Although West Bengal has the highest number of Nepali-speaking people in India, Sikkim has the highest density. Six of the eight Northeastern states have a higher density than Bengal, where the 10.23 lakh Nepali-speaking people make up 1.2 per cent of the population (8.02 crore, census 2001).
In Sikkim, 62.6 per cent of the residents speak Nepali, owing to their ethnic origins. Its 2001 count of 3.39 lakh Nepali speakers is third in the list, after Bengal and Assam.
In Assam, the first large flush of Nepali-speaking persons came in the form of soldiers in the Gorkha Corps when the British annexed Assam in 1826. Soon, the British raised the Assam Light Infantry which had two Gorkha companies.
Poverty also drove migration for cattle-rearing and farming. The Assam Railway & Trading Company (1881) brought in Nepali labourers to work in its coal mines and oil wells in upper Assam.
Freedom fighter Chabilal Upadhyaya, the first president of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, was a second-generation Assam-born Nepali. The Tezpur Lok Sabha constituency, which has 1.5 lakh Nepal-origin voters, has elected a Nepali-speaking MP five times, while Assam has elected 13 Nepali-speaking MLAs since 1946.
At least three authors of Nepali roots of Assam have won the Sahitya Akademi award for contribution to Nepali literature, the latest being Gita Upadhyaya, whose novel Janmabhumi Mero Swadesh is the story of Nepali settlement in Assam told through a biography of Chabilal, her grandfather.
“Nepalis have contributed immensely to Assam’s overall development including art, culture and literature,” said Tezpur MP R P Sharma. “Bhupen Hazarika, who had sung at least one song eulogising the Nepali cattle-rearer in Assam, had originally donned a Nepali cap.”