By Dipti Tamang
‘Where are You From?’
‘You are a Nepali, so you must be from Nepal?’
‘Darjeeling- oh so the Northeast?’
Do these questions resonate with all of us – ‘Nepalis’ in India once we physically cross the boundaries of our respective states and territories? Do we find this sense of ‘oneness’ when ‘one of our own’ faces racist/sexist discrimination at times resulting in serious physical and sexual violence marked as the ‘Other’, the ‘Foreigner’, the ‘Immigrant’? I take the privilege of assuming we do- for this sense of oneness emerges from a sense of deep-rooted frustration, hurt, humiliation, anger, alienation, exclusion, and exhaustion of the constant need to explain who the Nepalis are. These emotions have once again been stirred with the All-India Women Conference (AIWC) executive member Chandra Prabha Pandey banning performance in Nepali Language for Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav (AKAM) labeling Nepali as a ‘non-Indian’ language.
This is not the first time that the Nepalis in India have had to face such contestation with the state institutions in the mainland. In 2017, students from the Hills, seeking admission in the prestigious Delhi University could not seek admission treating Nepali as a subject, with Nepali being rendered a ‘non-academic’ subject.  The (non)recognition of the Nepali language as being Indian enough despite being constitutionally recognized adds to the insecurities of being a ‘Nepali’ in the Indian context. Often branded as ‘foreigners’- the ramifications of such bias resulting in racist/gendered discriminations taking violent forms to extreme measures of being physically deported and displaced (in neighboring places of the geographically defined ‘Northeast’ to the ethnic cleansing in Bhutan), the anger and outrage stands justified. With Citizenship laws becoming more severe and rigorous, these insecurities and tensions are not unfounded- with potential of dire consequences for a huge section of the Nepalis scattered in different parts of the country -especially in Darjeeling Hills. The contestation over who is a ‘Nepali’ or a ‘Gorkhali/Gorkha’ is open to debate and more relevant than ever; in present times demanding a deeper and more meaningful engagement on the Inside while we continue to face racial discrimination, oppression, and bias on the Outside.
Every year the Bhaasa Manyata Diwas is celebrated by the Nepalis living in India honoring the importance of the struggle and the celebration of the language being constitutionally recognized. The significance of the Nepali language being recognized and incorporated into the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution is tantamount for the Nepali community in India – a step forward in being officially recognized as being Indian. The birth and consciousness of an emerging Nepali identity in the context of India has a long, difficult, and problematic history– “1. ‘Nepalis’ and the ‘people of Nepali origin’ are not hundred percent same and 2. It is only towards the beginning of the twentieth century that ‘Nepalis’ as one ethnic group emerged in Darjeeling”, (Subba, 1992, 37). As succinctly observed by T.B Subba in his works, the ethnic group today identified as ‘Nepalis’ is an umbrella terminology comprised of several smaller ethnic groups speaking different languages, with their respective customary practices, cultural beliefs, traditions, and histories, which over the years has been ‘assimilated’ under this homogenized identity. In the recent years, the homogeneity of this identity however has been weaning with the revival of these lineages through language, rituals and customary practices by smaller, ethnic groups.
The efforts of creating a synchronised, homogenised identity emerged in the backdrop of a growing nationalist aspirations amongst the Nepali speaking population, influenced by developments in both Nepal and India. The Homeland movement – for Gorkhaland- is an outcome of the Nepali community’s need to belong and the growing Nepali nationalism, in the post-colonial, modern-nation state of India. It is an aspiration steeped deeply in nationalist aspirations – where ‘sub nationalism in India stands in a dialogical relationship with pan-Indian politics’ (Baruah, 1999). It is often understood as being antagonistic to the state because the demand is premised upon a logic of Difference, which is both unimaginable and intolerable to the postmodern nation-state’s model of an ‘imagined’ homogenous Indian identity, that is fragile and built upon logic of ‘accommodation’, ‘assimilation’ and ‘co-optation’.
In 1907 the first demand for treating Darjeeling Hills as a separate administrative unit was placed before the British government, reiterated by the organisation- Hillmen Association in 1917. This idea of Difference and acknowledgment of the same is pertinent here- where the conglomeration of the Nepali, Bhutia and the Lepchas presented this demanded for a recognition of the Darjeeling Hill as a separate administrative set-up of the Hill people. Shared sense of isolation, differential treatment, community lifestyle and emergence of a common lingua franca played an important role in building this shared sense of interdependence and community lifestyle- forging a sense of oneness- unique to the Himalayan communities unmarked by borders until very recently. Nepali nationalism, as it emerged was influenced by multiple factors- migration, socio-political developments in Nepal, India, Sikkim, which must be understood in unanimity and not as separate from each other.
In the backdrop of a growing nationalist movement in India under the British Raj alongside developments in Nepal, the birth of the Nepali language as a unifying force amongst these different hill communities emerged as a strong factor in forging a sense of oneness. Chettri (2013) argues, that for a huge bulk of the population employed in tea plantations and as Gurkha soldiers, language development became the tool for social progress. Tracing the birth and development of the Nepali literati, influenced by the literati in Benaras bringing to the fore prominent men like Suryabikram Gyawali, Dharnidhar Koirala, Parasmani Pradhan in Darjeeling Hills, she traces the intersection of these developments as crucial in establishing the connection between language and identity formation in the Hills.
Language therefore emerged as a strong factor in building this shared sense of oneness, underlying the imagination of a ‘Nepali’ identity in its early years. The efforts at advancing and disseminating Nepali language as a marker of the Nepali identity gained momentum after the establishment of the Nepali Sahitya Sammelan in 1924 and the efforts of the Nepali literati in the Hills. “Likewise, two other factors that advanced the development of the Nepali language were its necessity as a link language between the different ethnic groups who were recruited as Gurkhas as well as for the propagation of Christianity by the Scottish Mission Churches in Darjeeling”, (Chettri, 2013,53). Efforts at unifying the diverse groups through a common lingua franca through the efforts of the Nepali literati and the birth of the Nepali Sahitya Sammelan eventually formalised the cohesive unity and homogenisation of the Nepali identity (Hutt, 1997, Chalmers, 2003 in Chettri, 2013).
The Nepali Sahitya Sammelan, though significant for its role in promoting the development and dissemination of the language also promoted a language that has over time come to be increasingly homogenising and affiliated to a select group of the Nepali speaking community. In doing so, this has also resulted in creating an internal exclusive, elite class, with the language becoming inherently difficult, exclusive and exclusionary, crating starkly defined boundaries of what counts as ‘authentic’ Nepali. As Tamang, (2022), rightly argues, ‘the intellectual development of Darjeeling due to the influence of sanskritized Nepali language (used by educated Nepali writers) led to the local poetic forms like Sawais and Laharis (written in colloquial Nepali) to be referred to as backward (Dhakal, 2015, 96 in Tamang 2022). Rather than perpetuating such hierarchies, the academia it would be enriching to make conscious efforts to preserve, protect and promote the culturally diverse histories, language and customary practices of the Hill people made up of these diverse community cultural and linguistic traditions and practices.
In the immediate aftermath of Independence, the state legislative assembly of West Bengal recognised Bengali as the only language of the state. Confronted with language imperialism, the Nepali speaking community waged long drawn protests to get the language recognised. Being a significant minority, it was important to have this language be recognised as part of the state it now belonged to in an effort to protect the cultural- linguistic practices of the minority community. The prolonged efforts of the Bhasa Manyata Samiti or the Darjeeling District Hill People’s Language Implementation Committee resulted in inclusion of the Nepali language as an additional language in the three subdivisions in the West Bengal Official Languages Act, 1961. The demand for being included in the Constitution was first raised by A. S Thapa in Dehradun in 1956 and in 1969 the Bhasa Sangharsha Samiti was formed to achieve the same goal (Subba, 1992). In 1972 the Nepali Bhasa Samiti was formed to pursue this demand further, later renamed as the All-India Nepali Bhasa Samiti.
In 1990, the All-India Nepali Language conference organised in Sikkim gave birth to a new body- Bharatiya Nepali Parishad with the objective of getting Nepali language included in the 8th schedule of the Indian Constitution. The movement took a final turn in 1991 with Dil Kumari Bhandari elected as an M.P from Sikkim, championing the cause for the Nepali language’s inclusion in the Constitution. It was only after immense pressure and mobilisation that the Bill to include the Nepali language in the Indian Constitution was finally passed on the 20th of August 1992 which is celebrated annually as the Bhasa Manyata Diwas by Nepalis scattered all over India. By including Nepali into the Indian Constitution, constitutional safeguards ensured the protection, promotion and guarantees to safeguard the interests of the minority communities in India.
The demands for recognition by the Indian Nepali community were treated with great suspicion, and continues to date, with the then Prime Minister of India -Indira Gandhi treating the consideration of inclusion of the Nepali language in the Constitution as a matter of ‘national interest and security’, contributing to the growing sense of insecurities and tensions of the Nepali community. This was further reiterated by the Prime Minister Morarji Desai bluntly refusing the demand on the grounds that Nepalis were ‘immigrants’, ‘recruits of the Gorkha army’ therefore different from the original inhabitants of the Indian nation-state. The language movement emerged parallel to the Homeland movement with the idea of Difference emerging as a strong factor in forging this consciousness of a Nepali identity. Language among other factors therefore has played a strong role in forging this consciousness of a Nepali identity, therefore being central to the Homeland Movement in imagining the idea of who is the Nepali.
I write this piece listening to Bipul Chettri’s soothing voice playing in the background- nostalgic of home and the Hills, thinking through these questions of existence, identities and belonging. Being outside the Hills, music and food emerges as strong bonds of connection to our idea of Home. From the time we left home to pursue university degrees and careers in mainland cities, music always connected us as Nepalis and in this sense of community we found a sense of oneness, of home, away from the Hills. Despite dfiferences of being a Tamang, Rai, Gurung, Chettri, Kami, Damai, we connected as One. Never really forced to engage with the idea of the homogenised sense of being a Nepali in the mainland- in the wake of racist/gendered abuses, discrimination, the Oneness mattered and made sense and it still does.
Only when I went back home, I was forced to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions of, ‘what does it mean to be a Nepali in India today? What does it mean to be a Nepali in the Hills today?’ Being branded as ‘foreigners’ will always hurt- our existence and our realities on an everyday basis after-all being consequences of this reality of never actually belonging. Despite being recognised as Indian citizens, to be marked as ‘foreigners’ and to live in a perpetual state of insecurity, promoting a sense of alienation and distance from the mainland, the insecurities and alienation makes sense. The Language movement is important for the Nepali speaking community- language being recognised by the Indian state as a marker of being different, with states being carved out precisely on the grounds of this difference, setting precedents for smaller communities to raise similar demands on the grounds of being different and the need to protect, preserve and promote these differences. Neither of which has materialised for the Nepali speaking community in India.
Despite massive struggles to be included into the Constitution and safeguards to preserve the language, little has been done to promote the language, dying a slow death. With limited resources being available, preservation of literature and promotion of new literature has resulted in the decaying of the language in the region likewise. The language movement emerged parallel to the growth of Nepali Nationalism in the region, which therefore also demands serious introspection on what came to be promoted as ‘authentic’ Nepali language. With the language becoming extremely difficult, exclusive, and alienating for even those of us belonging to the Nepali speaking community, it is also pertinent to work towards promoting and disseminating the language which is accessible and outside of what is recognised as ‘authentic’ language.
In the present times new forms of poetry, writings and art form has emerged as alternative spaces with the younger, English educated generation finding these spaces more accessible and inclusive. Likewise, smaller communities are working extensively to revive their lost heritage with language and customary practices, folk songs and music becoming increasingly significant to these processes. In advocating and fighting for the protection, promotion, and preservation of Nepali language, it is important to recognise these Differences as unique and integral to the Himalayan heritage of the Hills and therefore working to protect, promote and preserve this unique heritage.
Baruah, Sanjib, 1999. India Against Itself, Assam and the politics of Nationality, University of Pennsylvania Press, United States
Chettri, Mona, 2013. Ethnic politics in the Nepali public sphere: three cases from the Eastern Himalaya, thesis submitted to SOAS, University of London.
Subba, T.B.1992. Ethnicity, State and Development, A case study of the Gorkhaland Movement in Darjeeling, Har-Anand Publications,
Tamang, Pema Gyalchen, 2022. ‘Decolonizing Darjeeling, History and Identity in the Writings of Indra Bahadur Rai’, HIMALAYA, Vol 41(1).