From Scheduled Tribe status to battle over 'D voter' tag, Assam's Gorkhas give voice to longstanding demands

Simanta Barman
·10-min read

Somnath Upadhyaya is 85 years old. Every evening, he goes for a walk.

Sometimes accompanied by his elder son, his slow, steady steps are aided by his stick. Upadhyaya is a descendent of the Nepali priest clan brought to Assam by the Ahoms. His family has been living in Tezpur's Amolapam village for generations.

But the road by his home is still kaccha. Amolapam village, approximately 175 kilometers from Assam's capital, Dispur, falls under the 73 No. Tezpur Legislative Assembly Constituency. It is adjacent to Tezpur University.

"Look at this road!" Upadhyaya exclaims. "It's been like this for years. In summer, it gets muddy and slippery. During elections, candidates come here and promise many things, but it amounts to little more than a new patch of rock over the road."

"It is only because of the university that the main road is concrete," Upadhyaya added.

The Tezpur University road came up more than a decade ago. The expansion of a highway is underway just 100 meters from Amolapam, but this roughly one kilometre stretch by Upadhyaya's home has been lying neglected for years.

The adjoining villages of Amolapam and Napaam are home to a significant number of Gorkha among the lot spread in Sonitpur district. Most are generational cattle-herders and milkmen, although, with time, many have preferred the safety of government jobs and financial security.

Ahead of elections, Upadhyay hopes that the recruitment of Nepali language teachers in schools and colleges is done properly and promptly. "In our time, we were offered jobs right away. But that's not the case anymore. Our people have lived here for generations. Even after the our language was officially included in the Constitution, the recruitment of Nepali language teachers isn't done properly," he lamented.

Narayan Chetry, the advisor of Sonitpur branch of All Assam Gorkha Students Union said, "There are still some irregularities in the recruitment of Nepali language teachers. In some cases, the opportunity is snatched away from us and the posts are filled by other language teachers. We have been speaking about this issue for a long time."

In November, a delegation led by Nanda Kirati Dewan, the president of Bharatiya Gorkha Yuva Parisangh (BGYP) in a meeting with Bodoland University Vice-Chancellor professor L Ladu Singh, proposed setting up a department of Nepali literature.

The BGYP delegation meeting the Bodoland University VC. Image courtesy: Nanda Kirati Dewan
The BGYP delegation meeting the Bodoland University VC. Image courtesy: Nanda Kirati Dewan

The BGYP delegation meeting the Bodoland University VC. Image courtesy: Nanda Kirati Dewan

"Bodoland University is at the doorstep of students in the North East, the northern part of West Bengal of India, as well as Bhutan and Nepal. These students aspire for academic authority in Nepali literature. By opening a full-fledged department on its campus, Bodoland University can fulfill the aspirations and dreams of students," Dewan said.

While the vice-chancellor assured his backing, the issue is still being consideration.

Demography of the Indian Gorkha community

The Nepali language-speaking Indian Gorkha community is a composite mix of different castes and tribal-ethnic clans.

Caste groups such as the Khas-Parbatiyas which includes Bahun (Brahmins), Thakuri, Chhetri (Kshatriya), Sarki, etc. and other ethnic groups such as Newar, Gurung, Limbu (Subba), Thami, Bhujel (Khawas), Kirati, Rai (Khambu), Sunuwar (Mukhia), Yakkha (Dewan), Thami, Magar, Tamang, Sherpa, and Yolmo to name just a few.

Although they have different languages and dialects, the lingua franca is the Nepali language with a Devanagiri script, which is included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

While Sikkim and West Bengal have the majority of ethnic Nepali-speaking population, the other northeastern states are home to significant numbers.

As per the 2011 Census, the Nepali-speaking population in India is 2,926,168 of which Assam has 596,210. In Assam, districts with the largest ethnic Nepali populations are Sonitpur with 135,525 (7.04 percent of the total population) Tinsukia with 99,812 (7.52 percent), and Karbi Anglong with 51,496 (5.38 percent).

Tehsils like Sadiya have 26.2 percent , Na Duar has 14.88 percent, Helem has 14.35 percent, Margherita has 13.47 percent, and Umrangso has 12.46 percent of the ethnic Nepali-speaking Gorkha population.

Typically, the Gorkha community of Assam either falls into the general or OBC category. However, owing to the geographical diversity and sheer remoteness of some places, they have been demanding ST status for thirteen sub-castes.

A glimpse of the remote village of Jengkha,l. Image courtesy: Rudrasing Thapa
A glimpse of the remote village of Jengkha,l. Image courtesy: Rudrasing Thapa

A glimpse of the remote village of Jengkha. Image courtesy: Rudrasing Thapa

"I belong to one of the most backward districts of Assam, West Karbi Anglong. Our village Jengkha has a majority of Assamese Gorkha people. For years, we have had no network coverage. When the lockdown happened and we returned from university, I had trouble attending online classes and also my internship," said Rudrasing Thapa, an MA student from Tezpur University, who hails from the 20 No. Baithalangso constituency.

The constituency was held by Congress till 2016, when the BJP took over.

Crisis of identity

The earliest treaty between the British East India Company and the Nepalese rulers is the Treaty of Sugauli in 1815, which annexed parts of Nepal-occupied Uttarakhand regions of Garhwal and Kumaon.

This treaty also set the boundary line for Nepal. Later, in 1950, another treaty was signed between the last Rana Prime Minister of Nepal Mohan Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana and Indian ambassador to Nepal, Chadreshwar Narayan Singh, which mandates that "the Governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on a reciprocal basis, to 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."

But this treaty has also been criticised by some citing different border laws and property ownership regulations of both the countries.

However, a fresh crisis has ensued following the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which has left out a significant number of Nepali-speaking Gorkha community.

Many of them have been 'arbitrarily' tagged as doubtful voters, the leaders of the BGP claimed. "For a person to be termed a doubtful voter, the Border Police has to have relevant information of trespassing. While the cases were heard, many have been identified to be Indian citizens by the Supreme Court at later dates, which shows the arbitrariness of the process," said Nanda Kirati Dewan, who is also the spokesperson and national secretary of the BGP.

The BGP decided it would not go to Foreigners' Tribunals (FTs) against the exclusion from NRC as they felt it would be an 'insult' to the Indian Gorkha community.

They cited an MHA notification issued in September 2018, which states: "The letter dated 24 September 2018 stated that the members of the Gorkha community who were Indian citizens at the time of commencement of the Constitution, or those who are Indian citizens by birth, or those who have acquired Indian citizenship by registration or naturalization in accordance with the provisions of The Citizenship Act, 1955 are not "foreigners" in terms of section 2 (a) of The Foreigners Act,1946 as well as the Registration of Foreigners Act,1939, therefore, such cases will not be referred to the Foreigners Tribunals."

"It is an insult to the Indian Gorkha community against their valour and sacrifice that they have to go to the FT for exclusion from NRC. We are still undeterred in our decision of not going to the FT," Dewan added.

In September 2019, a delegation led by Dewan approached the Assam government with the suggestion to form an empowered committee to look after the issue of non-inclusion in the NRC. Though the chief secretary gave assurances that the suggestion would be considered, it has yet to be done.

Another issue is the non-inclusion of the Gorkhas under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. A delegation of Gorkha leaders from BGP and Bharatiya Gorkha Yuva Parisangh (BGYP), BGP's youth wing, met Assam chief secretary in October in this regard.

"The Assam Accord Clause 6 committee report did not mention anything about the constitutional, legislative, and administrative safeguards of the Gorkhas of Assam under clause 6 of the Assam Accord," a statement from BGYP read.

Following the discussion, the team had sought a gazette notification for their constitutional safeguards as per Clause 6.

The Gorkha community of Assam has been demanding a Gorkha Autonomous Council since 2003. Following their demands, in 2010, a Gorkha Development Council was established by the then ruling Congress.

With BJP government coming to power in 2016, the council also became dormant. Ahead of polls, however, the BJP government has reinstated the council in October with Prem Tamang as the chairman.

"It lay dormant for more than four years and has only been reinstated. There has not been any proper allocation of funds. In the 2019-2020 fiscal budget, only 35.10 lakh was allocated," said Dewan.

Ahead of polls, both the Congress and the BJP have come up with different promises for the Assamese Gorkha community in their respective manifestos.

The Congress vowed ST status for 13 sub-castes of the Gorkha community, establishing a Gorkha cultural center, establishing a Satellite Autonomous Council to solve the 'D voter' issue; the BJP government in its Vision Document 2016-2025 set six goals, of which only two have been fulfilled, as claimed by Dewan €" one is the establishment of an engineering college in the name of freedom fighter Lt Chabilal Upadhyaya and the other being representation of the Gorkha community in the statutory bodies of Assam.

As per its election manifesto, the BJP has stated its goal of "protection, safeguard and welfare of every member of the Gorkha community considering it to be vital and integral part of Assam."

The first phase of Assam assembly elections was held on 27 March for 47 constituencies covering Sonitpur, Biswanath, Nagaon, Jorhat, Golaghat, Tinsukia, Majuli, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Dibrugarh, Charaideo districts.

As per data from the Election Commission's Voter Turnout App. Assam witnessed 79.84 percent turnout with Sonitpur recording 78.46 percent, Biswanath recording 83.88 percent and Tinsukia recording 76.00 percent: three of the districts having a majority of the ethnic Gorkha population.

On the other hand, townships like Margherita recorded 77.95 percent, Sadiya recorded 74.99 percent and Kaliabor recorded 83.66 percent turnout.

In Kaliabor, the trends shows a tough fight for three consecutive terms winner Keshab Mahanta from AGP, who won with a margin of 37,990 votes against INC's Bindu Ganju in 2016. This time, Mahanta faced the INC's Prasant Kumar Saikia.

"There is fairly good voter turnout. There will be a tough fight for both the leading contenders. In certain places, trends seem to be against the sitting MLA. Only time will tell," Suraj Chetry, a voter from Kaliabor said.

On the other hand, Rima Devi, who belongs to the Baithalangso constituency from West Karbi Anglong district, where polling is due on 1 April in the second phase, hopes that no matter whom emerges victorious, the Gorkha community's issues will be given appropriate attention and consideration.

"We belong to a very remote place. From our village Jengkha, more than 40 percent of our Gorkha population did not feature in the final NRC despite having all the necessary documents. These issues should be solved soon by the authorities. We are going to vote with this hope only," Devi said.

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