As a student in Indian Institute of Technology in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad, Krishna Khatiwoda had a tough time explaining to people that although he was a Nepali by ancestry, Assam was his home state. “I had an identity crisis,” said Khatiwoda, who speaks Assamese fluently and graduated from the institute this year. “When I told people I am Nepali, they’d say, ‘Oh, you are from Nepal’. But I’d tell them, ‘I’m not…I am from Assam. I am an Indian.’”
As Darjeeling in West Bengal simmers over fresh demands for the creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland for Nepali-origin Gorkhas, many like Khatiwoda – Nepalis who were born and grew up in Assam – have supported the statehood movement. “It’s a fight for our identity,” explained Khatiwoda. “We need a separate state, so that we don’t have to explain each time we introduce ourselves that we are not from Nepal, but are Indians.”
According to the 2001 census, Assam is home to 5.65 lakh Nepali-speaking people – the highest in any state after West Bengal (which had 10.23 lakh Nepalis in 2001). However, Nepalis in Assam said the actual number is even higher. “Assam actually has the highest number of Nepalis in the country,” claimed Sanjib Chetri, the secretary of the All Assam Gorkha Students’ Union. “There are around 25 lakh Nepalis in Assam. In Bengal, the number will be not more than 20 lakh.”
Rajsekhar Sapcota, a veterinary science student in Guwahati, said while “home will always be Assam”, he supported the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland as it was only fair that the Nepali community got back what was rightfully its. “If you go that region around Darjeeling, you will see its demographic is completely different from the rest of [West] Bengal,” he said.
In 1986, when demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland first gathered steam in 1986, following the large-scale eviction of Nepalis from Meghalaya, under the Gorkha National Liberation Front led by Subhash Ghising. At the time, the Joint Action Committee of Assamese Nepali Organisations, a now-defunct umbrella organisation of Nepali groups in Assam, had pegged the number of Nepalis in the Assam at approximately 18 lakh.
Nepali-speaking people came in to Assam in waves. The first-large scale migration is believed to have happened in 1826, when the British employed Gorkha soldiers to annex Assam. Following that, the British also brought in large numbers of Nepalis to work in the state as labourers in the many coal mines and oil fields in the region. Assam’s vast swathes of green land are also said to have attracted Nepali cattle grazers over the years.
While Nepali-origin people largely have an amicable relationship with other Assamese, there have been stray instances of tension, particularly in the years immediately after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985. Among other things. the document fixed the midnight of March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for entry into the state. All those who came to Assam state after that would be declared illegal immigrants. While the move was aimed at keeping illegal Bangladeshi immigrants at bay, Nepalis were also caught in the crossfire on occasion.
Assam’s Nepalis have actively participated in state politics. There have been 13 Nepali-speaking MLAs since 1946. Mani Kumar Subba, a Darjeeling-born Nepali, has represented Assam’s Tezpur Lok Sabha constituency from 1998 to 2009. However, many among the state’s Nepali-speaking population have also complained of inadequate political representation in the state and have repeatedly demanded more autonomy with the creation of a separate autonomous district council.
“If there can be a Mising autonomous council [in Assam] why not a Gorkha autonomous council?” asked The All Assam Gorkha Students’ Union’s Chetri. “We are as much indigenous to Assam and the Brahmaputra as anyone else in the state.”
Over the years, the Gorkhaland protests had led to the creation of the semi-autonomous Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and later, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in Darjeeling.
Just moral support
However, even within the Nepali community in Assam, there are some who find this demand unreasonable as the community is spread out across the state. “It is one thing to bring a few people to streets to carry out a rally, and another to actually mobilise support for a district council,” said Sapcota. “It’s more of a demand for greater political representation. I don’t think it’s a very popular demand.”
Even Chetri conceded that the more pressing matter at the moment was statehood demand. “Gorkhaland is our constitutional right,” he said. We were resisting peacefully but the government reacted violently.”
However, most Nepalis in Assam said they were only extending moral support for Gorkhaland and insisted that they would never leave Assam for the proposed state, if it were ever to be a reality.
“We are Assamese Gorkhas and proud to be from Assam,” said Amit Sharma from the All Assam Gorkha Students’ Union. “I just want Gorkhaland so that the next time I don’t have to explain I am an Indian Nepali and not from Nepal.