Until the mid-1970s, every school assembly, and every ceremonial occasion, in Nepal would begin with the national anthem that includes the verses Paschima killa Kangra, purba ma Teesta pugetheu, Kun shaktiko samuma, kahile kami jhuketheu? The verses translate as “Kangra on the western border, Teesta in the east, Nepal has always been a country that has never bowed to any power in the world.”
Darjeeling, ceded by Nepal to the British East India Company back in 1815, continues to be the centrepiece of the bond between people who speak Nepali on either side of the border. Today, it is language that is now driving the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling.
Census figures over the years show that the state with the largest Nepali-speaking population is West Bengal — 10.23 lakh in 2001, which is almost twice as many as in Assam, the next highest state with 5.65 lakh. Sikkim has the highest concentration of Nepali-speaking people, at 62.6 per cent.
Although the Nepali-speaking segment makes up just 1.2 per cent of Bengal’s population. Darjeeling evokes more interest in Nepal than any other Indian region where Nepali-speaking persons are settled. The idea of a “Greater Nepal” still motivates a section of Nepal activists who want Darjeeling restored.
During the British Raj, Darjeeling was where migrant Nepalis preferred to work, chiefly in the tea gardens. Some returned home after the tea season, some settled in Darjeeling, and others went as far as Assam.
Darjeeling, along with Sikkim, has also been where promotion of the Nepali language and literature has been largely concentrated. In the late 1970s, Nepali scholars from Darjeeling as well as Assam led a movement for recognition of the language under the Eighth Schedule. The Morarji Desai-led government, however, turned it down. Sikkim, which became part of India in 1975, joined the movement and the language was eventually given that status in 1992.
Darjeeling’s Nepali-speaking population also contributed to the growth of trade union politics, their affiliations mostly to the CPI in the initial stages. Darjeeling elected Ratan Lal Brahman as its first parliamentarian. And until the Gorkhaland agitation of the 1980s, Anand Pathak of the CPM dominated politics in Darjeeling.
The movement led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front, however, projected the CPM-led government in Bengal as anti-Nepali. GNLF leader Subhash Ghising often identified himself with Nepal, although tactically. At times he would criticise former leaders of Darjeeling for having “refused to raise the issue of Darjeeling being returned to Nepal even though the British were in its favour”. Although that Gorkhaland movement was called off following a tripartite agreement that led to an autonomous hill council, the GNLF has now thrown its weight behind the revived movement spearheaded by the Gorkha Janmukti Manch.
The bond with Nepal, meanwhile, continues. During and after the British Raj, Nepali families sent their children to Darjeeling schools for quality education as well as the hill climate. King Mahendra sent his three children — Birendra, Gyanendra and Dhirendra — to North Point School, and one of the few pictures that adorn the meeting room of Gyanendra Shah, Nepal’s last monarch, shows him presenting a bouquet to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on behalf of the students.
During insurgency in Nepal, Maoist leaders tried to organise tea-garden workers in Darjeeling in 1995-96, but failed to earn support as most Darjeeling leaders did not want to be identified with the Left.
Darjeeling continues to celebrate Nepali literature. Events are held in hour of Bhanubhakta Acharya, an early 19th century poet who wrote a Nepali version of the Ramayana. Many poets, musicians and singers including Ambar Gurung, Gopal Yonjan, Dil Maya and Kama Yonjan either settled in Nepal or shuttled between that country and Darjeeling, cementing the cultural bridge.
Randhir Subba, one of the early leaders of the Gorkha League founded in the 1940s, migrated to Nepal where he headed the government-run Sajha Publication before becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs under King Birendra. Hari Prasad Pradhan, a migrant settled in Darjeeling, went back to Nepal and became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court in the 1950s.
Sikkim and a couple of the other Northeastern states, on account of their high concentration of Nepali-speaking people, too have made efforts to promote Nepali culture and language. Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, himself a poet in Nepali, has established awards in Bhanubhakta Acharya’s name. Each year, Sikkim celebrates the poet’s birthday on July 13 as Bhanu Jayanti, with literary figures from both countries invited.
In other border states such as Bihar, UP and Uttarakhand, the concentration of Nepali-speaking people is too low and scattered for them to have any influence on promoting the language there.