Friday, October 05, 2007

Song sung blue in Siliguri

Friday October 5, Last Saturday, when Siliguri exploded in violence, it was an event that was waiting to happen. The victory celebration for Indian Idol 3, Prashant Tamang, turned sour, with the Nepalese and non-Nepalese population in the township ending up battling each other. For several hours violence raged. Police jeeps were set on fire, armed bands of youth looted shops, and it seemed imminent that the violence would spread to the hills of Darjeeling along communal lines. Fortunately that did not happen. A curfew was imposed in Siliguri town and the army was called out to defuse the explosive situation.
It would be naïve to read the flare-up as a minor, isolated event. The outburst was an expression of the tensions underlying this multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and highly strategic region, and demonstrated the fragility of its social fabric.
Prashant Tamang had emerged in the course of the popular TV talent show as a great idol for the Nepali community. There have been other icons, too, like footballers Shyam Thapa and Baichung Bhutia or, on a different plane, Subash Ghisingh. This predilection to create heroes - which sometimes translates into mass hysteria - reflects the passionate search for identity of a community that often finds itself on the margins of Indian society.
It is extremely significant to trace the gradual building up of the 'Indian Idol' fever. A vast region, centred around Darjeeling and covering eastern Nepal and Sikkim, had virtually turned into a simmering cauldron over the contest. There were early signals of the shape of things to come. A BSNL office in Darjeeling was vandalised by Tamang supporters, who alleged that the service provider had miserably failed to ensure that the SMS votes polled by them reached the jury in time. When Tamang entered the final phase of the contest, the angst took on multiple dimensions. Tamang became the rallying point for the Nepalese across geographical boundaries and the urban-rural divide.
Ever since the Gorkhaland movement, its propagator Subhash Ghisingh had marked out a fine distinction between those he called the 'Gorkhas' of Darjeeling and the Nepalis of Nepal. The surge for a 'Gorkha' identity saw the emergence of the Gorkhaland movement of the mid-eighties. The 'Indian Idol' contest was probably the single biggest emotive factor that unified the people here after the struggle for Gorkhaland, and it evoked the earlier movement. At the same time, it is interesting to observe that on the Tamang issue, the Nepali-Gorkha distinction disappeared, and the two communities almost forged a single identity comprising Darjeeling-Sikkim-Nepal. This was almost a mirror image of the coalescing of the Khasis, Garos and Jaintias in Meghalaya in favour of the other contestant, Amit Paul. For example, in the final leg, jeep loads of Tamang supporters from Nepal with Nepalese flag fluttering atop their car bonnets would arrive in Darjeeling. They would campaign around the hills, enjoying the generous hospitality of the locals. There were even designated hotels in Darjeeling where they would camp for days together to whip up the 'Idol' frenzy. Tamang fan clubs sprouted in large numbers, many backed by political bigwigs.
In neighbouring Sikkim, Chief Minister Pawan Chamling could hardly ignore the signals as the madness spread to his state. Sikkim's politics is largely under the control of the Nepalese so much so that even in constituencies reserved for ethnic Bhutias and Lepchas, almost 70 per cent of the electorate is Nepalese and even Bhutia or Lepcha nominees have to depend on the support of the Nepalese to win the polls.
Another aspect of the 'Indian Idol' contest was that it was on a popularity rating through SMS votes. This is where the muscle flexing came in. The Tamang fan clubs that sprouted all over the hills were patronised by a businessmen-contractors combine. Funds were raised to buy cell phone recharge cards and volunteers were recruited whose sole job was to ensure maximum polling. According to one estimate, Tamang is said to have polled over 10 crore votes over the entire selection process. Its total cost would be over Rs 30 crore if each SMS is calculated at Rs 3.
Such an expensive campaign invariably had its pitfalls. There were allegations of extortion and high-handedness. Vehicles plying from Siliguri to Darjeeling and Sikkim had to pay for cell phone re-charge cards. The local business community saw it as a business opportunity and "donated" generously. In the process, the Nepalese-non Nepalese divide got deepened and took an extremely ugly turn in Siliguri - testifying to the region's rapidly changing demography.
The only reprieve was that the local administration acted fast and contained a possible backlash in the hills. But the inherent, latent hostility continues to remain in the region.