Darjeeling is in turmoil and Nepal is watching each unfolding event with guarded support, sympathy, love, trepidation, a muted indifference or all of these emotions.
Nepal shares a lot with Darjeeling, including the territory it ceded to the East India Company in 1816 through the Sugauli Treaty that also settled the current geographical boundary of Nepal. The Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling look, dress, speak, and behave like us. Many in Nepal – from Jhapa, Morang, Ilam, Dharan and Dhankuta and Sunsari districts – have marital ties with Darjeeling.
Darjeeling has also contributed greatly to literature and music in Nepal. Litterateurs such as Lain Singh Bangdel, Parijat and Indra Bahadur Rai and singers and musicians such as Gopal Yonjan and Ambar Gurung are celebrated icons here. Others like Surya Bikram Gyawali, Dharanidhar Koirala, Parasmani Pradhan and Thakur Chandra Singh led the movement to promote Nepali language from Darjeeling in the 1920s.
So, when it was reported that three supporters of a separate Gorkha state had been killed in clashes with the state police in Darjeeling amid rising tension in the second week of June, some in Nepal asked on social media: why has Nepal not spoken a word when Nepalis are being killed?
“Should not Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs speak about Darjeeling unrest? We need to support brothers during hard times,” tweeted Krishna Gyawali, former secretary at the Ministry of Industry, on June 22.
Fellow intellectual Bishnu Sapkota responded to Gyawali’s tweet: “This is the right time for government of Nepal to remind India to take along all forces through constitution amendment.”
The Gorkhaland movement has found support in Nepal, including from the Naya Shakti Party. Others here seem to want the movement to succeed to vindicate their own stand on the separation of Madhes – a region in the southern plains of Nepal, close to the border with India, whose people share close ethnic ties with people in India – from the hills in provincial demarcation.
Officially, though, Nepal has been silent on the Darjeeling uprising, for good reason. “Nepali leaders refrain from commenting on the Gorkhaland issue due to the anxiety that it will be counterproductive for the cause that the Nepali-speaking people of India are fighting for,” said Nischalnath Pandey, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, a think tank, and a foreign affairs expert.
It is difficult for the Nepali commentariat to take sides on Gorkhaland. More so for Nepal as a state, not because it has no love and sympathy for Nepalis in the hill district in India’s West Bengal but because of a host of other reasons.
One, Darjeeling is an internal matter of India. Besides, Nepal-India relations are only now getting back on track after a four-and-a-half-month border blockade soured ties in 2015. Kathmandu accused New Delhi of unofficially imposing the blockade by stopping Nepal-bound fuel trucks, an allegation the Indian side denied.
Two, Nepal has no intention or wherewithal to be seen as contributing to the destabilisation of Darjeeling, just as it has no power to destabilise Tibet.
Three, Nepal is slowly getting past its own ethnic identity crisis. In 2007, when the Interim Constitution was promulgated, Madhes had protested, demanding an identity-based province. The government of the day had agreed to “an autonomous Madhes province”. In 2015, when the Constituent Assembly promulgated the Constitution with a provision for one Madhes-majority province (called Province 2), parties in that region protested anew, this time demanding a province that included pura Madhes (entire Madhes). What followed was the border blockade, the hill-plains divide – perceived or real – and the erosion of confidence in Nepal’s collective consciousness. It ravaged our economy and development ground to a halt.
The country is now getting back on its feet. Economic indicators are positive and there is a growing sense of realisation that the way of doing politics must change. Ethnic extremism is cooling down and a cosmopolitan outlook is taking hold of people. On Wednesday, the majority of people voted in round two of elections to form local governments (municipal and village councils) – held after a gap of 20 years – that, if kept functional, will institutionalise grassroots democracy, revive development and work on a host of identity, language and cultural problems. All this will happen under the Constitution that India has so far “noted”, not welcomed.
Nepal remembers all too well what happened when India tried to dictate its constitution-making process and province demarcation – nearly a year of acrimonious relations.
It has always refrained from commenting on India’s internal affairs but when something happens in Darjeeling, Nepal is invariably dragged into it. Nepal did not speak a word about the violent Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s but its hand was suspected then too, as it is today.
Darjeeling and Madhes
Some here compare the Madhes identity crisis to that in Darjeeling. But one cannot compare the two. Darjeeling wants separation from West Bengal. For Gorkhaland to become a reality, the proposal will have to be tabled in the Indian Parliament and passed by a two-thirds majority. Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, on its part, agreed on the current provincial set-up with a more than two-thirds majority in 2015.
Nepal already has a homogenous Madhes province (Province 2) with the majority of people there being Madhesis, speaking native languages such as Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. The contention of the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal – an umbrella organisation of six Madhes-based parties – has nothing to do with the promotion of Maithili or Bhojpuri. Rather, it has, covertly, sought the promotion of Hindi, which is the one reason why it has not been able to garner much support for its cause.
The Rastriya Janata Party Nepal wants a state similar to Province 2 in midwestern and far-western Nepal. But Madhesis are in a minority there.
Darjeeling is Darjeeling, Madhes is Madhes.
So, what is the message Delhi can take from here?
Darjeeling is sensitive territory for India because it lies along its international boundary adjoining Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. Just as sensitive for Nepal is Madhes, the region that sets its international boundary and gives it access to India.
For Nepal, the turmoil in Darjeeling is yet another reminder of how tricky and complicated it is to manage a federal system. This should make both countries understand each other better on this count.
With the recent elections, Nepal has created local governments with powers to decide what language education can be imparted in. If such an arrangement was in place in Darjeeling – the statehood movement grew from protests against the West Bengal government’s decision to impose the study of Bengali in schools across the state – perhaps trouble could have been averted altogether.
This much can be said from Kathmandu: it is entirely up to India and West Bengal to deal with the situation in Darjeeling. Nepal can only wish India and all of its people well.
The author is a journalist with Republica in Kathmandu. His Twitter handle is @mahabirpaudyal.