Monday, April 22, 2024

A young star has risen in the East: And biggies are upset

Ajoy Edwards amidst his supporters

Bholey bhaaley lalua khayega roti baasi Baraa hokey banega saheb ka chaprasi.

(Gullible boy, eat stale bread; grow up to be a peon of the master (read white tea planter)

Ajoy Edwards, Darjeeling’s freshest political face, does not like the lyrics of this song from Sagina Mahato, the 1970 Bengali film starring Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu that was based on the labour movement in the tea estates of the northeast, because it conveys a wrong message to his people.

Edwards is in the land of the world’s finest tea. He calls Darjeeling India’s answer to California’s Napa Valley, which claims to be home to the world’s finest vineyards. He says his men are no longer lowly tea garden workers. They command respect and demand equality. The people of Darjeeling, says Edwards, have been neglected and humiliated for long. Not anymore.

The young politician, whose Hamro Party swept the local municipal elections in March, wants to transform Darjeeling into a romantic Himalayan resort where flowers grow everywhere and bells peal at dawn at the Buddhist monasteries in the area.

The Hamro Party won 18 of the total 32 seats despite not even pitching for a separate Gorkhaland state (though Edwards says that is the eventual aim to be achieved through peaceful means), and drubbed established political parties like the Trinamool-backed Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and the BJP-backed Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).

“I want to see this change, I want Darjeeling to remain Darjeeling but change. I do not want to turn my town into London or Paris. I want respect for my people,” says Edwards, who owns Darjeeling’s most fashionable and oldest eatery, Glenary’s. He says he knows how to care. His employees do not retire, they get their salaries even after they stop working.

Edwards, who constantly checks messages and mails on his Apple Watch and monitors activity at his restaurant and bakery, says Darjeeling’s plantations produce the most expensive tea in the world but the producers are scattered, reducing their bargaining power. But he is quick to add, “Tea is just one of my concerns. We need to push development everywhere. Otherwise, we will not grow. We need hospitals, schools, colleges, and we need to break this rigid social hierarchy.”

Darjeeling produces only 2 percent of India’s tea, most of which goes abroad. Planters complain that five times as much fake Darjeeling is sold worldwide as the real thing. Very little top-grade Darjeeling tea is available in India because of its cost.

Most of the tea workers are Gorkhas, a minority in West Bengal, of which Darjeeling and its surrounding district are a part. Edwards says Gorkhas have long complained that they are denied good jobs and treated like second-class citizens. He says this needs to change. “I can understand how the Gorkhas feel. I want them to make some decent money,” says Edwards. He knows many workers in tea gardens who just keep drinking country liquor to take their minds off their misery.

Edwards sounds like the mayor of Darjeeling. He knows it is not an easy task to change the hardscrabble existence that living in the hills entails.

In Kalimpong, about 50 km east of Darjeeling town, hundreds of Hamro Party workers march through the streets. “He is our new hope, he is always thinking about the people of Darjeeling,” says Swaraj Thapa, a 25-year-old engineer whose parents worked for over four decades in a tea garden in Kurseong, some 30 km from Darjeeling.

Edwards says he does not want to be called the new Subhas Ghising, the former army officer and pulp novelist who triggered a failed separatist movement in Darjeeling.

Edwards, who once was with the GNLF, says his idea of Gorkhaland is different, and that it will happen through effective changes in the Indian Constitution. “We have seen what the GNLF has done to Darjeeling. We will follow the Constitution and make changes.”

Edwards has many admirers, including among some of his rivals. That should stand him in good stead, given that there is a big election coming up for the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) on June 26, a semiautonomous council for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal. The GTA was formed in 2012 to replace the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which in turn was formed in 1988 during the tumultuous days of violence in the hills. The DGHC administered the Darjeeling hills for 23 years.

(GTA are said to be anti-Gurkha by the diehard Gorkhaland protagonists.)

“And we are back to square one. Now, we will sweep the polls,” says Edwards. He says his confidence and success did not come overnight. He travelled for long hours all over Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and also Mirik and some parts of Siliguri to see the condition of the people. He took notes and came back to compile it like a film director.

“And then I took the plunge, formed the Hamro Party. It stands for Our Party. We will change Darjeeling,” says Edwards.

He says the tea industry is over 150 years old and life has never been smooth for those linked to it. He was told about the political turmoil when the Communists galvanised the tea workers to unionise. Edwards remembers everything, the excessive rains flooding the hills, drought, the red spider blight and falling tea prices.

He also heard the very painful story of the 1981 murder of Geoffery Johnston, one of the last of the British planters, by his workers in Kurseong. The headstone on Johnston’s grave at North Point Cemetery in Darjeeling reads:

Born: 22 March 1929

Murdered: 28 April 1981

Beloved by so many

Betrayed by so few

His like will not be seen again.

Edwards repeatedly talks of Gorkha pride, and says the region gets short shrift when it comes to having a voice in the state legislature. He says tea from Darjeeling ends up in the cup of the queen of England, the emperor of Japan. “And what does Darjeeling get, one of the worst representations in the West Bengal assembly? There are just two legislators in Darjeeling and Kurseong, two in Siliguri and one in Naxalbari. Darjeeling BJP MP Raju Bista is from Assam.”

Edwards makes sense.

“Darjeeling should not be hidden by the mist that wraps around the hills. It should rise and rise faster, and get its due,” says Edwards. He also wants the metaphorical mists of time that shroud people’s livelihoods to clear. He says tea pluckers have lived in plantations for generations with little hope for advancement. Many feel that the Rs 450 a day they earn is very low, that manual labour in the towns will get them over Rs 700. So why waste time in tea gardens, is the thinking. This could be a blow to the tea industry and hurt the region in the long run.

Edwards routinely meets thousands of poor and illiterate labourers in the tea gardens and tells them to remain straightforward and happy-go-lucky. He knows a lot about the lives of the workers and works closely with them. “My people are simple and innocent.”

But there is a growing element of complexity. Once, the typical problems related to domestic disputes. Now, young people demand better education, better jobs. So there’s tea that merits priority, and then there are these issues of education and jobs, and also environment.

“Someone must think about my people, so why not us? The Hamro Party does not want the rulers of Darjeeling to live in a glass house. They must step out and work for the welfare of the people. That will not happen, hence the Hamro Party has emerged. Darjeeling was beautiful, we had an exciting life but the politicians have made it depressing. This needs to stop.”

Edwards says he has campaigned on basic things like tea, jobs, healthcare, tourism, drinking water and education. “I see development in Sikkim, I see prosperity. Gorkhaland can never be denied. It is our long-term vision but it has to be achieved as per constitutional norms. Strikes and violence have wrecked the hills. I stayed away from Darjeeling for seven long years after the rise of Bimal Gurung’s party (GJM). I returned to the hills in 2014.”

According to residents in Darjeeling, Edwards’ social work is behind his and his party’s popularity in the hill region. Hamro Party has constructed over 140 roads in villages in and around Darjeeling district, and during the pandemic, Hamro Party organised over 100 oxygen generators.

Edwards on his part says politics is the highest form of social work. He wants to break the monotony of sadness in the hills, home to the storied tea bushes of Darjeeling.

Close to Glenary’s, prayer flags of a Buddhist monastery flutter in the Himalayan breeze. It is time for Edwards to set out once again, travelling across the hills, through Darjeeling’s hundreds of hectares of wilderness.

His path is mapped out. He wants a new Darjeeling to emerge. It is in his thinking like the Free Tibet tag that is a state of mind for the world. Edwards wants to scale up his fight and love for Darjeeling to match the appeal of the Dalai Lama. He knows it is like propagating a new life in the hills. What would the sticker be? It could be My Darjeeling, My Pride or Love Darjeeling. 

It was in 1848, a British botanist smuggled live tea bushes out of China to plant in the foothills of the Himalayas. It helped the British East India Company take charge of a new tea industry. Now, 174 years later, Edwards wants to drop the colonial-era baggage, be the next game changer and help Darjeeling regain its pride of place in the world tea market.

Shantanu Guha Ray is a Wharton-trained journalist and award-winning author. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two pets.  He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.)

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