A challenge to understand and address
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Our dear friend Karuna — Maharajkumari Karuna Devi Mahtab of Burdwan — never forgave me for calling her, only half in jest, a Punjabi. “Five hundred years in Bengal and we’re still Punjabis!” she exploded. “And not even a word of Punjabi!” her brother added. The protest seemed logical save that, barring exceptional love matches, all Mahtab spouses came from Punjab in those 500 years. A similar conversation with Ralph Ellison, the Black American author of Invisible Man, was more definitive. Ellison nursed no memory, individual or folk, of his African forebears. His consciousness had been shaped in the crucible of the American Dream.
Both conditions were reflected in the forgotten Subash Ghising’s perspicacious reference to “the ‘identity problem’ of the nine million Gorkhas in the country”. His admission also suggested less dogmatism than the angry and emotional response of some Nepalese readers to my Gorkhaland article (“Genie out of the bottle”, July 23). How long does one have to live in a terrain to be regarded as indigenous, one asked. The answer can’t be measured in years or even generations. As the Rastafarian movement and the Black girl flirting with Nigerian names and attire in that magnificent film, A Raisin in the Sun, demonstrated, belonging is a state of mind even more than physical fact. I have seen German-origin Soviet families squatting for days on airport floors with their boxes and bedding like refugees at Sealdah station waiting for flights to “return” to a Germany some had never seen. I also know ethnic Germans who despite Germanic names and appearance, regard themselves and are regarded by others as entirely Russian.
With passports of convenience readily available, legal citizenship is only a small part of identity. Nor is identity constricted by politics which is why many Nagas seek union with their fellow tribesmen in Myanmar. People who knew Dorjee Khandu, the late chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, say he was loyally Indian to the core but completely Tibetan in lifestyle. A Malaysian bumiputera (son of the soil) is usually born Malay and Muslim, but Malayali settlers in dhoti and angavastram have also been accorded bumiputera status. Karuna Mahtab proved that choice takes precedence over history and ethnicity.
The Nepalese fanned out along the Himalayan foothills, all over India and into Sikkim and Bhutan, long before the world’s only Hindu kingdom surrendered to revolutionary turmoil. Readers who deny that the British introduced Nepalese labour are right only to the extent that migration existed before Sikkim ceded Darjeeling to the East India Company in 1835. But it’s fanciful to claim (as one reader did) that the Nepalese came as long ago as the 1600s. Darjeeling had only 1,900 people in 1850 (2,200 in 1869) and many of them must still have been Lepchas and Bhutiyas. British rule gave migration an impetus. Leo Rose, Lopita Nath and other scholars regard the treaty of Sugauli and establishment of recruitment centres at Ghoom and Gorakhpur as the start. The 1950 India-Nepal treaty was another major landmark. Did the Nepalese share of Darjeeling’s population rise from 54 per cent in 1901 to 58.4 per cent in 1971 only because of natural growth or did already settled families invite their kin to join them, as migrants do worldwide? Rajiv Gandhi’s refusal in 1986 to countenance citizenship for post-1950 immigrants seems explicable in view of the reported growth of over 700 per cent between 1951 and 2001 in Darjeeling’s Nepalese population.
This eastward push by a vigorous and hardworking community was bound to have consequences on the ground. Indigenous Lepchas and Bhutiyas were reduced to minorities in their own homeland. Ethnic strife erupted periodically in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and — most of all — Meghalaya. Darjeeling suffered grievously. The diaspora’s most dramatic impact was in Sikkim which had only 2,500 Lepchas, 1,500 Bhutiyas and 1,000 Tsongs in 1873. When the troubles began a century later, the Nepalese were about three-quarters of the population and played a decisive part in changing the status of a Tibetan-Buddhist kingdom with which they could not relate. Typically, the Janata Congress president, Krishna Chandra Pradhan, demanded a Nepalese Hindu king to balance the Bhutiya Buddhist Chogyal! It’s no secret that Bhutan began to be wary of its non-Drukpa population after the Sikkim agitation in which many Darjeeling Nepalese participated. Allegations of Darjeeling Nepalese agitators in Bhutan, too, revived the “greater Nepal” spectre.
Bhutan’s actual Nepalese population may exceed the official 20 per cent. The government began recruiting Nepalese contractual labour (tangyas) in 1900 to work in the tropical forests, allowing them to stay on as tenant farmers with Bhutanese nationality after the 1958 Nationality Law was enacted. Setting a precedent for Ghising, indigenous Drukpa officials avoided calling them Nepalese. They felt absorption would be easier if the Nepalese were called Southern Bhutanese or Lhotshampas. Benign accommodation changed when waves of illegal migrants started taking advantage of Bhutan’s planned growth, empty land and porous borders. The evictions from Bhutan, refugee camps in eastern Nepal, militant organizations, terrorist activity and assisted migration to North America and Europe are another story.
Believing that Gorkhaland would “solve” the “identity problem” he discerned, Ghising made another contribution to the solution by calling his people Gorkha (replacing the “u” of the Indian army’s seven regiments and Britain’s Brigade of Gurkhas with “o”) because Nepalese recalled Nepal and invited comments such as Morarji Desai’s. Prem Poddar claims in Gorkhas Imagined that “the word ‘Gorkha’ (or the neologism ‘Gorkhaness’) as a self-descriptive term... has gained currency as a marker of difference for Nepalis living in India… While this counters the irredentism of a Greater Nepal thesis, it cannot completely exorcize the spectres or temptations of an ethnic absolutism for diasporic subjects.” Despite his acumen, Ghising may have aggravated those fears by sending the Gorkha National Liberation Front’s memorandum to King Birendra of Nepal, Prince Gyanendra and Queen Elizabeth, and by making periodic unpublicized trips to Nepal. The Karuna Mahtab and Ralph Ellison assimilation analogies seemed even less applicable when it was recalled that the All India Gurkha (no “o” then) League referred to Nepal as the “motherland” in its founding constitution.
Several readers have retorted that Bengalis are equally foreign because they are really Bangladeshis. True, many of those who live in Calcutta and West Bengal have ancestral roots in East Bengal (there was no Bangladesh then) just as many Tamils in Chennai may come from villages in Tanjore and other districts. The metropole always attracts aspiring manpower, and internal migration in undivided Bengal followed this universal pattern. The movement since 1947 falls into two categories. The first is a staggered and long-delayed (because of a number of political reasons, not least the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact) counterpart of the exchange of population that happened all at once in Punjab. The second is the influx of Muslims from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh which is often abetted by elements in West Bengal. There can be no question that these illegal migrants should be tracked down and deported. But neither category can be compared to the millions of Nepalese who have over the decades crossed the open 500-mile border into a foreign country and made it their home. I doubt if there is a global parallel.
Gorkhaland will be India’s second Nepalese-majority state. It will be bounded by Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and China. The Nepalese are delighted, witness pictures of a triumphantly dancing Bimal Gurung. But Darjeeling’s sitting member of parliament, Jaswant Singh, tempers pleasure with circumspection. “I am, of course, glad that this ‘Genie’ is finally free and roaming, it was long overdue,” he wrote. “The challenge is to understand: ‘what hereafter’ and to address that.” Since Mamata Banerjee denies that the tripartite agreement, whose signing Jaswant Singh attended, will lead to statehood, she may not even realize there is a challenge to understand and address