Darjeeling, India’s Nepali language hub

Shared language, culture and roots bond Nepal with Darjeeling, now site of a revived Gorkhaland movement driven by language

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire | Updated: June 19, 2017 6:20 am
darjeeling, darjeeling violence, darjeeling unrest, gorkhaland, gorkhaland movement, gjm, nepali, nepali language, india news At a shop in Darjeeling, a poster in Nepali urges people to oppose a “conspiracy to subdue our mother tongue”. Express Photo by Partha Paul

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.

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  1. A
    Anish
    Jun 20, 2017 at 1:17 am
    I Apolize that tme We Gorkhas r Coming in Darjeeling for Roping a Tea in Garden or Farming but u know That Tme Indians R the Slave of british And they r Polish The Shoes. Bt We Gorkhas Nver Bowed In front of anybody any power . AND that tme also We talk with british Head to head.
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    1. R
      Ram Gurung
      Jun 19, 2017 at 9:02 pm
      Geographically that was ancient Nepal's territories and that's been won by East India Company. India got all of those terrain without fighting with Nepal meanwhile the British has handed over to India in 1947. If the language survey will be held once again then Nepali language spokers will takes place top ten (50 million) in world.
      Reply
      1. R
        Raj
        Jun 19, 2017 at 8:17 pm
        There is no such language called "Nepali" - that was an invented name of the language. It's original name is "Khas Kura" or "Parvate". Even names like Pahari or Ghorkali are more accurate than "Nepali" . Nepali was the name that was invented for this language by the Rana Regime in Nepal in the 1920s. Its is false and historically inaccurate.
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        1. P
          Pema
          Jun 19, 2017 at 7:18 pm
          I should add that the British do ents in the India Office Records of the British Library (London) hold a wealth of information regarding the importing of labour into the Darjeeling hill tracts, as well as the British's own lease of the tract from Sikkim.
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          1. P
            Pema
            Jun 19, 2017 at 7:16 pm
            Dear Mr. Ghimire and The Indian Express: This sentence is 100 false, and should be fact-checked immediately given the escalating tension, and violence, in the region: "Darjeeling, ceded by Nepal to the British East India Company back in 1815" Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim, and was leased - upon request - to the British East India Company by Sikkim's 7th King. The British paid an annual rent to the Sikkim government for this (and there are records of this in the Sikkim Palace Archives). In the mid-late 1800s when the relations between the British and Sikkim became tense, the British began to default on their payments. The British started to bring labour from Nepal to work on tea plantations and also to build roads (often using an abhorrent practice, 'kalo bhari') through Sikkim to Tibet, which is where British interest lay (to counter a perceived Russian presence in Lhasa at the end of regional The Great Game).
            Reply
            1. R
              Raj
              Jun 19, 2017 at 8:12 pm
              True - what you said is true except you forget Ghorkas invaded this land from Sikkim and after they were defeated by the the British the land was handed over back to the Sikkim which in turn was leased to the British.
              Reply
            2. K
              Kamal Pasha
              Jun 19, 2017 at 11:39 am
              India does not gave good relations with any of her bordering nations except Bangladesh.
              Reply
              1. R
                Raj
                Jun 19, 2017 at 8:13 pm
                What about Bhutan ?
                Reply
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