Gorkhaland is a huge question mark shaped cloud in the sky. The region never belonged to West Bengal. Yes. The demand for the Gorkha people’s recognition in the Darjeeling Hills is more than 100 years. Yes. The Nepali-speaking Indians need their distinct ethnic identity is India. Yes. So where is the problem? Why is the Government of India still pussyfooting over the issue? Bharat Rakshak, the official website of the Indian Army provided an interesting insight to the fears of the Indian Army drawing parallels between Khalistan and Gorkhaland movement. Jyoti Thapa Mani essays where the comparison on Sikhs and Gorkhas begins and ends.
Text begins: http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/…/237-historical-overview.html
‘Today India is at the crossroads. In some spheres, we have creditable progress, but in many others there has been alarming deterioration and are facing mounting crisis. Divisive and secessionist forces have been increasingly asserting themselves. Various contradictions in our society not only persist but have accentuated. The Army cannot remain totally isolated from these developments. The Sikh problem had its repercussions in the mutiny of some Sikh soldiers. The Gorkhaland problem may have ramifications amongst the Gorkha soldiers, if proper care is not taken. The Sikhs and the Gorkhas have been our finest soldiers and their record of loyalty and gallantry should not be allowed to get tarnished.’
The above extract indicates that the Army is clearly concerned about protecting its highly reliable Gorkha soldiers from political influences. Now why would they have reason to worry unless history has indicated so? Years ago, British India acclaimed the Sikhs and Gorkhas as the two martial races in its vast multi-ethnic Indian army. Side by side the two fought major battles earning an almost equal number of Victoria Crosses. Let us look at their commonalities and differences.
Originating from the undivided pre-partition Punjab, the Sikhs were formed as the followers of the Sikh religion founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1538). They were roaming rival misls or tribal groups of which the renowned Maharaja Ranjeet Singh (1780-1839) belonged to the Sukercharia clan. Under him the Sikhs were bound as a powerful Confederacy of Punjab with boundaries touching the Khyber Pass and enclosing Kashmir, Ladakh and Peshawar.
Similarly, in the Himalayan region, the Gorkhas consisted of various tribal clans gathered by the conquests begun by Prithvi Narayan Shah (1730-1775), the ambitious warrior king of a small hill kingdom called Gorkha. Subsequently, his descendants formed the dynasty of the House of Gorkha under which evolved the Gorkha/Nepalese Confederacy of Nepal. Their army called the Gorkha Sena led fierce campaigns, which extended Nepal’s boundaries till the rivers Sutlej in the west and Teesta in the east. While Punjab became the most powerful empire in the northern plains and foothills, Nepal was the most powerful Himalayan kingdom. The Khalsa Sikhs and the Gorkha warriors were the most inimitable armies of their time forming military protectorate rules at remotest of places.
The battle cry of the Sikhs is ‘Bole Jo Sonihal, Sat Sri Akal’ and their traditional weapon is called the Kirpan. The battle cry of the Gorkhas is ‘Jai Mahakaali, Ayo Gorkhali’ and their traditional curved knife is called the Khukri. During this era, the growth of such armies bound by their religious oaths developed to counter result of series of invasions from the North-Western Islamic Provinces.
The association of the Sikhs and Gorkhas
In the early 1800s, the paths of the Sikhs and Gorkhas first clashed at Kangra (in today’s Himachal Pradesh) where they both had interests in acquiring the Kangra fort. The Sikhs won the round and the two settled to a pact of peace on either side of the Sutlej River as neighbours. Circa 1814, when the war clouds with the East India Company loomed on the horizon, the Gorkhas sought coalition with the Sikhs to face the impending battles. Gorkha Commander Bada Kazi Amar Singh Thapa believed that together they could rout out the British from North India. But secure under the 1809 Treaty with the British, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh declined to accept the Gorkha appeal. With no strong allies, the Gorkhas fought the Company’s forces with admirable spirit but finally had to bow down to signing the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, by which they to cede 1/3rd of its territory comprising of today’s Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Southern Sikkim and tracts of the Tarai region. Despite the losses, Nepal retained her monarchical independence and never came under British colonial rule. Punjab did not share the same fortune.
|The association of the Sikhs and Gorkhas|
1857-the test of duty for Sikhs and Gorkhas
The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny was then attributed to Muslim rulers trying to reassert their weakening powers and the Marathas Hindu rulers seeking to regain theirs, leading to an united front against the British. The Sikhs and Gorkhas had no connection to these factors so were neutral to the causes of the mutiny. Overrun by rioting, looting, arson and violence; the need of the day was to first bring about law and order where the Gorkha and Sikh Battalions played major roles. However, in a stray incident, a battalion of the First Gorkha Rifles then called had also rebelled in 1857 from their headquarters at Jutogh near Shimla. This mutiny was quickly quelled at Kasauli. The British kept moving the Gorkha centres to faraway places where they would be away from political influences.
The Sikhs also had a personal agenda in the mutiny. Erstwhile Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb, Shah Zahan and Muhammed Bin Tuqhlaq to name a few, had been hard-core radicals bent upon oppressing minority religious groups such as the Sikhs. Several Sikh Gurus had been killed in the process. The 9th Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 under the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb at Gurdwara Sis-Ganj at Chandni Chowk, Delhi for refusing to convert to Islam. The Mutiny ended with banishment of the Mughal Emperor at Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar to Rangoon in Burma after found guilty of orchestrating the revolt. The Mughal rule of Hindustan sank away and India changed hands to the direct rule of the British Empire with headquarters moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. Post 1857, the Sikh leaders had begun actively looking at their identity. The 1920s saw the rise of the Akali or Gurdwara Reform Movement and the introduction of the Sikh Gurdwara Bill, which placed all historical Indian Sikh shrines under the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.
The INA battles- Cause vs Commitment for the Gorkhas and Sikhs:
By the 1940s the Indian Struggle for freedom was at this zenith. The Indian National Army (Azaad Hind Fauz)-a military alliance with the Japanese was established in 1942 to form an armed struggle against British rule in South-east Asia. The arenas of the then raging World War II provided opportunities for INA allies to influence the Prisoners Of War of the British Indian Army. It was a big shock when the entire 2/1 Gorkha Rifles captured on January 1942 in Malaya signed up with the INA. Most of them were Nepal-born. Two India-born Gorkhas, Durga Mall and Dal Bahadur Thapa were commissioned in the INA as Major and Captain. Later, captured by their parent Indian British Army, they were deemed ‘deserters’ and hung to death for treason in Delhi. Ex 2\1 GR’s Band-major Ram Singh Thakuri became INA’s bandmaster composing all the stirring Kaumi-Taraanas (patriotic songs). In terms of statistics, the major martial races who joined the INA were northerners the Pathans, Dogras, Baluchis and the Sikhs. Prominent leaders of the INA movement were Punjabis such as Giani Pritam Singh Dhillon, Prem Sahgal, Mohan Singh, Gurbaksh Singh Dhilllon and Shah Nawaz Khan. Of the INA Gorkha soldiers, three are still alive and living in Dharamshala, HP. They are Hoshiar Singh Thapa, Babbar Singh Burathoki and Charan Singh Thapa.
Gorkha civilian freedom fighters in the east
As of now, the Northern and eastern Gorkhalis are still trying to trace and gather names of their freedom fighters. The ones who have emerged on record so far are Sabitri Devi (Helen Lepcha), Gaga Tshering Dukpa, Dal Bahadur Giri, Mahabir Giri, Babu Damber Singh Gurung, Chabilal Upadhyaya, Bishnulal Upadhayay, Indreni Thapa, Dalbir Singh Lohar, Bhakta Bahadur Pradhan, Jungbir Sapkota, Krishna Bahadur Mukhia and Pushpa Kumar Ghising from Darjeeling Hills. Way back in 1891, Subedar Niranjan Chhetri from Manipur was hanged by the British as he led the Manipur king Tekendrajit Singh’s contingent of Nepali bodyguards.
The socio-economic settlement of the Gorkhas and political displacement of the Sikhs:
The Gorkhas and Sikhs are God-fearing, fearless, and hard working races whose traditional occupations are as farmers or soldiers. On a macro-scale, they are also known as Punjabis and Nepalis. The 19th-20th century saw major migration patterns emerging. The British colonies required rapid infrastructure building whether in India, Africa or the plantations of Malaya. Everyone was moving. Tamils and Gujeratis moved to Africa to build railroads. The western Nepalis moved into the ever-growing Gurkha army, and the easterners towards the Northeast to tea plantations, road constructions and mining. The concentration of Gorkha people developed around these occupational points. While the Gorkha movement was a natural socio-economic one, the Sikhs, Punjabi Hindus and Bengalis faced one of the worst political exodus in Indian history. In 1947, the Sikhs homesteads from Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar and allover the northwest was granted to Pakistan. They were now foreigners where what was once the citadel of their glorious empire. The border became the dreaded word for all.
New State for the Sikhs
1947 was a very dark period for the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims as they moved in and out of India and Pakistan. It was a religious division where people lost their homes, belongings and families with anguish leading to severe violence, sorrow, anger and frustrations. During this time, the British-Gurkha soldiers stood guard to help the refugees, provide escort to safety and curb violence. Many refugees who survived and arrived safe still remember with gratitude the role of the Gurkhas. The process of creating a separate state for Muslims had began way back in 1889, the details of which will make this essay too lengthy, but resulted in the Muslim majority in Punjab given separate electorates and reservation of seats compared to none for the minority Sikhs. Baba Kharak Singh in 1929 publicly opined that no single community should be granted political hegemony in Punjab. In 1940, the Sikhs received a jolt when Mohammed Ali Jinnah called for a separate state for Muslims to be called Pakistan, carved out of Punjab. In August 1944 Master Tara Singh declared that the Sikhs were a nation. Two years later, the Shiromani Akali Dal passed a resolution for the creation of a separate Sikh state. In 1947, The Sikhs opted for India and the period saw years of losses and rehabilitation programmes. Bhutan and Nepal were declared independent states by the British and thus remained unaffected by the partition of the British India Empire. The partition saga continued till 1971 with the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
The 1960s demand by the Sikhs for a state based on their lingua franca unfortunately led to fresh communal frays as Hindus were targeted to be ousted from Punjab. Finally, the Punjab region was divided along the present area of Punjab for the Sikhs, and for the Hindu majority the states of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and part of Rajasthan were segregated. Based on claims of Sikh discrimination and marginalization by the Congress party, Sikh politics began to get active again in the 1970s. The background to this was the Khalistan movement, which sought to create a separate country called Khalistan from within India. By the 1980s, the movement had become a militant one calling for counter-insurgency operations from the Indian Security Services. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency rule against a backdrop of escalating violence with prominent Sikh leaders such as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale on the field. Finally, she had to call for Operation Blue Star, an armed attack on Amritsar. In June 1984, it was an ironical day when a Sikh General Kuldip Singh Brar led the Indian Army into the Golden Temple to flush out militants who were based inside. Sacred structures such as the Akhal Takht were damaged; innocent lives were lost but Bhindranwale and his men finally annihilated. The operation received worldwide criticism and hurt the sentiments of the Sikhs. Mutiny is the nightmare of any Army, and it happened. Revolts struck in the Sikh Regiments. Brigadier General R.S. Puri, the Commander of the Sikh Regimental Centre at Ramgarh, Bihar was killed by his angry troops. Two senior officers and some soldiers were also killed in the firing. There were also incidents of hijacking of buses and trucks. Another rebellion took place at Pune, where firing from Sikh soldiers in military vehicles resulted in the death of one person. About 5,000 Sikh soldiers are said to have rebelled.
In a stern reprimand, the then Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, General A.S. Vaidya said “Those who acted in a mutinous manner will be dealt with severely under the laws as enacted for the army”. He also stressed that “It was a matter of shame that some of you forgot the oath of allegiance you took to this country of ours and chose to get instigated by the enemies of the land, both internal and collectively did an act of disloyalty”.
1984-The Assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi
On the 31 October 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. To the horror of everyone the deed was committed at her residence by two of her faithful Sikh bodyguards called Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Shock turned to anger towards the Sikh community and over the following four days, thousands of Sikhs were killed as arson, violence and looting erupted on the streets of Delhi and outside. The issue simmered with Sikhs demanding justice for the victims of the anti-Sikh riots and the progress of Punjab.
The Demand for Gorkhaland State-Darjeeling unrest
The Nepali-speaking population in India had issues of their own. They desired ethno-linguistic rights and official recognition as Indians. Way back in 1907, during the British rule, the people of Darjeeling had demanded a separate administrative unit. In 1917, the Hillmans’ Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum (the first of many unheeded ones) to the governing bodies centred in Calcutta for a separate administrative unit for Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts. In 1947, memorandum was submitted to the Constituent assembly of India’s interim government demanding Gorkhasthan. The series of memorandums continued to successive Indian Prime Ministers demanding separation from Bengal. Post 1947, Prime Minister Morarji Desai considered of the Gorkhali people as ‘foreigners from Nepal’ reflecting undeserving ignorance and dismissal. The selfish attitude of the politicians hurt the sentiments of the Gorkhali people who decided to continue their fight for recognition nevertheless. By 1988, the issue gained momentum to blast into a violent agitation demanding the state of Gorkhaland. In 2007, a semi-autonomous body called the Darjeeling Hill Council was granted for certain areas in the Darjeeling district. In 2011, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration also a semi-autonomous body was granted replacing the DGHC, but no statehood.
On April 7, 2014, the Bhartiya Janata Party mentioned in its manifesto that the party will “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas”. However, the uploaded version on their website does not mention this. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha Party has been always on the job of reminding the BJP this promise, which seems to do the disappearing act now and then. The promise of delivering Gorkhaland was never inked and has remained a matter of verbal assurance now almost becoming hearsay. To address the issue point-blank does the Government of India fear another Khalistan in the Darjeeling Hills? Will the loyalty of Gorkha troops remain unaffected as long as there is no state of identity granted especially in the delicate Chicken’s neck corridor of India?
Different nerve points for Gorkhas and Sikhs
The Sikhs are extremely sensitive to their religion. It is believed that what upset Satwant Singh and Beant Singh and the Sikh Mutiny was the attack on the Sikh holy shrine of the Akal Takht under the orders of Mrs Gandhi. The Sikhs also said that they were hurt by the alleged reports of innocent women and children killed in the operation. The Sikh sensitivity is a result of his history. The Gorkha history is different. What hurts Indian Gorkhas most is to be considered as ‘foreigners’, when as a race they have shed their blood for India time and again? The Gorkha issue is about being recognised in his homeland India. This is where their similarity with the Sikhs ends and therein, rests the answer to the fears of the army.
*Ms. Jyoti Thapa Mani is the author of Illustrated History of the 1st Gorkha Rifles (1815-2008), and The Khukri Braves.