A lecture delivered at the Deptt. of Sociology in North Bengal University on 22 August 2015.
Bhasha Diwas & Nepali Identity Politics
It is 23 years since Nepali language was finally enshrined in the eighth schedule of Indian constitution on the 20th of August 1992. It was the fruit of 36 years long struggle that started in 1956 when one Anand Singh Thapa from Dehradun wrote a letter to the then President of India in this regard. I think no other Indian language had to fight for such a long period and with so much trials and tribulations. Although Anand Singh Thapa’s letter to the President created not much stir in the Nepali speaking Indians then, it unquestionably planted a seed that in course of time sprouted in the minds of intellectuals in the Darjeeling Hills and elsewhere. But it was not visible in any form before 1972 when a dozen or so intellectuals and enthusiasts met to form Nepali Bhasha Samiti, a couple of years later renamed as Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Bhasha Samiti. Of course, 11 years prior to that, there was a Darjeeling Hill region language movement in 1961 under the leadership of two illustrious intellectuals – Indrabahadur Rai and Ganeshlal Subba. That movement was stirred by the then Bengal government’s faulty language policy that had tried to impose Bengali language even in the Darjeeling Hills. Massive protest rallies hit the streets of Darjeeling town; walls of government office-buildings were splashed with posters crying foul against the imposition. This agitation forced the state government to come to terms with the hill sentiment and a bill was introduced in the state assembly to recognize Nepali language as a state language in the three hill sub-divisions in the same year.
Until 1977 Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Bhasha Samiti’s activity was not beyond the confine of correspondence, leaflets, posters and occasional public speeches in the towns. It was only when Morarjee Desai, the first non-Congress Premier of India, gave a thunderous slap on the cheeks of the delegates of Bhasha Samiti, its exercise turned into a movement in a real sense of the term. It was the first time that none other than the then Prime Minister of the country had bluntly called Nepali language a foreign language and even threatened to disband the Gorkha regiment in the Indian Army. What greater insults and humiliation could there be!
This humiliation and insult at the hand of the most powerful person at the centre shook the entire Nepali community of the land like never before. And the poets poured out their anguish, playwrights took their agonized protest to the stage, short-story writers came up with the theme of cultural identity, painters began to give revolutionary tone and texture to their paintings and musicians also composed songs evoking the deep rooted feelings of Nepali ethnic culture. A few lines from a poem entitled ‘Backlash’ that was spurred by the anguished moments and published first in ‘Haamro Bhasha’-1978, the Bhasha Samiti’s mouthpiece, may be cited here to show the different tone and texture of Indian Nepali poetry in late seventies and eighties:
At the very crack of dawn
Without any sign of rainclouds
This pine tree in my barren garden
Was suddenly struck by a thunderbolt
While I was looking forward to the advent of Spring
… … …
I, as old as the Himalaya,
But now a derelict
In my own country!
… … …
Now is the time to be born of death’s womb
O my Hills and mountains!
Why are you still quiet with your arms crossed?
Burst forth thunderously releasing the streams of lava all around
Against this dark chasm…
Mohan Thakuri, a well-known poet, also articulated in these words:
I am here standing for ages
Flowing with songs of rivers
Echoing on the hills
The soil of the land where I stand
Speaks out the testimony of my being here…
-Need of the Hour (1980)
And the language movement, instead of being cowed down by the shabby treatment at the hand of Morarjee Desai, was re-energized with all the more vigour. It was, of course, a serious question of identity crisis, and the then sixty lakh Nepali-speaking Indians fervently believed that the inclusion of Nepali language in the Constitution would solve, once and for all, this crisis, the primary cause of their decades-long suffering – physical as well as psychological. ‘Our language, our life’, ‘We sacrifice our lives but we will reach the goal’- slogans rent the sky of the Darjeeling Hills and the Dooars and their echo could be heard in far flung regions like Manipur-Mizoram in the east and Dehradun-Bhaksu in the west.
In three years the Morarjee government was toppled and after a few tottering dispensations that followed in between, Indira Gandhi stormed back into power. Bhasha Samiti once again led a delegation to Delhi with a renewed hope but PM Mrs. Gandhi was reluctant to give any assurance. On the contrary, she later labeled the demand for constitutional recognition of Nepali language as “more an emotional than rational.” It was strange that she could not see the rationality in the demand for inclusion of Nepali language in the eighth schedule of the constitution. She was completely unaware that a globally renowned linguist Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, long ago, had enlisted Nepali language as one of the major Indian languages on the basis of which Sahitya Akademi, the highest National Academy of Letters in India had duly recognized it long back. To the Nepali speaking sentiments, the denial of constitutional recognition of the language was the denial of recognition of the community as Indian. Consequently, a kind of frustration was gripping Nepali speaking people in Darjeeling and other parts of the country. And this is when Nepali identity politics emerges in its unprecedented manifestation.
In the early eighties of the preceding century, a historic seminar held at Sukeypokhari gives birth to a new organization named Pranta Parishad (Council for Separate State) steered by Indrabahadur Rai. As the name suggests, its solitary objective was to lead the movement with the theory of forming a separate state in India. Now the Nepali speaking people’s movement shifted from language to the demand for separate state. So to say, the movement of cultural identity starting from language was so violently shaken by Morarjee Desai’s hard slap and also by the subsequent government’s ignorance and apathy that Nepali-speaking Indians were made to think hard about their political identity in the country. The Pranta Parishad was of course born of the womb of the long-felt need for establishing the national identity in the country which Nepali speaking Indians call their motherland. In fact, question of articulating distinctive identity in the context of Indian nationality has ever been there as ‘Collective Consciousness’ in the minds of Indian Nepalis, and this consciousness has often found its expression in one way or the other. Here, it is pertinent to call to our mind that the hill community had demanded for the separate administrative arrangement forty years before the end of British colonial rule in India. That was in 1907, to be precise, when the Hillmen Association came up with such demand. So, the emergence of Pranta Parishad can be called a bigger manifestation of the same aspiration to exorcise the ghost of identity crisis deeply rooted in that Collective Consciousness. However, the Parishad’s activities could not go beyond the public speeches. It utterly lacked the organizational work at the grass-root level; its leaders’ intellectual talks from the high pulpit could have only limited impact upon the general mass.
And a year or two later, Subash Ghising, almost suddenly, emerged with a bang in the political scenario of the Hills. The self-styled leader roared the slogan of Gorkhaland, and the name of his organization “Gorkha National Liberation Front” sounded very much disturbing to the leaders in the state of West Bengal as well as at the Centre. He single-handedly attracted the greatest ever mass support towards him before he held the first public address in Darjeeling on the 13th of April 1986. While slogan of “Chhuttai Pranta” of the Parishad could not catch the fancy of common people at the grass-root, Ghising’s Gorkhaland, in no time, became extensively popular. It was undeniably Subash Ghising who popularized the nomenclature of Gorkha and Gorkhaland. He gave a clarion call to replace the word Nepali with Gorkha as the former, he argued, has ever landed us in identity confusion in our own country. Although questionable, his argument in this matter is not insubstantial. In this context, I would like to recall some of my experiences I have had on many occasions while attending national literary meets and seminars. My first such encounter was in 1979 at Chandigarh where I, along with other three poets from Darjeeling, was invited as a young promising poet to attend a week-long Poets’ Workshop. Poets and writers from other Indian languages would ask us where we were from and what language we wrote in. The moment they heard the names like Darjeeling and Nepali they would jump to conclude that we were from Nepal. I have had such experiences even as lately as 2012. At a function of Kolkata literary festival, a cabinet minister, the day’s chief guest, expressed his pleasure over the presence of a renowned poet from Nepal, and the poet he meant was none but me. A little later when it was my turn to speak I corrected him in a bit elaborate manner. Similarly, in the same year, a distinguished guest while concluding the two-day National Seminar on Translation mentioned me as from Nepal, and immediately after he finished, I asked permission of the chairperson of the session and reacted to what was said in the speech just concluded. However there is no such confusion with the languages like Bangla, Urdu, Punjabi or Sindhi. It’s unfortunate that only Nepali language and Nepali speaking people are pushed into confusion with the neighbouring country Nepal.
In order to get rid of this haunting confusion, Ghising and his few intellectual supporters insisted on the use of the word Gorkha. Despite the fact that at some point of history Gorkha was the name of a small hill kingdom to the west of Kathmandu and now a district of Nepal, during the process of ‘unification’ of Nepal the soldiers and officers coming from that part of the land used to be called Gorkha or Gorkhali. Even long after Nepal took the present shape the language that spread from that region used to be called Gorkha Bhasha. It had also some other names like Parvate or Khas. It was only much later that it was gradually replaced with Nepali. So, it clearly explains that the term Gorkha is as much intrinsically connected with Nepal as the term Nepali. But Ghising was doggedly bent to the use of Gorkha nomenclature and he went to that extent that he coined a slogan such as “Those demanding Nepali language must leave for Nepal”. He had even aired his extreme view that Bhanu Jayanti must not be observed by the Indian Gorkhas as he belonged to Nepal. And he officially started to celebrate every year the birth anniversary of the poet Agamsingh Giri whom he called true Gorkha poet who always gave expressions to the plight of Indian Nepalis in his highly romantic style. But ironically, Giri seldom used the word Gorkha; his poetry is replete with the word Nepali. But the saddest event of that period is that one early morning of Bhanu Jayanti people were shocked to find the statues of their most revered poet vandalized in all three hill sub-divisions simultaneously. It was a most ghastly act as Poet Bhanubhakta, for several decades, was and is revered more as the cultural icon of Indian Nepalis than a pioneering poet.
When the language recognition bill was being placed and discussed in the parliament, Ghising was desperately using all his political might to replace the term Nepali with Gorkha. And when finally the language bill was passed in the parliament, there was no celebration in the Darjeeling Hills. What greater irony can there be than this? But we must view all these acts on the part of Ghising as his exercise towards finding a permanent solution to the identity crisis in the Indian context. It was the same intention that he, in the latter part of his being in power, raised the issue of Sixth Schedule which he believed could give distinct identity to the Gorkhas. But he failed to understand that the identity Sixth Schedule could give would be confined to the particular region or the state only. It cannot give us the national identity as a state or a lesser Union Territory does.
Linguistically, culturally or politically, search for panacea to the identity crisis of Nepali speaking Indians has not yet come to a rest. Our great expectation that the inclusion of Nepali language in the eighth schedule of the constitution would be the final answer to the question of national identity evaporated before long. There is still a deep-rooted feeling of political insecurity in Indian Nepalis or Gorkhas. Whichever parts of the country they are in, they have been subjected to various types of physical as well as psychological sufferings. They bitterly feel marginalized in many ways; their selfless service and sacrifice for the cause of the nation have been utterly ignored in history. So, majority of Nepali speaking Indians are of the belief that only a separate political arrangement can help them live with their heads held high. People with this aspiration had supported the second leg of Gorkhaland movement started in 2007 under the leadership of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha. People from all walks of life and from other communities as well were attracted to its professed non-violent movement and as it grew in magnitude it also could not restrain itself from faltering. And it settled for Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. The only significant achievement of it is the name Gorkhaland which is but not a mean achievement. If the greatest Bard of the 16th century asks- “What’s in a name?...” we can say, for now, that name matters much.
In conclusion, we can say that until and unless the Nepali speaking Indians are recognized as a distinct community in India this identity politics will continue. It can be hoped that a political solution, not like that of the present and preceding arrangements, will be found out in near future.