Table of Contents

Crisis in Darjeeling

Our Hearts Go Out for the
Nepali Crisis in Darjeeling

by Jamuna Shrestha

Since last week, the news of the Nepali people in living in Darjeeling, India broke my heart.

I am in U.S. now supporting Bhutanese refugees resettled in the U.S. These ethnically Nepali people suffered 25 years in refugee camps in southern Nepal, and are still suffering from discrimination and isolation even after resettlement, in stark contrast to their hopes and dreams. Seeing the violence in Darjeeling, it clicked in my mind, violence is not a solution. We have lots of alternatives to violence!

Darjeeling is a city on the northern-most border of India’s West Bengal state in the Himalayan foothills. A summer resort for the British Raj elite, Darjeeling is the last stop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, or “Toy Train,” completed in 1881. The British used the area as a sanitorium, and found the climate excellent for cultivating tea. This distinctive, prosperous Darjeeling black tea grows on plantations on the surrounding slopes against a dramatic backdrop of Mt. Kanchajunga with some of the world’s steepest slopes and highest peaks.

When Tibetan Buddhist lama, Shabdrung Nagwang Namgyal, unified Bhutan as a nation in 1620, he commissioned a few Newar (Nepali) craftsmen from Kathmandu Valley to come to Bhutan, east of Darjeeling City, to make a silver Stupa, a Buddihist place of meditation and relics. Since then, Nepalese have settled and flourished in the formerly uninhabited areas of southern Bhutan, which soon became Bhutan’s major supplier of food.

The area around Darjeeling City and the hill running north adjoining Darjeeling to Sikkim had long been contested between the Sikkim Kingdom and the Gorkhas of Nepal. The British defeated the Nepali Gorkhas in 1815, ceding all Sikkim territories, including Darjeeling City, to the British East India Company, who in turn reinstated Sikkim as a State of India. This separated Bhutan and Nepal, left them both landlocked between China and India, and provided British India a buffer state between Nepal and Bhutan. Colonial control was established over the flow of travel among Nepal, Sikkim, West Bengal and southern Bhutan, including Darjeeling City.

Nepali Fears Rise from Bhutan’s Ethnic Cleansing

In the 1930s, southern Bhutan was under cultivation by about 60,000 Nepali-speaking people, and the Bhutanese government resettled an additional 5,000 Nepali families for farm labor into the area of Tsiang alone. But in the 1940s, Mr. Basil Gould, a British official, warned Mr. Raja Sonam Topgay Dorji of Bhutan that allowing so many ethnic Nepalese into southern Bhutan could be dangerous. Mr. Dorgi replied that since they were not registered subjects (citizens), they could be evicted at any time. Whatever their heritage, however, these people considered themselves Bhutanese. In 1958, Bhutan’s Citizenship Act recognized all citizens who proved residence in Bhutan for at least 10 years, while banning any additional immigration into Bhutan.

In 1972, Raj Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 4th King of Bhutan, declared, “gross national happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” He set out to base his rule on Mahayana Buddhism canonical tenets. Ensuring that Bhutanese citizens could obtain Enlightenment and happiness, he began an ethnic cleansing of Bhutan and establishment of a Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index in leu of the economic measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The Citizenship Act of 1985 initiated the first real census exercise, and introduced political rhetoric of concern over “controlling the flood of illegal immigration.” By 1988, Bhutan announced a “one nation, one people” policy allowing only one language, Dzongkha, one style of traditional dress, Kira, and one social etiquette, Driglam Naza, of the Buddhist-Ngalong ruling class. As a result, many Nepali-speaking people lost their citizenship and jobs. Nepali language was outlawed. Some Nepali village elders issued certificates to vouch for residents based on tax receipts to accommodate the citizenship law, but the Bhutanese government responded by imprisoning these village elders, beating them and requiring them to fill out ‘voluntary’ migration forms agreeing to leave the country after release from prison. Others protested the Bhutanese governments’ targeting of their community. The military arrested them, with reports of rape and torture. Schools, hospitals, businesses and post offices in southern Bhutan were forcibly close. Nepali-speaking people, including the Kirat, Tamang, Magar, Brahman, Chhetri and Gurung peoples, moved en masse in late 1990 and early 1991 out of Bhutan into West Bengal, India.

These Bhutanese refugees are a diverse group of mixed religions and languages: Hinddu, Christian, Buddhist and other religions, speaking Nepali and English, as well as languages of the Rai, Subba and Tamang communities, among others. Ethnically some look Southeast Asian and others look more East Asian. While many are illiterate farmers or laborers, others are highly educated professionals, even former police officers and government officials in Bhutan. Untold numbers stayed with Nepali speaking groups in West Bengal, Assam and Sikkim, India, but India pressed most of them into southern Nepal. In July 1991, 235 refugees set up camp on the banks of the Mai River in Nepal and 1,000 refugees per month followed. By February 1992 10,000 refugees were arriving per month.

No one knows how many people died in this humanitarian disaster. Refugees speak of begging house to house in the local Nepal communities and of boiling rotten rice for food. Dysentary and other diseases escalated child mortality. The Nepalese government, UN High Commission for Refugees, Caritas and other local, national and international organizations built seven refugee camps for over 100,000 people, where they lived for over two decades. While they claimed Bhutanese nationality, the Bhutanese denied their refugee status, claiming they had left voluntarily and forfeited their citizenship rights.

In 2003, repatriation to Bhutan failed, and in 2007 over 100,000 refugees were living in seven camps in southern Nepal. To avoid a permanent, multi-generational refugee camp, the UN High Commission for Refugees negotiated resettlement of the refugees to the United Kingdom (358), the Netherlands (329), Norway (570), Denmark (875), Aotearoa/NZ (1,075), Australia (6,204), Canada (6,773),and the United States (92,323). 85 percent of these 108,508 people were resettled in the U.S., and about half of them are moving into central Ohio, setting up a mini-Nepal in Ohio, USA!

Nepali Fears Rise with Perceived Imposition of Bengali Language

As of June 2017, there is an ongoing agitation in Darjeeling Municipality. The agitation started as a protest against perceived imposition of Bengali language in the hills of West Bengal where Nepali is the official language.

Nepalese Gorkha soldiers, defeated by the British in 1815 became an integral part of the British Army. They still carry their traditional weapon-long curved knife known as the Khukuri, now mainly used for cooking. Their motto is: “Better to die than be a coward!”

The Indian Gorkhas are a mixture of Caucasian castes and Mongolian features clans.The caucasian castes include the Bshun (Brahmins), Cherri (Kshatriyas/Thakuri/Rajput), Kami, Damai, and Sarki, among others. The Mongoloid clans and ethnic groups include the Gurung, Magar, Newar, Tamang, Thami, Bhulel (Khuswa), Lambu, Sunuwar, Yakkha, Dewan, Sherpa Yomlo, and so forth. Although each has their own language, belonging to the Tibet-Burman or Indo-Burman languages, the lingua franca among the Gorkhas is the Nepali language and Devanagari script. The Nepali language, which is one of the official languages of India, is the common binding thread of all Gorkha castes and clans.

Nepali-speaking Sikkim and Darjeeling City ethnic groups joining with the Gorkha of the northern territories of West Bangal, linguistically and culturally distinct from other Bengali cultures, are demanding the establishment of Gorkhaland through strikes and rallies. The Darjeeling movement for Gorkhaland has gained momentum in the line with the ethno-linguistic-cultural sentiment of the Nepali-speaking Indian people who desire to identify themselves as Indian Gorkha. Two mass movements for Gorkhaland have taken place under the Gorkha National Liberation Front (1986–1988) and Gorkhas Janmukti Mitch’s (GJM) (2007–present).

The agitation is turning more volatile with every passing day. The Gorkhaland supporters hurled petrol bombs and stones at the police, who used tear gas shells in response and resorted to baton charging to drive back the angry mob. The Darjeeling agitation led to political turmoil with GJM’s (Gorkha Janmukti Mitch) call for an indefinite shutdown of the city.

People are playing with fire by ignoring the Gorkha identity. The Gorkha people’s fear of discrimination and even forced exile is fueled by the grim reality experienced by the ethnic cleansing of Nepali-speakers from Bhutan. Refugees spent two decades or more in refugee camps.

Express web desk-New Delhi
UNHCR and local Nepali publications