From the villages to the cities: the battlegrounds for Lepcha protests

Kerry Little

Abstract

Lepchas are the Indigenous people of Sikkim, a small Himalayan state in north-east India. They are known for their deep knowledge of botany and ecology; their close connection to their landscape has been acknowledged and admired for centuries. Their feeling for nature and reluctance to accept change to their sacred landscape, contributed to a protest movement to stop the development of several mega hydro-electric projects inside the Lepcha Dzongu Reserve in North Sikkim.
The Lepcha activists’ battle to stop the hydro projects started in Dzongu villages in 2003 and relocated to the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok in June 2007. Bhutia-Lepcha (BL) House, a worn out building on Tibet Road in Gangtok became the site of their flagship protest, a relay hunger strike which ran for close to two and a half years. The protest also extended to the Lepcha enclave in neighbouring West Bengal and the city of New Delhi where the activists spread their protest narrative to the wider Lepcha community, NGOs and the Indian Central government. In 2008 the Lepcha activists, aware that they needed to re-engage their community, started to shift their campaign back to the villages. This paper analyses the Lepcha protest narrative, contextualising it in terms of cultural heritage and contemporary political economy. It evaluates the protest group’s strategic use of both rural and urban settings to strengthen the impact of their campaign.

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