Nepal – the country of the Buddha and the Mt. Everest

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without – Buddha

OPINION: Darjeeling to Gorkhaland – Name-Change To Placate The Dominant Ethnic Group

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on August 26, 2011



[The author is an advocate practicing at Jalpaiguri District Court.]

THE Gorkhaland agreement is an interim arrangement prior to the creation of a separate state of the same name. In a de facto manner, it legitimises the process of colonisation in the 21st century. There is no such parallel yet anywhere in the world. The sensitive aspect of the pact signed last month is that it has changed the name of Darjeeling to Gorkhaland. Implicit in the name, “Darjeeling”, is the fact that it was once a predominantly Lepcha territory.

Mamata Banerjee has tried to under-play the name-change in the Hills by quoting Shakespeare ~ “What’s in a name?”. This is bound to boomerang, and add fuel to the fire. To say the least, the pact is a hasty, short-sighted exercise on the part of the Chief Minister, reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s brand of politics. It reeks of opportunism.

We need to ascertain whether the term, “Gorkha” denotes a tribe, a race, a caste or a linguistic group. Why did the leaders of the Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM) insist that the territory should be named Gorkhaland if there was nothing substantive? Why do they find the original name, “Darjeeling”, unacceptable? The name-change has been incorporated in the agreement. And the GJMM has stuck to its demand for a separate state by that name.

The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) is only a stepping stone towards a separate state of Gorkhaland within the Union of India. The permanent title of the territory has been reserved for the Gorkhas, to the exclusion of other ethnic groups, including the Lepchas. The hegemony of the Gorkha is inherent in the agreement. The grant of Scheduled Tribe status to the Gorkhas, as promised, will enable them to exclude all other ethnic groups from buying property in the proposed state.

An entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edition) vol V page 575, states: “Gurkha, also spelled Gorkha, is a town in central Nepal. It is located on a hill overlooking the Himalayas. The town is famous for its shrine, “Gorakhnath”, the patron saint of the region. The ancestral home of the ruling house of Nepal, Gurkha was seized by Drabya Shah, the younger son of the king of Lamjung, who established his own kingdom. His descendant, Prithvi Narayan Shah, created an ethnically diverse military force that came to be known as the Gurkhas with which he conquered the valley in 1769 and consolidated the numerous petty principalities into the state of Nepal. Shortly thereafter he moved his capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu.”

This makes it clear that there was a town north of Kathmandu by the name, Gorkha. A town by this name still exists and can be verified in the map of Nepal. On the Indian side of the same region there is another town named Gorakhpur, probably dedicated to the same saint. The town, Gorkha, in Nepal was the original kingdom of the martial race of the Gorkhas. After shifting the capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu, the whole country of Nepal became a Gorkha territory and is, in fact, a Gorkhaland.

There should be no difference between the two words, Nepali and Gorkha. Nor for that matter is there any difference between the languages known as Gorkhali and Nepali; they are the names of the one and the same language. The poet, Bhanu Bhakta, is venerated in Nepal as well as in Darjeeling. However, the Nepalis living in India believe that the term indicates their foreign status as nationals of Nepal. Hence the anxiety of the GJMM to maintain a separate Gorkha identity, one that is distinct from the Nepali identity within the Indian Union. LSS O’Malley’s Bengal District Gazetteers, published in 1907, states that the Raja of Sikkim transferred the district of Darjeeling to the East India Company on 1 February 1835.

According to O’Malley, the Lepchas are the aboriginal inhabitants of the country, who call themselves Rong i.e., the squatters, and their country the “land of caves”. The word, “Lepcha”, was a contemptuous appellation given to them by the Nepalis. Formerly, they possessed all the hill country of Darjeeling and Sikkim. Dr Campbell, a member of the Indian Civil Service, who was the British Resident in Nepal, was transferred to Darjeeling as Superintendent in 1839. He reported that “the population rose from no more than 100 souls in 1839 to about 10,000 in 1849, chiefly by immigration from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan”. Dr Campbell established a sanatorium there for troops and others. Thus began the colonisation by the East India Company.

The name, “Darjeeling”, is a variant of the word, “Dorge”, the precious stone which is emblematic of the thunderbolt of Sakhra (Indra) and “ling”, a place. The word derives its origin from the native language of the Lepchas, which is called Rong-ring, a language believed by some scholars to be the oldest in the world. These facts lead us to the inevitable conclusion that historically Darjeeling has been a Lepcha territory and a part of Sikkim. It has never been a Gorkha territory.

A demographic profile of the district, according to the census of 1901, shows that the Nepalis comprise 134,000 of the populace, which is more than half of the total. The various castes among the Nepalis were well represented in the district but the most numerous were the Khambus and Murmis. The latter were believed to have descended from Tibetan stock. The next “most numerous” caste was the Limbu who numbered 14,300. The Khas and Newar are the other castes. It is pertinent to mention that the Gorkhas, after the conquest of Nepal from the ruling Newar caste, did not change the name of the state to Gorkhaland.

The Lepchas, the original inhabitants, numbered only 10,000 in 1901 had already become a minority compared to the Nepalis. The Bhutias of Darjeeling numbered 9,300. They consisted of four classes ~ the Sikkimese Bhutias; the Sherpa Bhutias who came from east Nepal; the Drukpa or Dharma Bhutia whose home was Bhutan; and the Tibetan Bhutias from Tibet. Besides, there were Rajbangshis, Koches and the people from the plains such as Bengalis, Marwaris, Punjabis, and Biharis who had also settled in the Hills by that time. According to the Census of 1901, about one-fifth of the people spoke Nepali-Hindi which is also known as Gurkhali or Nepali, or Paharia by the people of the plains. Nearly 50 per cent of the people spoke in 19 different dialects of Tibetan-Burmese origin.

The data, based on the census, points to the diversity of the population of Darjeeling district. The word, “Gorkha”, is the name of the caste that originated from the Gurkha town of Nepal. The strength of the Gorkha agitators stems from the fact that the Nepalis far outnumber the Lepchas. Being a martial group, the Gorkhas have become a dominant segment. They are, therefore, in a position to buttress the demand for a separate state, to be called “Gorkhaland”. The name-change of Darjeeling will identify the Hills with the most dominant caste. All Gorkhas are Nepali in origin, but all Nepalis are not Gorkhas which is a caste among those we know as Nepalis.

The Gorkhaland pact concedes more than it gains. It does not protect the territorial integrity of the state of West Bengal. The proposed Gorkhaland Territorial Administration is an essay towards the creation of a separate state.

When Miss Banerjee promised a Switzerland in North Bengal, she meant a Gorkhaland.

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