Since the mid-1980s, regional separatist parties in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal have been agitating for the creation of an Indian state of Gorkhaland, which would comprise the region’s majority of Indian Nepalis, or “Gorkhas.” In the autumn of 2007 a newly formed political party, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, or GJMM, reignited the Gorkhaland agitation. Since then, GJMM leaders’ arguments for statehood have often taken spatial form. Tea and timber, Darjeeling’s two most abundant natural resources, “flow down the mountain,” but revenue from these industries rarely comes back up. Since Darjeeling’s founding as a British hill station in the 1830s, tourists have come “up the mountain” to enjoy the cool air and Himalayan vistas, and to catch a glimpse of the region’s natural wonders: red pandas, snow leopards, and cascading rivers. With a separate state of Gorkhaland, the economic boons of the region’s industries—in particular the “three T’s” (tea, timber, and tourism)—would circulate back from the plains to the mountains.
This spatial vision of injustice is encapsulated in the Nepali linguistic dynamic between oraalo (downhill) and ukaalo (uphill). Himalayan scholars have long analyzed the gravitational and capital forces on resources and people that force them to “go down” (Hitchcock 1961; Seddon et al 2002). Stopping downhill-uphill circulation through general strikes, or bandhs (literally “closed”) was a key tactic in the direct actions of the GJMM. Bandhs included not only closures of all businesses, but also the roads and railways that connected Darjeeling to the rest of India. During bandhs, rallies, and frequent month-long “cultural programs,” GJMM politicians insisted that Darjeeling residents, both women and men, wear “traditional” dress. Party leaders promoted performances of Gorkha dance, song, and theater as a way of showing to a wider public the existence of a distinct identity. Their speeches were peppered with metaphorical references to the deep relationships between Gorkhas and the soil, flowers, and other features of the Himalayan landscape—the same images that lured tourists to the hills.
During fieldwork from 2008 to 2011, I attended rallies and lived through bandhs with Gorkhas who supported the movement but who were not part of the GJMM vanguard: women tea workers, laborers in markets and restaurants, students, and recent graduates. Bandhs and cultural performances are common expressions of belonging in Indian subnationalist movements. These activities attest to an overlap between place and identity. They reinforce the notion that subnational movements are struggles for land by a particular group of people. Existing scholarship on subnationalism in India has done much to illustrate the multiple meanings of ethnic, “tribal”, and indigenous belonging, but land itself has figured less prominently in these analyses (Bagchi 2012; Baruah 1999; Middleton 2011; Nag 2002; Singh 2010; Shneiderman 2014). In this paper, I argue that for many Indian Nepalis (for Gorkhas; I use these terms interchangeably as do my interlocutors), the salient political struggle was as much with land as it was for land. For those outside the political vanguard, dress codes, performances, and speeches were all “good fun,” but they were just political (Besky 2014). Most Gorkhas with whom I worked knew that they were not indigenous inhabitants of Darjeeling. Many were the descendants of laborers recruited from Nepal during the colonial era to work on British tea, timber, and cinchona plantations.These plantation crops were likewise imported to the region during the colonial period. Gorkhas also helped construct Darjeeling town, a British hill station and mountain refuge.
The experience of land for Gorkhas is, to paraphrase Donna Haraway, one of troubled “inheritance” (Haraway 2008, 2010). The story of Gorkhaland is one of both asserting ethnic belonging and struggling to maintain plants, animals, and an urban infrastructure whose place in the region, while firmly rooted, is far from “natural.” Questions about the rights of Gorkhas to place are bound up with questions about the ecological effects of tea plantation monoculture, the sustainability of forests, and the appropriateness of a sprawling city in the high Himalayan foothills.
To understand how land figures into questions of belonging requires a move away from attention to strategic representations of people and place and toward analysis of everyday experience. After offering some historical background and framing, I track three struggles with land. First, I examine the problem of landslides on tea plantations, showing how Gorkhas were implicated not only in the maintenance of a monoculture but also in working the edges of tea and forest. As a result of pressure on plantation land, as I show next, Gorkhas have begun moving to Darjeeling town. Environmental activists and longtime town residents have begun to blame this new population for speeding the decay of colonial infrastructure, particularly through a lack of attention to waste management. Debates about working-class Gorkhas’ role in urban waste and infrastructure deterioration came to a head in Cyclone Aila in September 2009 and raised further questions about who and what belonged in the region. Despite moves by some Gorkha activists to use Aila as a pretext for more local control of environmental management, the state and the GJMM have continued to emphasize stewardship of indigenous wildlife, particularly endangered red pandas, in their discourses about land. The outsized place of pandas, as I argue in the final section, elides the everyday encounters between townspeople and urban “pest” animals. These encounters, which result in part from the squeeze on land, reveal a further problematic overlap between discourses of ethnic and ecological belonging.
In discussing how questions of belonging manifested in landslides, urban decay, and confrontations with waste and animals, I bring attention to what Rob Nixon, following Anna Tsing (2004), calls the “ecological ordinary”—the “quotidian,” historically and geographically particular interactions between people, land, and nonhuman creatures that tend to defy easy political representation (Nixon 2011: 184). Ethnographically, I focus on a series of “edge effects.” In ecology, an edge effect describes the results of contact between two types of ecosystems. Nixon uses the term metaphorically, to describe a crossover between humanistic, social scientific, and ecological knowledge about the environment (Nixon 2011: 30, see also Cronon 2014). I use the term in this way, but I also call attention to the ways in which struggles with land in Darjeeling occurred in the region’s material “edges”: where tea plantations filled with the imported Chinese jāt (variety) of tea bush meet “native” forest, where a Raj-era town meets Himalayan countryside, and where humans meet nonhumans. Here, I define “land” as an ongoing series of human-nonhuman interactions, and I draw on Emily O’Gorman’s idea that belonging is never simply a question of biology or culture in isolation, but a terrain of contested biocultural meanings (2014: 285). In Darjeeling, land was less a passive territory or raw material than a confluence of economic, aesthetic, climatic, and biological activity. A view of Gorkhaland as a struggle for land might focus on questions of geopolitical or ethnic boundary making (Barth 1998). A focus on edges, on the other hand, is less about boundaries than about overlaps—everyday instabilities and vulnerabilities that make and unmake land and people’s place within it. As long-term components of Darjeeling, tea, timber, inorganic waste, colonial infrastructure, and pests straddle the edge between “invasive” and local.
Darjeeling as Agrarian Environment
Nepali claims to belonging in the region have continually been hamstrung by histories of labor migration and colonial service. Gorkhas and their ancestors were all deeply implicated in the crafting of an extractive landscape in which imported plantation crops (tea, softwood timber, cinchona) were planted in vast monocultures, and in which a tourist industry grew up to commodify the “nature” that surrounded the plantations. Darjeeling is an “agrarian environment,” in which the conservation of nature and its capitalist cultivation have gone hand in hand with the production of identity (Agrawal and Sivaramikrishnan 2000; Gidwani 2000).
19th century British texts characterized Nepalis as “good workers:” amiable, brave, and industrious, in what Piya Chatterjee calls a “colonial taxonomy of labor” (2001: 77-78; Golay 2006). Ideas about Nepali men and women (as well as indigenous Lepchas and Bhutias) as endowed with natural proclivities to certain kinds of labor were woven into the colonial economy. When British settlers established tea plantations in the mid-19th century Darjeeling, which was then sparsely populated, they recruited farmers from Nepal’s eastern hills to build and work them. Nepali ethnicized labor, however, is perhaps most apparent in the construction of Nepalis as a “martial race” and recruitment for special “Gurkha” army regiments (see Des Chene 1991). Gurkhas were valorized as loyal and brave (Golay 2006). These regiments were dispatched to quash independence revolts around India, and into the far corners of the empire, from Hong Kong to Fiji.
By the turn of the 20th century, Nepalis (often with Tibetans, Bhutias, and Lepchas) began forming social and political associations, representing themselves alternately as “Nepalis,” as “Hillmen,” and as “Gorkhas.” The first call for administrative recognition of Gorkhas was officially lodged by the Hillmen’s Association 1907 (Rhodes and Rhodes 2006). Pre-independence movements for Gorkha recognition gave way to post-independence movements to break the region off from Bengal. In 1947, union leaders used Gorkhas’ senses of shared identity as well as their concerns about deteriorating working conditions to initiate the first calls for a separate state of “Gorkhastan” (Subba 1992). Those calls failed, and the Darjeeling district became a part of the Indian state of West Bengal. As a minority in their own state, and as a group known for its loyalty to the British military, Gorkhas remained marginalized.
After independence, leaders of the Nepali Bhasa Andolan (Nepali Language Movement) fought for decades for language recognition. In 1961, Nepali became an official language of the Darjeeling district (Subba 1992). Amid a series of high profile attacks on Nepalis elsewhere in India, the 1980s saw a rise in Nepali political action. In literature and political spheres, Gorkhas began articulating what they still call an “identity crisis” (see Sinha and Subba 2003; Subba et al 2009). They are Indian citizens but perceived as foreigners. As Michael Hutt (1997) describes in his account of the Nepali diaspora, beginning in the 1960s, after a series of Indo-Chinese border disputes, thousands of Nepalis and other “foreigners” were expelled from Northeast India, where they had been living for generations. By the end of the 1980s, tens of thousands of Indian Nepalis had been evicted from Bhutan, a country to which the King recruited them generations before for agricultural labor, much like the Nepalis of Darjeeling. When Gorkhas went to Nepal, their behavior, especially the way they spoke Nepali, marked them as outsiders as well. It was against the backdrop of evictions that the 1980s Gorkhaland agitation took hold.
From 1986 to 1988, Subhash Ghisingh, who grew up on a Darjeeling tea garden, and his political party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), led a revolt that ended with the formation of a semi-autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (Ganguly 2005; Subba 1992). This agitation pitted GNLF activists against both the West Bengal government and India’s Central Reserve Police Force. Memories of violence of the first Gorkhaland were still vivid during my fieldwork during the second Gorkhaland agitation, which began after a decade of unrest, as ethnic groups in Darjeeling petitioned for recognition under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution (see Middleton 2011, 2013a, 2013b; Shneiderman 2014). In late 2007, another tea garden resident, Bimal Gurung, and his party, the GJMM, rejuvenated the movement for Gorkha subnational autonomy (Bagchi 2012; Middleton 2011).
Landscapes of Subnationalism
Most recent accounts of subnational belonging in India focus on representational practices: language, ethnic identification, and the formation of political parties (see Singh 2008, 2010). Darjeeling’s subnational separatist politics have tended to take their most visible form in three kinds of actions: violent attacks on people and property; bandhs; and displays of cultural difference. In this, the Gorkhaland movement is similar to other similar agitations: in Nagaland, Telangana, Bodoland, Uttarakhand (see Baruah 1999; Nag 2002). Critical analysis of these movements has revealed the ways in which politicians’ and activists’ claims of unique ethnic and linguistic identities mask deeper complexities. Ethnicity, in other words, is rarely as clean or as uniform as pro- or anti-subnationalist stances portray it. As Townsend Middleton (2013b) writes of ethnic politics in Darjeeling, the various manifestations of the Gorkhaland struggle reveal not a sense of shared belonging but rather a longstanding and shifting set of ethno-nationalist “anxieties.” These anxieties play out in representational practices and, as Middleton explains, in a self-conscious spatial politics: bandhs reinforce territorial boundaries, protests occupy prominent visible spaces, and violent attacks are crafted to target high-profile locations.
Despite these linkages between the fractured politics of ethnicity and the spatialization of struggles against marginalization, critical analysis of subnational belonging has paid less attention to land itself. In pointing out such inattention, I do not aim to discount the validity of other scholars’ findings. Rather, by interrogating the land in Gorkhaland, I hope to bring together several disparate understandings of land in political and environmental anthropology.
One prominent way of understanding land has been to discuss landscape. The term landscape connotes aesthetic formation as well as a working (and worked) socio-natural assemblage (Basso 1996; Ingold 2000; Olwig 2002). Both agrarian and “wild” landscapes figure prominently in historical and representations of Darjeeling, as well as in Gorkha activists’ representations of the Gorkhaland struggle. The landscape—as a hegemonic viewpoint and a deliberate formation (Mitchell 1996)—is something with which Gorkhas continue to struggle. Landscapes are worked over with edges: in Darjeeling the successful cultivation of tea in plantations required plantation managers (not professional foresters) to maintain patches of Himalayan forest (usually a combination of “native” and nonnative species). In anthropology and other disciplines, land as landscape has been conceived as both what Nixon calls an “affective, historically textured” site of belonging and an alienating expression of political or capitalist dominance over people and resources (Nixon 2011: 17). Belonging to or in land-as-landscape is a question of representation and aesthetic framing.
At another level, land can be understood in its physical sense: as soil. Land in this sense is the material substrate for production (usually agricultural). In the interdisciplinary field of political ecology, this connotation of land—as a resource whose management is essential for the production of other resources—has been a guiding concept. Seminal work in political ecology has analyzed land degradation and land use in the Nepal Himalayas (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; Ives 2004; Ives and Messerli 1989). The question of land degradation, however, meets uncomfortably, at best, with the question of ethnic belonging in in India. In fact, a recent article in the ecology journal Biodiversity and Conservation on tiger reserves in the Northeast claimed that subnational activism adversely affected conservation efforts (Velho et al 2014). In Darjeeling, Gorkhas, whose topographical oraalo (downhill)-ukaalo (uphill) discourse is central to reckonings of landslides, urban waste flows, and interspecies encounters, likewise struggle with how they might frame themselves in relation to land.. At times, they willingly take up a role as stewards or guardians, but in the contexts of landslides and urban instabilities I discuss below, they have just as often found themselves blamed—as laborers, as peri-urban settlers, and as an overpopulated demographic—for degradation.
Historically-minded political ecologists have studied land as territory. In this sense, land is not just living, managed soil but also the ways in which states and communities make claims to it. , The emergence of productive agrarian environments and conservation discourses in colonial South Asia came alongside the formation of subnational identities (Agrawal 2005; Agrawal and Sivaramikrishnan 2000: 15-16; Sivaramikrishnan 1999; Guha 1990). The volatility of indigenous and other kinds of subnational land claims has emanated in part from the twinned problems of ownership and knowledge. Claiming territory, as Nadasdy (1999) notes, often entails claiming “property,” yet the political and practical question of sovereignty becomes thorny when, as is the case of Darjeeling, most of the people making claims have no formal property rights and a tenuous ancestral claim to place.
Across India’s margins, where subnationalist movements are active, colonial and postcolonial processes of territoriality have turned land into an abstractable resource. Gorkha identity struggles have emerged amid the development of a particular “resource environment” in Darjeeling (Richardson and Weszkanlnys 2014)—an assemblage of infrastructure, bodies, and technology. As political ecologists have argued for some time, the long temporal scale of colonial and capitalist transformation makes it difficult to mobilize against. Environmental movements frequently emerge when such transformations take an unbearable toll on bodies and environments: when ecological violence becomes too acute to ignore (Kosek 2006; Peluso and Watts 2001; Nixon 2011). In the Indian state of Assam, for example, subnationalist activists have recently begun mobilizing to oppose the state’s construction of hydroelectric dams, seeing in the state’s megaproject an unjust capture of land (see Baruah 2012). The construction of resource environments in India has also raised the problem of so-called “invasive” species: plants and animals that enter landscapes through capitalist cultivation and slowly overtake “native” species (Jeffery 2014; c.f. Robbins 2001, 2004). In settler societies, particularly Australia and the United States, scholars have critically engaged the social divisiveness of such narratives of species “invasion,” tied as it has become to anxieties about “alien” peoples and cultures (Raffles 2014; O’Gorman 2014; Lavau 2011; van Dooren 2011). Attention to questions of belonging in settler-dominated resource environments enriches this critique by calling attention to what Val Plumwood (2008) calls “shadow places.”. Darjeeling is something of an internal settler colony within India, where “The very concept of a singular homeplace or ‘our place’ is problematised by the dissociation and dematerialisation that permeate the global economy and culture” (Plumwood quoted in O’Gorman 2014: 285).
Land can also be understood as territory in a second sense. As Laura Ogden (2011) notes in her study of the Florida everglades, slow-moving human and nonhuman “territorial” actions help to give landscapes their shape and form (see also Rose 1992; Tsing 2004). This notion of land as a site of human-nonhuman interaction is central to my analysis. As I describe the experience of Gorkhas in Darjeeling with (among other things) landslides, urban decay, and pest species, I draw both on the notions named above (landscape, soil, and territory) as well as ideas from feminist political ecology. A feminist approach emphasizes the everyday environmental politics that to some extent float beneath the surface of subnational movements as portrayed in the press and in much scholarship. In Darjeeling, the “ecological ordinary” revolved around socio-ecological “edges”: the borders between plantations and forests, between city and town, and between species (Tsing 2004). In her work on interspecies encounters, Donna Haraway (2008) speaks of “contact zones” between humans and other species as sites of particular ethical concern. It is in these edges, Haraway (2010) argues, where people feel compelled to consider the question of inheritance: to devise ways to “leave more quiet country” for future generations (see Rose 1992). To understand land as an inherited relationship, then, I turn now to the question of soils and stabilities on Darjeeling’s iconic tea plantations and their forest edges.
Plantation and Forest Edge Effects
The Darjeeling district is a landscape of rolling Himalayan foothills contained by the borders of Nepal to the east, Bhutan to the west, the plains of Bengal and Bangladesh to the south, and the Indian state of Sikkim to the north. Atop one of the highest ridges in the district sits Darjeeling town. From town, bright green tea plantations and ribbons of forest slope down steeply into the valleys below. The GJMM bandhs made strategic use of the region’s topography and geopolitical significance. Bandhs halted the everyday movement of Darjeeling residents and jammed the circulation of people and things to these adjacent areas. The GJMM effectively shut down the district’s timber industry, a state of West Bengal enterprise. Bandhs also crippled the tourist industry. Though tea was sometimes brought into the remit of bandhs, more often, it was quietly exempted.
The exception for tea seems surprising, given the beverage’s prominence in popular imaginaries of the region. One explanation I often heard from Darjeeling residents regarding the exemption of tea from bandhs was that GJMM politicians were bought off by tea plantation owners. Another explanation had to do with a combination of instrumental and symbolic politics. At an instrumental level, a total blockade of tea would mean lost wages for tea plantation workers, leading to an erosion of the GJMM’s support base. Most GJMM politicians had families who depended on tea plantation wages for survival. At a symbolic level, Darjeeling tea—a nationally and globally recognized brand—said what GJMM politicians alone could not. The GJMM’s own symbolic displays frequently included images of tea leaves and tea pluckers (Figure 1). The downward flow of tea, as well as of images of Nepali tea plantation workers, reinforced Darjeeling’s geographical and cultural “distinction” (Besky 2014b). As a political tactic in the struggle for land, the GJMM’s careful manipulation of up/down flows of both commodities and symbols was in keeping with subnational land struggles elsewhere. In bandhs aimed at managing the oraalo/ukaalo flow of resources and people, GJMM politicians engaged land in the territorial sense, in the resource sense, and in the aesthetic sense. This was political work on land. Tea plantation workers, on the other hand, had to work with land to manage flows of thing and people.
The discourse of oraalo and ukaalo had resonance in the everyday lives of plantation workers, albeit in a less geopolitical sense. Each afternoon, women plantation workers carried tea to huts on access roads, from which it was carted down to factories from processing and onto the market center of Siliguri in the plains. The trucks that plied these roads always came up empty, but they left full. Medicines, water, and construction materials, mandated by Indian labor law, rarely came up. A victory for GJMM, workers said, would not directly change much about this uneven flow. When I asked about the GJMM’s repeated refusal to directly address the question working conditions on tea plantations, one worker said, simply, “That is not important.” Under Gorkhaland, she said,
The plantation—the factory and other things—will be the owner’s, but the whole land becomes ours… That means that the soil is ours too. The owner will need to pay us [in taxes]. ...It’s like this, at that time Darjeeling tea will become Gorkha Darjeeling tea, because we Gorkhas are working. But the land is not the owner’s.
For tea workers, Gorkhaland named not only a struggle for autonomy over resources and a means of controlling their flow through territory, but also a struggle with the land underneath tea. Workers were well aware of the problems of plantation monoculture on steep Himalayan foothills, both within and beneath the “factory and other things.”
Plantation owners in the early 2000s were intensifying production to meet increasing international demand for Darjeeling tea. This demand came after decades of industrial decline, in which overuse of pesticides and poor land management had made antique tea bushes less productive (Besky 2014a). Instead of replanting old tea bushes, workers found themselves being asked to plant tea in areas where they had never planted it before: in recently cut-back forest (tea plantations include forest buffers separate from timber plantations in other parts of the district) and in steep gullies (jhorās). Amid this intensification, the oraalo/ukaalo discourse signaled a different kind of precarious belonging—one of actual soil, plants, and water. One geologist writing about landslides in Darjeeling described the region as being in “quasi-unstable equilibrium,” meaning that any amount of rainfall could result in a landslide of any magnitude (Sarkar 2011: 125). Workers, too, experienced life on the plantation—especially at its edges, in places like cleared forests and jhorās —in a kind of quasi-unstable equilibrium. Planting in jhorās and clearing forests were recipes for disaster. The question was not if land would slide, but when.
The most famous landslide in Darjeeling is located on Ambootia Tea Estate, in a deep valley south of Kurseong on the road down to the plains. In October 1968, after a period of continuous rainfall, the landslide began about one-third of the way down the ridge, where a forested area divided Ambootia from a neighboring plantation and covered a particularly steep slope. For the next 20 years, land continued to erode around the edges of the 1968 slide, until the early 1990s, when scientists, local environmentalists, and organic agriculture advocates coalesced around mitigating the devastation.
The location of this landslide is significant. On plantations, forests serve not only as property markers, but also as ecological barriers, providing crucial protection during the yearly monsoons for the tea bushes and people who reside around them. Older planters told me that forest cover was crucial in three locations: at the tops of ridges, at the bottoms of ridges, and in the jhorās. Forests should also be kept thick in places where it is “too steep to plant,” such as the location of the Ambootia landslide.
Laborers on Ambootia and other plantations lived in villages situated sometimes above, but more regularly, below tea fields. On plantations, edges of all kinds mattered. When the rows of planted tea began to lose their linear, contoured structure—when they began to dip and sag—workers saw a signal of impending danger. Underneath the hard, gnarled bushes that workers cling to as they pull their way across shear slopes of tea was something dangerously soft. The demands of labor and agricultural intensification made landslides—either already-existing ones or potential new ones—a matter of considerable concern. Workers traveled from villages to different parts of plantations each day to pluck tea. During the monsoon, those who lived farther “down” in valleys risked both contributing to landslides as they trudged through the fields (roads and footpaths are a common landslide origin point ) and being victims of them when the returned home. For tea pluckers, the threat of landslides spoke to the impending loss of Gorka land. Even land itself went down the mountain, but never came back up. Claiming land, preserving it, in both meta-political and material senses, was key not only to a more stable future for future generations of Gorkhas, but a future in which accountability might be measured.
Scientific accounts of the Ambootia landslide, however, present an “apolitical” version of its history, noting both that the Himalayas are “very young” mountains that have difficulty “maintaining equilibrium” and that deforestation and road construction play a role (Froehlich et al 1992; Froelich and Starkel 1987; Starkel 2010, 1972; Starkel and Basu 2000; Starkel and Sarkar 2014). These studies do not discuss plantation agriculture. Indeed, while landslides are perhaps the most prevalent socioecological threat to all Darjeeling’s people—on the plantation or in towns—the tea industry’s role in preventing or causing them remains controversial. On World Environment Day in June 2008, a local NGO organized an all day program, complete with lectures, films, art competitions, and a walking tour of Darjeeling. I attended a presentation by the leader of “Save the Hills,” a Kalimpong-based landslide prevention group. As he discussed the histories of famous landslides, including the one at Ambootia, he evaded the question of tea altogether, discussing instead the congeries of “social” and “natural” factors that made each landslide different. Some environmental activists based in Darjeeling claim that tea contributes to landslides, while others claim that the unique root structure of some clones of bushes (with both taproots and surface roots) actually prevent landslides. At Ambootia, a biodynamic tea and timber project is currently underway, underwritten by various international agricultural and development agencies, to recover the eroding landscape (Starkel 2010).
Landslides are thus both ecologically spectacular and ecologically ordinary (Nixon 2011; Tsing 2004). According to Bishnu and Monu, women tea workers I interviewed, before the GJMM took control in 2007, nobody came down to the plantation when “problems” like landslides struck. Tea workers knew that that there were bright young people “up in town” that might be able to help, but the plantations took a back seat to other issues. They joked that the GJMM leadership—in their big new SUVs and fancy new clothes—only “came down” to look at their problems. Politicians made a big spectacle of their visits, but the end result was largely the same: