures. Working closely with linguists, shamans, ethnic dress designers and other cultural practitioners, ethnic groups across the region are represented by their associations and are heavily invested in creating and reviving ethnic language, script, clothes, festivals, myths, folklore and religious practices as markers of exclusivity.
Ethnic identity is socially constructed, subjective and loaded with connotations of ethnocentrism, which has been considered as detrimental for modern state-building. While traditional political agents like elites, religious heads and members of political parties are still primarily engaged in mobilisation, the prolific success of ethnic politics in the eastern Himalaya has made political actors and elites out of a wide spectrum of ordinary people who previously might not have thought of their actions as political at all.
Practitioners of culture, language instructors and ethnic associations are all engaged in ethnic politics, because their skill set and social capital can now be easily converted to political capital. Teaching an ethnic language, for instance, may not seem to be a directly political act, but linguistic expertise can be utilised to generate the kind of ethnic consciousness that is essential for making collective claims on the state through the ballot box. This has enabled a large section of society to engage in democratic politics, making democracy in the eastern Himalaya more inclusive.
This fusion of a new political system and older, traditional patterns of state–society relations has led to local interpretations of democracy. Inherent in this form of regional democracy is its capacity to politically empower a wide spectrum of people at the local level and act as a mechanism through which socioeconomic grievances can be addressed effectively.
This challenges perceptions of how identity-based politics is used instrumentally to dilute democracy by perpetuating non-democratic forms of participation like patron–client relations and prevention of other forms of mobilisation based on class or gender. On the contrary it promotes inclusivity and a degree of political empowerment to those who have not traditionally been political participants.
In the eastern Himalayas ethnic politics is ‘people’s politics’ because, without the interest and investment of time and skills from people across the social spectrum, these politics would remain isolated among already existing elites and the old political classes. Material benefits might act as an incentive, but there are a large number of people who are active participants despite the lack of tangible gains.
Ethnic politics compels us to recognise politics in places and actions that were not considered as political prior to this cross-border resurgence of identity politics. In the eastern Himalaya it pushes conceptual boundaries of our understandings of how ethnic identity works in tandem with democratic institutions to establish a political system that is representative of the people, their culture and their politics.
Preparing for a dance at a tourism festival in south Sikkim. Photo: Mona Chettri