The rattle of the train did little to disturb the sleep of the baby who slept peacefully in the lap of her young mother. An old woman, her grandmother perhaps, sat next to them.

We were aboard the Capital Express, which unlike the Rajdhanis – the special super-fast trains that connect Delhi with state capitals – has nothing to do with the national capital. It starts in the Kamrup district of Assam and ends at Danapur, a station near Patna, the capital of Bihar.

If it had any connection with a railway minister from Bihar, it was hard to ascertain.

More than the people of Bihar, the train is important for the people of the north Bengal hills and plains. From Siliguri, where the train stops, people bundle into shared taxis, overloaded jeeps, and buses to travel further to the hills of Darjeeling, where the demand for Gorkhaland has reportedly again picked up steam, after the creation of Telengana, and on the eve of national elections.

That’s where I imagined the baby was headed – until I asked her mum.

“We are not going to Darjeeling,” she said. “We are going to Dehradun, my home town.”

Her name was Ritu Chhetri, she was 23 years old, and she was married to a soldier of the Gorkha Regiment. Her husband was posted in Binnaguri, a place in north Bengal, very close to both Assam, and the border with Bhutan. “But we are very much from Uttarakhand,” she said. “Waise to hum Nepali hai, lekin hum India ke hai. Although we are Nepalese, we are Indians.”

She meant they were Nepalese-speaking Indians, or Indians of Nepalese origin, the term preferred by academic writers.

As the introduction to Indian Nepalis: Issues and Perspectives, a collection of essays, explains: 

“The emergence of nation-states called India and Nepal has created this anomalous status of the INOs, or Nepamul Bharatiya, who are also known as ‘Gorkhas’ and/or ‘Nepalis,’ The Nepalese and the Indian Nepalis have been travelling and residing in various parts of India since time immemorial in pursuit of trade, pilgrimage and other vocations. In the past, concepts of state boundary and nationality were flexible enough to overlook the migrants. However, the British colonialists, who adopted a deliberate policy of large-scale recruitment of the Nepalese in the armed forces and constabulary, coolie corps, plantation and forest labour force, also gave birth to the crisis of the INOs. From the second quarter of nineteenth century, the British opened up Darjeeling, Sikkim, Duars, Bhutan and Assam for the Nepalese settlement. And that was the beginning of an organised colonisation and extensive presence of the Nepalese in certain pockets of Northeast India.”

But it was not the eastern India that gave birth to the Gorkhaland movement. The All India Gorkha League, the oldest forum for Indian Nepalis, was established in Dehradun in 1923 – Ritu Chhetri’s home town.

Eventually, the league came to be concentrated in Darjeeling and the Duars. In 1947, the league submitted a memorandum to the Indian National Congress, which said, “The Bengalis, the Madrasis, the Punjabis saw their own freedom in India’s Independence. The Indian Gorkhas without a province of their own were apprehensive of the protection of their culture and identity.” The name that was proposed for the province by one of the Gorkha leaders, Randhir Subba, is ironically now the name of the state that Chhetri considers home: Uttarakhand.

History clearly loves ironies. It was the Darjeeling committee of the Communist Party of India, which had been working with Indian Nepali tea estate workers since the 1940s, that coined the slogan, “Free Gorkhasthan in a Free India”. Gorakhasthan became Gorkhaland and came back to haunt the communist government in the mid-1980s when the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front led by Subhash Ghising launched violent demonstrations for a separate state.

As Kamlajeet Rattan reported in India Today in 1988, “The CPI(M)‘s aggressive attitude is only infuriating the GNLF further. After almost two years, the Marxists are not only organising public meetings but also matching their violence to that of the GNLF. The district administration’s support to the Marxists – their bases have full paramilitary protection – is also angering the agitationists…Ghising, who doesn’t condemn violence committed by his supporters, says that victims of police atrocities are more interested in revenge than in his movement. Says he: ‘They ask me for stenguns and light machine-guns. I tell them the GNLF office is not the Golden Temple and I can’t give them arms. But nothing can stop them.’”

The violence consumed the lives of more than 200 people, before the centre brokered peace. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was formed in 1988 and Ghising became its chairman.

But turbulence returned in the mid-2000s. The council was disbanded after Ghising asked for constitutional status for the council under sixth schedule. His protégé, Bimal Gurung rejected the idea, going a step further, and reviving the statehood movement. He formed the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha in October 2007, and the hills were plunged in another round of unrest.

The United Progressive Alliance government scrabbled for a solution, and by the end of November, it hastily approved the creation of the council under the sixth schedule of the constitution and moved a bill to that effect in Rajya Sabha.

But Gurung went and met the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. A parliamentary committee headed by BJP’s Sushma Swaraj advised the government to “make a fresh assessment of the ground realities all over again before proceeding with the Bills in the two Houses of Parliament”.

In 2009, Gurung paid back the BJP for its support by getting Jaswant Singh elected from Darjeeling. This year, the BJP’s S S Ahluwalia is hoping to ride to Parliament on GJMM’s backing.

To counter the BJP, the Trinamool Congress has fielded football star Baichung Bhutia, who is from Sikkim and not Darjeeling. Opposed to Gorkhaland, the TMC had tried to win Gorkha support by creating the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration soon after coming to power in 2011. But it has not helped.

The dark horse in the race is a former Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Mahendra P Lama, who, according to a report in the Times of India, “calls himself the ‘bhumi putra’ among ‘aliens’”.

While Lama might be basing his appeal on the work done by his social organisation, Darjeeling Dooars United Development Federation, the bhumi putra slogan, and the appeal to roots, is often utilised in Indian politics as a divisive tool. Never mind that roots in India remain hard to trace.

On the train, I asked Ritu Chhetri if she knew when her ancestors had migrated to India and from which part of Nepal. She turned to the old woman seated next to her, her grandmother, for a quick discussion in Nepali, and turned back to me to say, “She’s saying even her grandmother did not know.”  Gorkha histories claim Kumaun and Garhwal of present-day Uttarkhand “fell under the Gorkha kingdom between 1790 and 1815”.

A powerful social group in Nepal, the name Chhetri is derived from the word “Kshatriya”, and in what is perhaps a sign of a cultural continuum, many men in Ritu Chhetri’s family are employed in the army. It is the army which gives them a greater sense of connection with the Gorkhas of eastern India more than any social institution.

“Do you intermarry with the Gorkhas of Darjeeling?” I asked her.

“No, it is too far to come here to look for proposals,” she said. “But love marriages happen. My cousin brother came here on an army posting and met someone he liked.”

“Has she assimilated well in the family?”

“It’s needed some adjustment.”

“In food, you mean?”

“Well, no…You see women here are used to more freedom. You cannot make out the difference between a married woman and an unmarried woman,” she said, as we both looked at a girl sitting on the side berth of the next compartment. She was dressed in a sleeveless top and capris. A marked contrast from Chhetri, who, dressed in shalwar kameez, with sindoor in her hair and a bindi on her forehead, fitted the look of a married woman in north India.

The Gorkhaland movement may have restricted its claims to Darjeeling and Dooars, locating the statehood demand in the area’s deprivation, and not on the basis of identity alone, but if personal accounts of people available online are anything to go by, the revival of the movement has created identity confusion among Nepalese-speaking people elsewhere in India and in the way they are perceived by others.

Ritu Chhetri, however, is very clear where her moorings lie. It doesn’t matter to her that the BJP is supporting the Gorkhaland movement. What’s more important to her is what the party would do for her state. “To be honest, I can’t see a difference between the Congress and the BJP in Uttarkhand,” she said. “Both are equally divided.”

Has the creation of Uttarakhand made any difference?

“Well, yes, to some extent, there’s been an improvement…New companies have opened, more jobs are available. But the prices of land has gone up. Don’t even ask by how much. Main to wahin hai…”

If statehood demands pivot around land, it is striking how often land in the new state slip out of people’s hands.

Click here to read all the stories Supriya Sharma has filed about her 2,500-km rail journey from Guwahati to Jammu to listen to India’s conversations about the forthcoming elections – and life.

Click here to see the photographs Supriya took while aboard the Capital Express.