A Dress Code for the Revolution

From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia

Photo by Mythri Jegathesan.

During the festival season in October 2008, I sat on a sunny patio perched on a ridge just north of Darjeeling’s central plaza, Chowrasta. After another day of celebrations had broken up, I joined a friend’s uncle to drink whiskey and talk politics. He was dressed in a beige daura suruwal. Popularized by Nepal’s Hindu monarch in the nineteenth century, daura suruwal had been recently recast as the “national outfit” of men in Nepal.

Gesturing dramatically to his costume, my friend’s uncle asked, “Do you think this dress will bring revolution?” He took a sip of whiskey and answered his own question. “Of course it’s not going to bring revolution!” To him, the attire looked and felt “foreign” and “awkward.” The majority of the people who live in Darjeeling, a Himalayan district of the Indian state of West Bengal, have ancestral roots in what is now Nepal, but before 2008, the sight of a Darjeeling man in daura suruwal was rare. My friend’s uncle joked that he didn’t know how to tie it or how to manage the copious fabric.

That October, now over twelve years ago, marked the early days of the revived Gorkhaland agitation, a movement to create a separate Indian state composed of the Nepali-dominated area of North Bengal. The agitation began in the 1980s, and it was reinvigorated in 2007 by a new political party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), which framed the struggle for subnational autonomy as a “cultural revolution.” The GJM aimed to undo a collective “identity crisis.” It claimed that Indian Nepalis’ belonging in India as Indians was constantly undermined in both gross and subtle ways, from structural marginalization to racist slurs hurled at them when they traveled to other parts of India.

Unlike the Gorkha political party that previously dominated the agitation, the GJM rejected the notion that the region’s ethnic and tribal groups should be granted affirmative action concessions under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Instead, the GJM vanguard insisted that “Gorkhas” were “one jaati” (one group). As such, Gorkhas would be rendered legible to the center not as a mosaic of tribes, castes, and ethnic groups but as a singular (Hindu) population.

Clothing was a key means of instilling what leaders called “discipline” in this newly imagined public. About a month before that October conversation with my friend’s uncle, the party decreed that during the annual festivals, all men would wear daura suruwal and all women would wear chaubandi choli. Dress codes were enacted alongside new regulations about public behavior including a crackdown on public displays of romantic affection by Gorkha youth.

The body politic(s) of this revived subnationalist movement rode the wave of the Hindu fundamentalist swell of the late 2000s in many ways. Dress was just one of these. But not all of those who believed in the cause of Gorkhaland were on board with this shift. As my friend’s uncle reminded me, at the very same time that the Gorkhaland leaders were mandating that everyone in town wear “Gorkha dress” during the festival season, Nepal’s prime minister was seeking to phase out the official use of the very same attire, which was marked as high-caste Hindu. The ancestors of most Nepalis in Darjeeling, he reminded me, had actually fled eastern Nepal in large part because of mistreatment by the Hindu monarchy. The new dress code prompted another migration. Local newspapers reported that tailors and seamstresses were being recruited from Nepal to Darjeeling because there were not enough people in India who knew how to make the new uniforms of the movement.

“We need talks,” my friend’s uncle said. “A dress code wouldn’t accomplish anything.” This was a sentiment echoed across Darjeeling in hushed whispers. Many felt that the way forward was to work with India’s central government. It was “talks” in New Delhi that would call attention to the long-term underdevelopment of the region at the hands of the state of West Bengal.

But the GJM put primacy on populist symbolism. For GJM leaders, “development” was a word used by the Bengali political elite. Talk of development, infrastructure, or capacity building put one squarely in the opposition. Development and identity politics became mutually exclusive aims. This was underscored when the GJM aligned itself with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The 2009 Lok Sabha elections brought the only BJP parliamentary seat in the state of West Bengal to Darjeeling. That same year, West Bengal also saw the defeat of the long-elected Communist Party of India and the rise of Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress to executive power. On stage, Gorkhaland movement leaders stressed that not only was the BJP supportive of small states but also that it was best positioned to provide Gorkhas with a voice that could stand up to the West Bengal political establishment.

Today, the Gorkhaland movement has largely fractured. The GJM has split into two factions, and multiple parties, including the BJP, now vie for the political support of Indian Nepalis. The Darjeeling hills were once a place where people sought refuge from the oppression of a hard-line Hindu monarchy. For a brief time, this was a place where art, music, and poetry flourished in exile, a place where refugees resettled, a place where debate unfolded in public. Today, the logics of exclusion pervade social life, and residents of the hills are being drawn into globally familiar narratives about “outsiders” taking “our” jobs and land.

Right-wing politics has slowly crept into the region through material and immaterial exclusionary means on the back of subnational demands. The revised vision of solidarity ushered in by the GJM has recast what it means to live on the margins of India. It is in the bodies of the margins that the BJP has had some of its most remarkable successes. The normalizing rhetoric of subnationalism, visible in dress and behavioral codes, has foreclosed what it means to belong in Darjeeling. As these symbolic displays give way to more overt anti-minority sentiment, particularly against Muslims, they illustrate how right-wing majoritarianism and populism in India take hold by attaching themselves to localized struggles for belonging.