Stories of the Lepcha : narratives from a contested land

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In this thesis I explore the impact of modernity on the Lepchas, the Indigenous people of Sikkim, a small state in India’s eastern Himalayan region. My focus is on youth from the Lepcha reserve Dzongú, in particular a group of Lepcha protestors, from Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) who opposed the development of mega hydroelectric dams on their land. I wanted to learn how Lepcha youth absorbed education, global media, technology and global popular culture influences while participating in their culture. At the time I entered the world of Lepcha youth from Dzongú they had been at the tipping point of shifting away from their culture, but were disrupted by a crisis (the dams) that returned them there. I asked: Does their transition to modernity have to be a transition away from their culture? The answer to this question from the Lepcha youth activists was no. However, without the threat of the dams, which were the catalyst for their protest, and their re-engagement with and reframing of Lepcha culture, it may easily have been yes. To understand how the Lepchas navigate the changes brought to their society due to globalisation I have recorded Lepcha narratives from the past and the present and, through the lens of the young activists and their protest, (which included a long hunger strike) I examine the role of narrative and place in strengthening Lepchas’ connection to their identity. I have endeavoured to explore the young Lepchas’ political and cultural awakening under the light of several fields of scholarship that explore identity, space, place and connections between each of these; and, through the friendships I made during my research period. As this is a non-traditional PhD I have asked and answered the questions in this thesis through the fragments of my traveller’s narrative and also, most significantly, in the Lepchas’ own stories related here.
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