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When Indian Idol Prashant Tamang was called a chowkidar & Darjeeling erupted

In No Path in Darjeeling is Straight, Parimal Bhattacharya revisits Darjeeling of the 90s. In this excerpt, he explains how Prashant Tamang, a constable from Kolkata, became a youth icon in the hills of Sikkim and Darjeeling and why a crass joke directed at Tamang led to outrage in the region.

books Updated: Aug 25, 2017 08:44 IST
Prashant Tamang,Indian Idol,Gorkhas

Subash Ghisingh had called the hill people to exhibit their tribal identities before the world by organizing stoneworship and hooch-drinking sessions as well as shaman dances. In the summer of 2007, the youth of the Darjeeling hills woke up to the call as a tribe, but in a manner contrary to anything Ghisingh could have imagined. The totem of this tribe was no vermilion-marked stone or animal figure, it was a young man named Prashant Tamang, a constable working with the Kolkata Police. Their rituals, too, didn’t have drums, skulls or fire dances; rather, it involved satellite telecast, MP3 technology, broadband internet and mobile networks. The uprising was triggered by the competition programme Indian Idol, loosely based on the British programme Pop Idol, on a national television channel. For weeks, men and women in the Darjeeling hills and neighbouring Sikkim—indeed all over Northeast India—voted for the contestant Prashant Tamang through SMS and got him to win the title.

This created a history of sorts. Here was an unknown Gorkha boy suddenly becoming a household name across the country, not with the aid of a gun or a bomb, nor for military pluck or menial fealty, but for singing popular songs from Hindi movies. He garnered the overwhelming support of the hill people.

There was a growing consumer market across this hill region. But, except for footballer Bhaichung Bhutia, there was no popular local face that could be used in advertisements, one with whom the hill youth could identify. In Prashant Tamang the market found that new face, it found a new icon.

Prashant Tamang (YouTube screengrab)

But with the invention of an icon, a fascinating movement was set off in the hills. In one of the episodes of the programme, when Prashant was made to dress up like and mimic a Gorkha chowkidar in a Hindi film and sing the song, it sparked outrage in the hills. His supporters felt humiliated and came out on the streets to protest against the mindset, popular in North Indian cities, where a Gorkha and a watchman are interchangeable. The morning after he won the title, a presenter in a New Delhi FM radio channel cracked an offhand joke that since a Gorkha had become the Indian idol, cases of burglary would rise in the city. The comment set off a mob of frenzied hill youth rampaging the streets of Siliguri. The army had to be called out.

The plains of West Bengal were then caught in a spiral of political violence. Many lives had been lost in the western district of Jungle Mahals and Nandigram. But the army was never needed there.

The army was called out again a few months later that year, on 21 November, in the heart of Kolkata. On that day a group of young protesters from the local Urdu-speaking Muslim community suddenly became frenzied and rampaged through the streets and torched vehicles in the Ripon Street-Park Circus area; they were demanding the deportation of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. Nobody had been attacked or injured, though. It seemed the then state administration resorted to this distress alarm when they were clueless about their perceived adversary, when they felt they were dealing with the proverbial Other. That Other could inhabit the hilly margin of the state, or a pocket inside the state capital.

A large number of men of Gorkha or Nepali origin work as chowkidars in different parts of India. This is as plain a fact as the large number of Sikhs who could be seen driving taxis and trucks a couple of decades ago. Countless films, advertisements and jokes harped on this stereotype. But did this ever anger the Sikhs? The Hindi movie Padosan, of timeless popular appeal, spins out a triangular love story involving a chic urban girl, a North Indian yokel and a clownish Tamil Brahmin. Did it spark off a civil war? Then why would the people of Darjeeling hills flare up in anger if a Gorkha is jokingly called chowkidar?

The distance by road between Kolkata and Darjeeling is 623 kilometres. The distance, in terms of the mind, is 623 light-years. Nobody made an effort to find out what had happened in the hills, and why. Nobody gave a thought to the fact that a young urban generation was emerging in the hill towns of the Darjeeling district. It was raring to break out of the stifling, century-old stereotype of a happy-go-lucky community and join the country’s mainstream. A section of them were well-off, educated and conscious of their rights. They wanted to set sail upon the high tide of globalization which was then flooding all corners of urban life. They were adept at the language of the internet, of blogs and chats. Averse to the grime of party politics, a group in Darjeeling had set up a cultural organization named Darjeeling Initiative. It organized an annual programme, the Darjeeling Carnival, at Chowrasta. The week-long programme drew not only the youth of the Darjeeling hills, but even those living in other parts of the country. Some of them worked in BPOs and call centres in Gurgaon, Hyderabad or Bangalore, but were in close contact with their home in the hills. The aspiration of this new social group shaped up as the contest for the title of Indian Idol went on air, where a Darjeeling-kochora was winning the hearts of viewers across the country by singing songs that were truly pan-Indian—songs from popular Hindi movies.

The vehicle of aspiration was ready, it just needed someone bold and brash to slip behind the steering wheel. Bimal Gurung, a forty-something former taxi-driver and a dissident municipal councillor from Ghisingh’s party, chipped in. He revved up the engine by setting up Prashant Tamang fan clubs and raising subscriptions to open roadside phone kiosks so that the local youth could vote for their idol in the thousands by sending SMSes. The fever had caught on. Now he steered the vehicle on a collision course against his former mentor Subash Ghisingh. Destination: Gorkhaland.

The Latin origin of the word destination is destinatio, which means appointment. Between 1906 and 1986, an appointment was sought, and failed, twenty-five times. The Hillmen’s Association and, since 1943, the All Bengal Gorkha League had been the most persistent. Even the Communist Party of India had wanted, in 1947, a separate state named Gorkhastan to be carved out of Sikkim, Nepal (both sovereign states then) and joined with the Darjeeling hills.

So this vehicle of aspiration was an old one, older than the vintage Land Rovers of Darjeeling, but, like them, surprisingly sturdy and roadworthy. It began to trundle on again along the twisting, precipitous path of a political agitation. A motley crowd was riding it, including students, women, hunger strikers carrying portraits of Mahatma Gandhi, and also a scattering of mischief-mongers—as always happens in the public transport of a mass movement. Blowing the horn and raising dust, the vehicle of youthful aspiration danced along bumpy hill paths.

No path in Darjeeling is straight, and sometimes it veered towards vertiginous khuds. However, an incredible journey had begun that continued through the long winter months. The bandhs, hunger strikes and daily protest marches gave way to novel forms of defiance, like people keeping themselves indoors in a self-imposed curfiew. However, by spring of the following year, 2008, it became apparent that the movement was leading to another labyrinth. The destination had eluded everyone again, the appointment had failed.

No Path in Darjeeling is Straight: Memories of a Hill Town
By Parimal Bhattacharya
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 194
Price: Rs 450

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 08:44 IST