Reading some recent press reports, there’s a blockade in Darjeeling that might well affect the tea business.
The guys behind it are Gorkhas, which is sometimes transliterated as Gurkhas.
So, if the word seems familiar, it’s because Gurkha regiments have been part of the British Army for a long time.
An indigenous people of Nepali descent, they engaged in a big battle with the British East India Company that went for a couple of years from 1814. The company was impressed by how hard they fought, and as part of the peace treaty, it was agreed that their citizens could be recruited as soldiers for the Company’s Army.
It seems odd that a company should have an army to us these days, it’s one method of doing business that has fallen out of favour in recent centuries. Probably for the best.
So, the Gorkhas formed regiments in their own right, which later transferred out of the Company and to the British Viceroy, and when India attained Independence, the regiments were split between the Indian and British Armies.
These days, the usual usage is Gorkhas for the people and Gurkhas for the regiments, which do include various people for areas other than traditional Gorkha homelands these days
Now, there is some criticism of these regiments being mercenaries, and indeed it’s somewhat fair, but they have the same special dispensation as the French Foreign Legion. Given that they are not forced to speak French, it’s clearly more humane for a start.
The current government in Nepal is Maoist. They have forbidden their citizens to become British Soldiers (or Indian ones, at that) and so this tradition may well die out.
Things are changing in Gorkaland, which doesn’t actually exist, but not for lack of trying. Basically, it’s an area of Darjeeling and Dooars that has many Gorkhas, and they’d like their own state. They’ve asked the Indian Government to carve them off a bit of land, which is prime tea growing land.
It’s not the only case of this in India. For starters, there’s the proposed state of Kamtapur, centered around Siliguri. More or less the same area. In fact, there are 29 proposed new states in India, including Dimarji and Bodoland which are in the Assam Tea growing regions. Personally, I’m never wanting to ask for a nice malty Bodo.
But back to the Gorkhas, and the blockade I mentioned in the first sentence. Basically: nothing in, nothing out.
Tea is exempt.
“YES!” You cry! Statehood be damned, where”s my cuppa!”
The problem is that tea plantations do not exist in isolation. They need food for the workers. They need fuel. They need medical supplies.
Thing got quite grim there, and then the freedom movement, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) decided to lift the blockade for a few days to celebrate a national holiday. Even political activists need some downtime, right?
The region does have some administrative autonomy, bought about via somewhat violent struggles during the 1980s. At this point, both sides of this argument seem to be a long way apart. There have been arrests as the Government fights back.
Ignoring the right and wrong for a moment, and just thinking about how much Darjeeling Tea is beloved, it’s tempting to suggest that sending in paratroopers to collect tea and blast their way out is an obvious solution. (It would make a good movie, and I’d just like to mention to any Hollywood types reading that I have a script under development and please call my agent. You don’t want to be famous as the person who passed up on the chance to make “Tea Force One”).
The fact is, the net effect of this long term is that nearby, unaffected areas will sell more tea. Unless there is a sudden resolution; rather than a revolution, there will be a few wealthy tea plantation owners going broke, and a whole lot of workers out of work.
Mostly Gorkha workers.
So what’s in my cup? Is it the taste of Gorkha Freedom, or is it being dragged down by self-interested political troublemakers? Is it the honest toil and efforts of plantation owners, or the result of exploitation?
The simple truth is that hardly anyone really knows, and of all the Darjeeling drinkers, a pathetically small proportion even care.