Who is a Nepali?

By I P Adhikari

One of the major reasons for political instability in South Asia is it political culture that is based on the ethnic lines – not based on principles and beliefs.

The confederation of Indian union on ethnic line was the Pandora’s box. This confederation encouraged the region to promote the politics of ethnicity – which in longer run damaged the socio-cultural thread of the closed society. Despite India was confederated under ethnic and linguistic lines, the statehood demand for many ethnic groups continue to go unheard – for over a century.

The demand for Gorkhaland is among them. The world is aware of the India-China stand-off but hardly anyone knows what Gorkhaland is. The Doklam stand-off, where two nuclear superpower are flexing their muscles, have received tremendous international attention. Gorkhaland is a century-old statehood demand by Nepali-speaking population in India.

The demand for a Gorkhaland is a sample of undocumented voice within the complex ethnic diversity of the Indian sub-continent. The hesitation for a statement from the central government was basically derived from the unsubstantiated theory of Greater Nepal – perceived threat of cultural and linguistic affinity of this area with Nepal. The movement for a separate country/state of Nepali-speaking population outside Nepal culminates in Darjeeling hills dating back to 1910.

The name Gorkhaland is derived from the Gurkha soldiers that British recognised during their colonial rule in India – when they fought a few wars with the fierce Gurkha soldiers of Shah Kings of Nepal. At different times, the Darjeeling hills and the surroundings were part of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. When expansion of Nepal as pushed back by British to the current size, Nepali speaking population in the eastern Himalayas continue to call themselves as Gorkhas. This resonates their wish to remain outside the realm of ‘Nepalese’ identity following the formation of a Nepal as a Kingdom. This reverberation is manifested among Nepali population living in the sub-continent outside Nepal.

There are parallel theories circulating in Nepal, Bhutan and India about Greater Nepal and Greater India. Demands for rights by Nepali-speaking communities in India and Bhutan is taken as a step towards Greater Nepal while Madhesi movements in southern Nepal is seen by many Nepalese as Indian plot for a Greater India campaign.

Identity of Nepali-speaking population outside Nepal (in South Asia) faces complexities, challenges and emotional difficulties. As I come from that circumstance, I feel the pain for being and not being a Nepali. Nepal’s nationality forms the crux of this unexplainable situation. Who is a Nepali – Nepal’s citizen or those who speak Nepali language?

Anyone speaking Nepali in the sub-continent are seen as citizens of Nepal, are being suspected to being loyal to Nepal and lack patriotic feelings towards their own country. It was the very reason for eviction of over 20% of the country’s population from Bhutan who speak Nepali. Nepali speaking population in many Indian states, Burma or other South Asian countries faced eviction just because they speak Nepali language. The trend continues today in many north-east states in India.

Nepal has failed to act on these sensitivities. It wants that all who speak Nepali language be called Nepali – which then translates to perception of the perpetrators that they belong to Nepal. As situations turn sour and community torn apart, questions have been raised if Nepalis outside Nepal have to maintain their affinity with Nepal. Should there be another identity for Nepali speaking population outside Nepal?

The demand for Gorkhaland statehood in India is patronised by that core idea of establishing a Nepali identity outside Nepal’s territory. Had Nepal been politically and economically strong and had addressed these complexities well politically and diplomatically, the notion wouldn’t have such big support.

Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) does not recognise Nepali speaking population in India and Bhutan. They are not entitled to NRNA membership. NRNA is a legally recognised entity of the Nepalese outside Nepal yet it does not recognise the Nepali speaking population in this region as its diaspora.

Nepali identity is defined by its language – from the perspective of Nepal. Had language been the leading factor to determine ethnicity, we can say citizens of US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK and many more countries belong to same ethnic group – English. However, none of them like to call themselves English, except from England, though they speak the same language – English. Their identity is defined by their nationality.

May not be necessary but if we accept this as an example to determine Nepali ethnicity, it is not necessary for Nepali-speaking community living outside Nepal should call themselves Nepali. A big population of Nepali speakers have passed generations outside Nepal. How can their ethnic identity be defined?

Anthropologists theorized ethnicity but have not given any formulas to determine an ethnicity. Social, economic and political circumstances and geographical situation play role in determining identity of a group and that it changes.

Historical fact of Bhutanese-ness
Nepali-speaking community in Bhutan call themselves Lhotsampas. Nepali identity of the southern Bhutanese was not their choice.

The Nepali identity was formulated when Shan kings of Nepal expanded their kingdom. The followers of ‘Gorakh deity’ of ancient Indian royal family travelled to Himalayas and established their own Gorkha kingdom and its citizens were called Gorkhalis. Following expansion, the bigger kingdom was called Nepal and its residents Nepalese. Nepali is an identity formed through political campaign.

Nepali speaking community in Bhutan or north-east India comprise of the population who had been there before and after the formation of Nepal. It was long before the formation of countries like India or Bhutan. They were then neither Indian, Gorkhas, Nepali or Bhutanese.

A country called Bhutan emerged only a century ago. India is only 70 years old. There was big population of Nepali speaking community in territories currently held by Bhutan and India before these countries came into existence. As new countries were born, the identity of the Nepali speaking community changed to Bhutanese and Indians. Because we spoke same language as Nepal’s national language, we are termed Nepali who came from Nepal. Because of our affinity with Nepal in terms of language, culture and dresses, we were called Nepalis. To have a separate identity than that of that of Nepal’s citizens, the Nepali speaking community in India continued struggle. It’s been 110 years. They identity is yet be recognised. To separate Nepali speaking community in Bhutan from Nepal, the rulers of Bhutan gave them a separate identity – Lhotsampas.

The Lhotsampa identity didn’t run long. The rulers started accusing them of being aligned to Nepal and conspiring against Bhutan. Finally evicted out to Nepal where they took refuge for over 25 years. The world started calling them Nepali-Bhutanese or Nepalese from Bhutan.

When resettlement to western countries began for these refugees from Bhutan, they ended up in communities where ethnic diversity is very complex. This intermingle would definitely produce a different cult of young generation who may not understand Nepali language, culture and identity. This generation may not reciprocate the aspiration of their parents in identifying their ethnicity.

Nepali, Gorkhali or other
Language I speak and culture I follow bring me closer to Nepal compared to Bhutan. Post resettlement, Nepal has become my primary destination for matrimonial relations, travel or pilgrimages. This new trend will certainly push me closer to Nepali identity than Bhutanese. Second generation diaspora will possibly cease to call themselves Bhutanese.

Despite inculcating enhanced relations with Nepal, I attempt to call myself Bhutanese in the country I resettled. I have failed to integrate into the Nepalese diaspora. I am closed to Nepal but not its diaspora. Nepal wants me but not its diaspora. Despite speaking same language, following same culture and traditions, we do not feel (in practical terms) to be from same ethnic group. That’s the reason I question myself if I should continue to call Nepali – as defined by Nepal.

Personally, I feel Nepali has two meanings – that of Nepal’s citizens and those who speak Nepali. Not all who speak Nepali are Nepal’s citizens and not all Nepal’s citizens speak Nepali. When Nepal decided that Nepali should replace the Nepalese – the internationally accepted term to denote citizens of Nepal, complexities further entangled.

The history of ethnic identity of Nepali-speaking population in the Himalayas is not stable. It has changed over time, several times because of geographical or political reasons. Despite having same language, culture and traditions, politics has kept them apart and will. Further, to address and to resolve the ethnic complexity in the region, a separate identity for Nepali-speaking population outside Nepal has become a must. Be it a different name, but Gorkhaland movement in India will be one step forward towards this goal.

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