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A small Indian Himalayan tribe forgotten by the world’s largest democracy

March 5, 2024 10:22 am

Jiten Toto, with his bamboo stick, outside his house in Totopara, a tiny hamlet nestled in the lower Himalayas of West Bengal, India

Jiten Toto, with his bamboo stick, outside his house in Totopara, a tiny hamlet nestled in the lower Himalayas of West Bengal, India 

Jiten Toto has lived longer than independent India, all of his 80 years spent in the small hamlet of Totopara nestled in the green foothills of the Himalayas in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

He walks with a bamboo stick to his plot of farmland, the size of a football field, where he grows millets, tomatoes and brinjal in neat rows. It feeds his family, and earns them income from the sale to visiting traders who take the produce to other markets.

Jiten has seen dozens of harvests and 17 national elections pass by. Now, as India prepares for its 18th general election, he has little hope that anything will change in a tiny corner of the country whose unique residents feel they’ve long been forgotten by the world’s largest democracy.

Totopara gets its name from the Toto tribe that Jiten belongs to. One of the smallest tribes in the world, the total Toto population is estimated at about 1,670 people. Nearly 75 percent of them are eligible to vote. The Indo-Bhutanese community lives almost exclusively in Totopara, a village with narrow lanes surrounded by hills, which sits just 2km (1.2 miles) from India’s border with Bhutan.

When India votes between March and May, polling officials will come – as they have in previous elections – to set up a camp where the villagers can cast their votes on electronic machines. But despite that exercise in democracy, many Totos say their small numbers and remote geography mean that politicians have repeatedly ignored their concerns.

“Not much has been done for our development. We still face poor roads and pathetic health services,” says Jiten. “No political leader after the poll has ever come here to take stock of our situation.”

There’s also a more recent tension that’s enveloping Totopara and upsetting the Totos – migration from Bhutan has now turned them into a minority in the village, stoking worries that the small community could be squeezed out of its own traditional home.

‘We exist’: A Himayalan hamlet, forgotten by Indian democracy

The entrance to Totopara, where generations of Totos have lived – but where they now fear they could be squeezed out

Shifting demographics
The exact history of when and why the Totos settled in Totopara is unclear, says Samar Kumar Biswas, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Bengal.

“But they might have moved here from Bhutan to avoid confrontation with unfriendly powerful Bhutias during the middle of the 18th century,” he says. The Bhutia are the majority community in neighbouring Bhutan.

What is known is that up until 1939, the Totos were the only inhabitants of the village. Then, in the 1940s, a dozen Nepalese families came from Bhutan and settled there, says Biswas. “After that many non–Toto families came and settled in Totopara village permanently,” he adds.

In 1986, and then again in the early 1990s, the Bhutanese government expelled many ethnic Nepalese communities: One-sixth of the population of the Himalayan kingdom had to flee.

“Some of those Nepali families settled at Totopara for their survival,” Biswas says.

Today, Totapara has a population of about 5,000 people, only a third of whom are Totos. Nepalese communities make up much of the rest of the village’s population, followed by small numbers of residents from other parts of West Bengal and the neighbouring state of Bihar.

The sale of betel nuts is the primary source of income in Totopara

This has affected the land holdings available to the Totos. Until 1969, all of the village’s 1996.96 acres (808 hectares) belonged to the community, according to land records, says Riwaj Rai, a researcher whose work has focused on the Toto tribe. The land was owned collectively by the community.

Then, in 1969, the government introduced private ownership of the land, and declared more than 1,600 acres (650 hectares) open for others to settle in and claim. The remainder, some 17 percent of the village land, was set aside by the government for the Totos. But community members say they do not even control that land – in fact, they say, they don’t even know the exact patches of the village that legally belong to them.

“We have no issue with the non-Totos,” says Bakul Toto, secretary of Toto Kalyan Samity, a community group fighting for their rights. “But we want our portion of land back that was granted in 1969.

“The state government conducted a survey of the land after our persistent requests in 2022 which gave us a hope of getting our land holdings back. But the result of the survey is yet to be made public, even after two years.”

That, he says, raised questions in the minds of the Totos about the seriousness of the state government – led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress – in addressing their worries.

Prakash Newar, who hails from a Nepalese community, says it would be wrong to brand non-Totos as outsiders.

“We have been living here for generations after our forefathers settled here,” he says. “We have lived amicably with Totos.” Nepalese, he says, would be willing to vacate land that courts decide belongs to Totos, “after all the legal options have been exhausted.”

Senior government officials did not respond to repeated calls and text messages from Al Jazeera.

A member of the staff at Totopara’s only secondary school rings the bell for lunch. The school has seen a surge in dropouts, with many teachers leaving, and the government not recruiting new ones [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera] A staff member at Totopara’s only secondary school rings the bell for lunch. The school has seen a surge in dropouts, with many teachers leaving, and the government not recruiting new ones [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera] Need doctors, not elephants
But land and tensions between communities are not the only challenges Totopara grapples with.

The road from the village to Madarihat, the nearest town 21km (13 miles) away, is cratered with potholes and crosses river beds that get flooded during the monsoon when Totopara gets cut off from the rest of India.

“Sometimes, it takes up to two to three days for the water to recede and (people to) resume travel. We have been demanding the construction of over-bridges for a very long time but nothing has been done for us and we continue to suffer,” says Ashok Toto, 54, a village resident.

The increasing population of the village, he claims, has also led to deforestation, resulting in a rise in human-animal conflict over the years.

“Earlier, the elephants rarely came to the village but now they come here almost every day searching for food and attacking those coming in their way,” he says. “The massive deforestation has not only led to the substantial loss of flora and fauna but also the drying of natural streams on which we were dependent for drinking water. Water crisis is now a major issue here.”

The village’s solitary primary health centre has had no doctor since July 2023: three other staff members and a pharmacist run it.

“Serious cases are referred to far-flung hospitals, around 70-80km (43-50 miles) away,” says 36-year-old Probin Toto. During the monsoon, with the road flooded, this becomes impossible at times. “We immediately need a doctor here but the government is yet to pay heed to our demands.”

The next generation in crisis
The only secondary school in the village, the government-run Dhanapati Toto Memorial High School, has just eight teachers when it is entitled to 20. Three years ago, it had 18 teachers but a government initiative that allowed teachers to transfer to public schools closer to their homes led to an exodus. The government also has not hired any new secondary school teachers since 2011.

The result? A surge in dropouts. The school, which had 350 students just three years ago, now has 128 students.

“Most of the subjects have no specialist teachers,” says Annapurna Chakraborty, a teacher. So parents “take their children out of school and send them to distant schools or even for work due to poverty,” she adds.

Bharat Toto, 25, has a postgraduate degree in maths, and has recently started to teach village students and dropouts to encourage them to return to school, “We do not want any freebies from the government but we require a strong education that would act like a weapon to fight for our rights,” he says.

A lack of jobs also hobbles prospects for Totos, say community members. Most homes have tall areca trees in their compounds and sell betel nuts to traders for their livelihood.

“The betel nuts have been saving us from starvation as there are no jobs for us,” says 34-year-old Dhananjay Toto, who has a postgraduate degree yet works as an agricultural labourer. “I had applied for the government job of a librarian but didn’t get it.”

Other than the Trinamool Congress that rules the state, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is the other major political force in West Bengal.

The Totos say they have not decided who they will vote for in the coming elections:

Not that it matters, says Jiten, as he trudges back home, with dusk descending on Totopara.

“We are part of the world’s largest democracy,” but “our handful of votes hardly matter for any political party,” he says.

“I doubt if most of them know that we even exist here.”

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