Questions over identity and citizenship of Indian Gorkhas have long persisted, which is one of the reasons behind the community's consistent demand for a Gorkhaland state.
As the debate continues over what will happen to those who will eventually be excluded from the final NRC list, Gorkhas or Nepalis in India would be well advised against rushing in to draw conclusions with regard to the exercise and instead analyse and assess possible implications that it could have on them, their status and identity.
On the face of it, the move to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) initiated at the behest of the Supreme Court to identify undocumented immigrants in Assam is welcome. For Gorkhas of India, who have been beset with an identity crisis and sometimes perceived as foreigners, it would naturally follow that an NRC would be another step in certifying them as Indians. Enlistment in the NRC will after all, affirm citizenship.
However, there are a few reasons why Gorkhas must tread with caution.
Gorkhas are well represented in the army and have given their lives in every battle fought for the country. However, recent news reports state that over one lakh Gorkhas or Nepalis have been excluded from the draft final NRC list. These Gorkhas or Nepalis, of course, will be given an opportunity to submit documents in support of their claim of being Indian citizens. They may be included in the final list or be excluded, if they are identified as immigrants from Nepal.
But this development points to the larger malaise afflicting Gorkhas or Nepalis in India: that of identity and the perception that all Gorkhas are immigrants from Nepal. How does one ensure that Indian Gorkhas do not get excluded from such a list?
In fact, it is this flogging stick that is invariably sought to be flashed whenever Indian Gorkhas or Nepalis have attempted to re-assert their identity and stake their rightful claim in nation-building. The most recent example was witnessed in Darjeeling last year. What began as a protest to oppose attempts to impose Bengali language in all schools in the state, including Darjeeling, soon turned into an agitation for identity and a demand for a separate state.
As the state began to crackdown on the protesters, it wasn’t long before the narrative took a different turn. The top leadership was charged with having links to Nepal’s Maoists. Some of the leaders involved – elected members of the Darjeeling municipality, a former elected councillor – were singled out to be alleged Nepalese citizens and hence foreigners. Systematically, their membership from respective elected bodies were sought to be cancelled and their names struck off the voters list. Reports also began circulating that authorities were considering looking at documentation of the local population dating back to 1950: a message that migrant Nepalese will be weeded out.
Hardly new tactics
Such tactics are hardly new for Gorkhas in India and those in public life have had to face it at every corner. Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling has been accused of being a Nepali citizen, notwithstanding that he recently became the longest serving chief minister in the country. M.K. Subba, a three-term former MP from Assam, faced allegations that he was a Nepali citizen. He was expelled from the Congress party in 2014 and suffered a sudden illness soon after. Balkrishna Acharya, the low profile MD of Patanjali Ayurved and arguably among the richest Indians with a reported networth of US$6.5 billion, faced investigation under the UPA government on charges that he was a Nepali citizen and had forged documents to obtain an Indian passport. In Darjeeling itself, Gorkha candidates contesting local polls in Terai regions like Naxalbari and Phansidewa are faced with slogans that they should go back to Nepal. Questioning the identity of Gorkhas of India, make no mistake, has been around for a long time.
Admittedly, one of the key reasons for Indian Gorkhas or Nepalis facing this crisis is the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed by India and Nepal. The open border between the two countries as a consequence of the treaty, allowing citizens of both countries a free passage. Indeed, barring electoral privileges, any Nepali citizen can purchase property in India, do business and even join government jobs at certain levels officially while continuing to remain citizens of Nepal.
Article 7 of the friendship treaty states:
“The governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.”
There is also a history of Nepali citizens joining the Indian Army, many of whom are now in senior positions. I have met officers in the rank of Colonel, who are Nepali citizens. There is a sizeable migrant population.
An identity crisis
The confusion created by the arrangement in the mind of an average Indian also poses an identity crisis for Indian Gorkhas. While the borders are open, there exists no mechanism for a head count of the people entering or exiting. This makes it difficult to estimate the actual number of immigrant Nepalis in India.
While the 1950 treaty entitles Nepali citizens to live in India, I am apprehensive that should the NRC exercise ever be extended to West Bengal, it could pose problems for Gorkhas or Nepalis because a majority of the population in Darjeeling and surrounding Terai region have rarely maintained adequate documentation with regard to their residential claims. BJP leaders in West Bengal have already saidthey will implement NRC in the state if the party comes to power. Assam and West Bengal, incidentally, have the highest number of Gorkhas in the country.
An attempt to amend the 1950 treaty has been underway for some time now with a joint Eminent Persons Group (EPG) set up by both governments. It has finalised its recommendations. If the EPG is able to recommend a mechanism that will make a clear distinction between Indian Gorkhas and Nepali nationals living and working in India, the former would not face questions over their identity.
A public Indian identity
Historically, Darjeeling and Sikkim, because of the concentration of Gorkhas living there, have led the campaign for a public Indian identity. Leaders from the two places were at the forefront of the Nepali language movement. But naturally, language was also the rallying point for a wider political demand, as witnessed anywhere else. Whether it was the anti-Hindi imposition agitation in the South or the Bengali language movement in Assam, the result was a political consolidation of the forces opposing such moves.
Similarly, Gorkhas or Nepalis of India got together after former Prime Minister Morarji Desai erroneously said in 1977 that Nepali is a foreign langauge and all Nepalis in India are foreigners. It triggered a nationwide Bhasha Andolan, which became a unifying factor in the bid to fashion a distinct Indian identity.
The formulation of Indian Gorkha identity received wider support during the Subhash Ghisingh led Gorkhaland movement of the mid-1980s, not just in the Darjeeling region, but even elsewhere in the country. Although self-rule and identity were the primary objectives, language also played a key role. Ultimately, the Centre conceded and Nepali was included as one of the official languages in the eighth schedule of the Constitution in 1992. Additionally, the Centre also issued a gazette notification in 1988 clarifying that Gorkhas residing in India were Indian citizens.
Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal and Assam contrast
Today, when West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee vociferously takes up the cause of the 40 lakh people excluded from the NRC final draft list – most of them speakers of the Bengali language – one cannot but compare the contrast in her actions with respect to Gorkhas. A poem titled “Identity” that she penned for the 40 lakh excluded from the NRC could well have echoed the pain and anguish suffered by Indian Gorkhas for several decades now.
Yet, it is ironical how Banerjee failed to appreciate the similarities between Bengali speaking population of Assam and Nepali speaking population in West Bengal. Both are multilingual states where minority groups are under pressure from the majority, resulting in identity assertion of the minorities. That was the logical explanation for the flareup over language issue in Darjeeling last year.
There are lessons to be learnt in every movement. While every state is multilingual and mandated to respect the rights of linguistic minorities, political practice has demonstrated that the official language symbolises the state. Speakers of minority languages find that discrimination against them by the majority community is based not on language competence or achievement, but on language identification. The Rajbanshis and Kochs of Cooch Behar have assimilated themselves, adopting Bengali as their language. But Gorkhas have resisted this and have paid the price. As a consequence, Gorkhas of Darjeeling feel that a separate state is the only answer to the problems of identity and discrimination.
An NRC in West Bengal may not be unwelcome, but a clear distinction has to be made between Indian Gorkhas and immigrant Nepalese living in India first.
Swaraj Thapa is a political commentator and activist.