Nepalese immigration threatens even India

Even a country as large as India feels threatened by Nepalese immigration into its North-eastern states. Their recent clamour for 'Gorkhaland' bears testimony to the Nepalese's tendency for creating troubles in all places they settle in. Please read the following article by SUNANDA K DATTA-RAY, Pioneer, 12 August 2011.

Title: Challenge of Gorkhaland
Written by SUNANDA K DATTA-RAY, Pioneer, 12 August 2011

The possibility of new Nepalese-majority States doesn’t concern West Bengal alone. It concerns India from Assam to Uttarakhand.

Bounded by Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and China, Gorkhaland will be India’s second Nepalese-majority State. If migration across the 500-mile open border — which the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty permits and even encourages — continues, it may not be the last. The prospect explains Rajiv Gandhi’s refusal in 1986 to countenance citizenship for post-1950 immigrants.

Even Darjeeling’s sitting MP tempers pleasure over the recent tripartite agreement with circumspection. “The challenge is to understand: ‘what hereafter’ and to address that,” Mr Jaswant Singh warns. Since Ms Mamata Banerjee denies that the tripartite agreement will lead to Statehood, she may not realise there is a challenge to understand and address.

It may soon become mandatory to speak only of ‘Gorkha’, so let me be ethnically accurate rather than politically correct while it is still possible and say that the challenge is of appreciating Nepalese history and ethnography and its impact on India all along the Himalayas, not just in West Bengal. Some Nepalese readers have taken umbrage at my article “Step towards Gorkhaland” published in these columns on July 29. They probably feel the economic implications of migration are demeaning. Hence they insist they didn’t come from anywhere but have always been Indian.

Always is a big word and a huge concept. How long does one have to live in a terrain to be regarded as indigenous, a reader asked. The answer can’t be measured in years or even generations. The Burdwan zamindari family have lived in Bengal for 500 years and don’t speak a word of Punjabi. But apart from exceptional love matches, all their spouses come from Punjab. In the US, Ralph Ellison, the Black American author of Invisible Man, nursed no memory, individual or folk, of his African forebears. His consciousness had been shaped in the crucible of the American Dream.

As the Rastafarian movement or the Black American girl flirting with Nigerian attire in A Raisin in the Sun demonstrated, belonging is a state of mind. 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 boundaries which is why many Nagas seek union with their fellow tribesmen in Myanmar. Friends of 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 born Malay and Muslim, but Malayali settlers in dhoti and angavastram are also accorded bumiputera status. The Burdwans suggest that choice takes precedence over history and ethnicity.

Readers who deny that the British brought in Nepalese labour are right only to the extent that migration existed before Sikkim ceded Darjeeling to the East India Company. But it’s fanciful to claim (as one reader did) that the Nepalese came in the 1600s. Many of Darjeeling’s 1,900 inhabitants in 1850 (2,200 in 1869) were the original Lepchas and Bhutiyas.

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 Treaty additionally encouraged immigration. The Nepalese share of Darjeeling’s population rose from 54 per cent in 1901 to 58.4 per cent in 1971. Reportedly, it increased by 700 per cent during 1951-2001.

A vigorous community’s eastward push reduced Lepchas and Bhutiyas to minorities in their own homeland. Ethnic strife erupted throughout the North-East but especially in Meghalaya. Darjeeling suffered grievously. The most dramatic impact was in Sikkim which had only 2,500 Lepchas, 1,500 Bhutiyas and 1,000 Tsongs in 1873. A century later, the Nepalese, then three-quarters of the population, played a decisive part in changing the status of a Tibetan-Buddhist kingdom with which they could not relate. A Sikkim-Nepalese politician even demanded a Nepalese Hindu king to balance the Bhutiya Buddhist Chogyal! Bhutan began to be wary of non-Drukpa settlers after the Sikkim agitation in which many Darjeeling Nepalese participated. There were also allegations of Darjeeling Nepalese agitators in Bhutan.

Bhutan began recruiting Nepalese labourers (tangyas) in 1900, allowing them to stay on as tenant farmers with Bhutanese nationality. This changed when Bhutan’s planned growth, empty land and porous borders attracted waves of illegal migrants. The evictions, refugee camps in Nepal, militant organisations, terrorist activity and assisted migration to North America and Europe are another story.

Just as Drukpa officials felt absorption would be easier if the Nepalese were called Southern Bhutanese or Lhotshampas, Subhas Ghising dubbed them Gorkha. 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 exorcise the spectres or temptations of an ethnic absolutism for diasporic subjects.” Ghising’s overtures to Nepal’s King Birendra and Prince Gyanendra and periodic unpublicised trips to Nepal may have aggravated those fears. It was recalled then that the All-India Gurkha League’s founding constitution referred to Nepal as the “motherland”.

Several readers argue that Bengalis are equally foreign because they are really Bangladeshis. True, many people in Calcutta and West Bengal have roots in East Bengal (there was no Bangladesh then) just as many Tamils in Chennai come from villages in Tanjore and other districts. The metropole always attracts manpower, and internal migration in undivided Bengal followed this pattern. The movement since 1947 falls into two categories. The first is a staggered and delayed (because of political factors including the 1950 Nehru-Liaquat Ali Pact) counterpart of the exchange of population that happened all at once in Punjab. The second is the illegal influx of Muslims from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, often abetted by elements in West Bengal. Undeniably, they should be tracked down and deported but neither group can be compared to the millions of Nepalese who have over the decades migrated to and made India their home.

The possibility of new Nepalese-majority States doesn’t concern West Bengal alone. It concerns India from Assam to Uttarakhand. The situation is without global parallel.

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