Inheriting the Hill Station

What does it mean to make claims to belonging in a place that was built for someone else?

Since 2006, I have been conducting research in Darjeeling, high in the Himalayan foothills of Northeast India. Darjeeling was one of the first and most famous British “hill stations.” The mountain peaks and ridgelines of former British colonies are dotted with hill stations: settlements ranging from laboratory campuses in the East African highlands to moderately sized Indian cities like Darjeeling, Shimla, and Mussoorie. Situated at altitudes between 3500 and 7500 feet, hill stations were built on, or perhaps more accurately carved out of, the vertical edges of empire.

The vast majority of Darjeeling’s residents are Indian Nepali, or “Gorkha,” laborers whose ancestors were recruited from Nepal to clear-cut forests for the district’s railways, tea plantations, and pedestrian promenades. Though British capital has dried up, Gorkhas now find themselves working to maintain the town’s distinct colonial socio-environmental form. Most still depend for their livelihoods on the same industries that once propelled the colonial-era hill station: tourism, timber, and tea. Mountain bungalows, evergreens, and tea estates remain key features of Darjeeling’s landscape. To the thousands of Indian and international tourists who visit Darjeeling each year—not to mention the millions who consume Darjeeling tea every day—these plants, buildings, and other features appear to “belong” in the remote Himalayan foothills.

But belonging in this erstwhile colonial refuge is complicated.

Since the mid-1980s, Nepali political parties in Darjeeling have been agitating for the creation of an Indian state of Gorkhaland, which would comprise the region’s Gorkha majority. The story of Gorkhaland is one of what Donna Haraway calls troubled “inheritance.” Questions about the rights of Gorkhas to territory are bound up with questions about the ecological effects of plantation monoculture and the appropriateness of a sprawling city in the high Himalayan foothills.

Understanding Gorkhas’ claims to belonging requires a historical view of the hill station as a built environment. Unlike the ports designed by previous generations of imperial power, hill stations were spaces of secondary settlement. Hill stations were originally conceived as refuges from the heat and congestion of the plains and ports where colonial officials and their families spent most of their time. European travel writers and doctors saw cool mountain weather as beneficial to the European constitution. The misty foothills, evergreens, and fresh air of hill stations were thought to inhibit disease.

Built for the upper echelons of expatriate colonial society, hill stations quickly became not only sites of recuperation but also the seasonal capitals of imperial administrative centers (e.g. Darjeeling for Kolkata or Shimla for Delhi in India). Social reproduction became a key function in many of them, and boarding schools and sporting clubs popped up alongside seasonal bureaucratic offices. They were also sites of ecological reproduction. Conifers and garden plants were imported and replanted in hopes of bringing hill station landscapes in line with British ideals of a restorative “nature” and a leisurely countryside.

Darjeeling, 1874. Postcard courtesy of James Sinclair.

Darjeeling, 1874. Postcard courtesy of James Sinclair.

These alpine villages, complete with iron fencing, rose gardens, and gingerbread ornamentation, overlooked other landscapes of ecological reproduction. Hill stations became centers of growth for imperial agricultural commodities, mostly tea, rubber, and cinchona (quinine, a malaria preventative, is made from the cinchona tree). As productive (or potentially productive) sites, hill stations were thus birthplaces for applied agricultural science. Darjeeling became the first British plantation zone to successfully cultivate the highly desirable Chinese variety of tea, Camellia sinensis.

In Darjeeling, the new sciences of botanical taxonomy and landscape engineering meshed with that of anthropology. Nepalis, who made up the region’s indentured labor force, were deemed ideal tea plantation laborers. Colonial tea planters imported laborers to pluck, process, and pack tea that would move down the mountain in crates. During the colonial era, capital flowed back up the mountain from ports and offices in Kolkata, if only to maintain bungalows and their rose gardens, and to keep the modest worker housing minimally livable.

In contemporary Darjeeling, however, these flows are out of balance. Gorkha activists’ political arguments for statehood have often taken spatial form. Tea and timber “flow down the mountain,” but revenue never comes back up. Tourists and leisure-seekers still come “up the mountain” to enjoy the cool air and to catch a glimpse of the region’s natural wonders: red pandas, snow leopards, and cascading rivers. But their actions are ultimately extractive as well. Gorkhas rarely benefit from tourist encounters, even though they, too, are among the features of the landscape being consumed.

A billboard in Darjeeling, 2008. (Photo by author.)

A billboard in Darjeeling, 2008. (Photo by author.)

As Darjeeling residents explained to me, a plantation economy still based “down the mountain” in Kolkata is insufficient to support Gorkha livelihoods or maintain a decaying city. Each afternoon on Darjeeling tea plantations, women workers carried tea to huts on access roads, where managers weighed and bundled it into sacks before a tractor or porter carted it down to factories for processing. After that, tea flowed down, yet again, to market centers in the plains.  The trucks that plied these roads always came up empty, but they left full.  Medicines, water, and construction materials, mandated by Indian labor law, rarely came up.

Gorkha claims for a separate, independent state stem from a desire to stop disproportional downhill flows, not only of tea, but also of educated and underemployed youth, and potable water. This spatial vision of justice is encapsulated in the Nepali linguistic dynamic between oraalo (downhill) and ukaalo (uphill). Himalayan scholars have long analyzed the gravitational and capital forces that compel resources and people to “go down”: to work in urban centers in India and beyond in service industries and the military. “Going down” is both a geological, gravitational process and a historical one, framed by a particular postcolonial experience of maintaining a colonial resort built for the extraction of both experiences and materials. “Going downhill,” then, is a process of ruination that stems from the colonial project of hill station development and postcolonial process of neglect. What remains in the wake of downhill erosion and uphill neglect is the debris of plantations, of botanical gardens, of basic infrastructure.

In order to make claims on Darjeeling’s land, Gorkhas must paradoxically make claims to these remains of European leisure. They must make claims to having built them and to being qualified agents of their repair. Hill stations like Darjeeling, then, are examples of what environmental philosopher Val Plumwood calls “shadow places”: places materially and immaterially oriented to the enjoyment and sustenance of others. Shadow places are hard to claim as homelands, as Plumwood explains. In such sites, “[t]he very concept of a singular homeplace or ‘our place’ is problematised by the dissociation and dematerialisation that permeate the global economy and culture.”1

As I observed during my fieldwork, stopping economic and social erosion through general strikes, or bandhs (literally “closures”), was a key tactic in the direct actions of Darjeeling’s main Gorkha separatist party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, or GJMM. Bandhs included not only closures of all businesses, but also the roads and railways that connected Darjeeling to the rest of India. During bandhs, rallies, and frequent month-long “cultural programs,” GJMM politicians promoted performances of Gorkha dance, song, and theater as a way of showing to a wider public the existence of a distinct identity.

Bandhs and cultural performances are common expressions of belonging in Indian subnationalist movements. These activities attest to an overlap between place and identity and reinforce the notion that subnational movements are struggles for land by a particular group of people. Existing scholarship on subnationalism in India has done much to illustrate the multiple meanings of ethnic and indigenous belonging, but land itself has figured less prominently in these analyses. For most Gorkhas I know, however, the salient political struggle was as much with land as it was for land.

For tea workers, Gorkhaland named not only a struggle for autonomy over resources like tea and a means of controlling their flow through territory, but also a struggle with the land underneath tea. Workers were well aware of the problems of plantation monoculture on steep Himalayan foothills.

A Darjeeling tea plantation. (Photo by author.)

A Darjeeling tea plantation. (Photo by author.)

Plantation owners in the early 2000s began intensifying production to meet increasing international demand for Darjeeling tea. Amid this intensification, the oraalo/ukaalo discourse signaled another kind of precarious belonging, one of actual soil, plants, and water. Certainly, Gorkhas knew that they were not indigenous inhabitants of Darjeeling. They also knew that as a settlement built atop a mountain ridge surrounded by miles upon miles of mono-cropped tea fields in a place with a long, heavy monsoon, that land itself was also “going down.” The question was not if land would slide, but when.

Landslides, long a concern of Himalayan political ecology, remain problematic because they are both “natural” features of high-gradient landscapes and traceable threats to already-marginalized people, even as those most vulnerable are often blamed for them. As both ecologically spectacular and ecologically ordinary events, landslides are a form of what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” In Darjeeling, they are the result of simultaneous productive and destructive work: daily tea plucking and long-term deforestation. On plantations, landslides—either realized or imagined in the bending rows of tea—highlight a sense of what Nixon calls “displacement in place”: the condition of “being simultaneously immobilized and moved out of one’s living knowledge as one’s place loses its life-sustaining features.”2 But the landscape’s life-sustaining features, and Darjeeling’s very existence, have long been predicated on the provision of goods and services for places elsewhere—from the colonial metropole to the global market.

Landslides in Darjeeling speak less to the existence—or literal erosion—of a coherent, unified “homeland” than to the perils of inheriting and trying to make claims to a “shadow place,” a place dislocated by the flows of things and ideas about those things and the people and places that produce them. The presence of Gorkhas in this shadow place is marked by ecological instabilities that exist in tandem with precarious senses of Indian citizenship. While “land” is often simply a suffix for national and subnational struggles in the Global South, attention to how land itself plays into such struggles on the vertical edges of empire opens up new environmental contours in ongoing discussions of the politics of belonging.

Sarah Besky is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Natural Resources and Environment and a Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. Beginning in July 2015, she will be Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in 2012. Sarah is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in Darjeeling India (University of California Press, 2014) and is currently working on a new book project on transparency, financialization, and tea auction reform in Northeast India as well as the research described above on long-term landscape change and subnationalism in the Indian Himalayas. Website. Contact.

  1. Val Plumwood, “Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling,” Australian Humanities Review 44 (2008): 139. 

  2. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 19. 

8 Responses

  1. Phillip says:

    Fantastic essay. I have just reviewed Val Plumwood for the electronic journal ‘Plumwood Mountain’, named to honour Val’s memory. It was very interesting to see her work being quoted in this article. The postcolonial enterprise is so important!

    • Sarah Besky says:

      Thank you for reading! I am very much enjoying diving into Val Plumwood’s work for this new project. Her thoughts on belonging, home, and “shadow places” are very thought-provoking and have caused me to think about life in Darjeeling in different ways. I look forward to reading more of the “Plumwood Mountain” online journal. Thank you for the reference. SB

  2. Abriti Moktan says:

    Ma’am very well written essay, informative and philosophical simultaneously.
    But I have one point which I came across in your write up that disturbed me.
    The fact that you have written that Gorkhas are not indigenous people. Well its the truth that most of the communities were migrants but there are few of them who are the natives of the place for instance the Lepchas, etc. I am confident enough to state this because I have recently worked in the History of Gorkhas for my project in the university.

    • Sarah Besky says:

      Thank you for your comment. You are right that the Lepchas are an example of people who have occupied the region since well before the colonial period. I apologize for not elaborating on this point in this short post.

      My research has been predominantly with tea workers in Darjeeling. My conversations with them highlighted what I see as a tension between primordial (or indigenous) senses of belonging and historical senses of belonging.

      When I talked to tea workers, they did not speak about primordial belonging. Rather, their oral traditions emphasized that their ancestors had migrated to Darjeeling from what is now Eastern Nepal. I think this is why I framed my statement in the way that you found disturbing. Tea workers firmly believed that their claims to Darjeeling were rooted in histories of labor. My worry about appealing to indigeneity is that it occludes this history, and that it does not accurately reflect what my respondents on tea plantations told me.

      Thank you again for reading and for allowing me to clarify this point.

  3. sahitya says:

    That was really an amazing post on Darjeeling. Your post just allured me to visit Darjeeling.

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