LAST WEEK, the Home Ministry issued a communication citing a 1950 treaty between India and Nepal, and stating that Gorkhas living in India cannot be referred to Foreigners Tribunals in Assam. A look at how the treaty allows Nepali citizens to live in India, and how India’s Gorkha citizens, including those in Assam, are distinct from them:
Who are Gorkhas?
Gorkhas (or Gurkhas) are Nepali-origin people who take their name from the 8th-century Hindu warrior-saint Guru Gorakhnath and from the Nepal hill town of Gorkha. In India, the word is sometimes used to make a distinction between Indian Gorkhas, who are citizens of India, and Nepali citizens who are living in India.
Who, then, are the Indian Gorkhas?
Most of them are descendants of Gorkhas settled in India during British rule. The British Army had raised several Gorkha units in India. After Independence and Partition, six regiments from the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas were transferred to the Indian Army under a Tripartite Agreement (1947) among the British, India and Nepal. In a notification issued on August 23, 1988, the Home Ministry clarified that Gorkhas domiciled in India at the the time of commencement of the Constitution, and those born in India, or born to one or both parents born in India, are citizens of India. West Bengal has the highest number of Nepali-speaking citizens, and Sikkim the highest density.
And who are the Nepali citizens living in India?
These are migrants legally living in the country. According to the External Affairs Ministry, nearly 6 million Nepali citizens live and work in India. The Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1950) permits, “on a reciprocal basis, the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature”.
When did Gorkhas settle 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. The British raised the Assam Light Infantry which had two Gorkha companies. The Assam Rifles, born as Cachar Levy in 1835, recruited several Gorkhas. Others were brought as workers in sectors and occupations including tea cultivation, laying of railway tracks, oil and coal industries, and as porters, herdsmen or marginal farmers. The apex body Assam Gorkha Sammelan estimates around 20-22 lakh Gorkhas are living in the state.
The first president of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, Chobilal Upadhyay, was an India-born member of the community. Leaders of the community have also been elected to the Assam Assembly and Parliament, including sitting MP from Tezpur R P Sharma.
What has prompted the Home Ministry to issue a clarification about Gorkhas in Assam now?
At a time when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated, the All Assam Gorkha Students’ Union made a representation to the ministry about members of the community being referred to Foreigners Tribunals. The ministry cited the Foreigners Act (1946) and the 1950 treaty to state that Gorkhas cannot be referred to these tribunals. rffectively covering both Indian and Nepali citizens. It stated that “any member of the Gorkha community holding Nepalese nationality and who has arrived in India by land or air over the Nepal border even without a passport or visa and staying in India for any length of time” shall not be treated as an illegal migrant if he/she has documents such as a Nepalese passport, Nepalese citizenship certificate, Nepalese voter card and others.
Are the Gorkhas eligible for inclusion in the Assam NRC?
The Indian Gorkhas of Assam are eligible, by virtue of being Indian citizens. The Nepali citizens are not eligible for inclusion, although they are legal migrants and the 1950 treaty protects them from referral to a Foreigners Tribunal.
How many have been excluded or referred?
Assam Gorkha Sammelan general secretary Kishore Upadhyay, also an Assam BJP secretary, says around 1.5 lakh applicants of the community have been excluded from the NRC, out of whom around 50,000 are doubtful voters or ‘D’ voters (a category introduced in the electoral rolls of Assam in 1997 for people served a notice by Foreigners Tribunals). A ‘D’ voter is automatically left out of the NRC until his/her name gets cleared. Nepali citizens are not eligible for voting, and this was the ground on which Election Commission had marked several Nepali-speaking people as ‘D’ voters. Gorkha organisations, however, allege that the process of marking ‘D’ voters was arbitrary.
A prominent example is retired defence personnel Bir Bahadur Thapa, 57, of Morigaon district, who told The Indian Express: “I had submitted all documents, including my Army documents, yet my name has been excluded from NRC final draft.” Thapa and seven other individuals of various communities have moved the Supreme Court, which has issued notice to the Centre, the state, the Registrar General and the NRC state coordinator.
What is the Indian Gorkhas’ stand on Nepali citizens in India?
In the Darjeeling Hills, leaders of the Gorkhaland agitation for statehood have been protesting against the 1950 Treaty, particularly Clause 7 that allows citizens of the two countries to live without hindrance in either country. Their stand was that Indian Nepalis too are mistakenly identified as foreigners.
In Assam, All Assam Gorkha Students’ Union president Prem Tamang said: “Because of the treaty, Gorkha people living in India from the early 1900s are being compared with Nepal-origin people who came to India recently. We believe that in Assam the cutoff should be 1971, irrespective of the treaty,” he said. All Assam Students’ Union adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya too opposed the treaty and stressed the distinction between Assam’s Gorkhas and Nepali citizens. “The Gorkha people settled in Assam for ages are part of Assamese society and culture,” he said.