It is exasperating, even frustrating, to hear talk of the Gorkhas’ inability to stay united. When I was last there in Dehradun, a retired brigadier asked me, “What can we do to keep the Gorkhas united?” I have no prescriptions, but across India I have been asked this very same question. Even the request for this article came with the suggestion that I could write about “Uniting the Gorkhas Nationally”. Quite clearly, then, there is a perception, justifiably so, that the Gorkhas face the threat of their unity being shattered.
Whenever such an occasion has required it, we have presented an admirably cohesive face to fight for a community cause. We saw this first during the demand to get the Nepali language incorporated into the 8th Schedule of the Constitution, particularly from the 1970s onward. Later, we experienced this unity twice, both times to back the movement for the creation of a separate state, the first time in the 1980s and then recently.
Does this mean that the Gorkhas only close ranks when they need to fight a battle? This would be detrimental to the community. Scholar Dr Rajendra P Dhakal has noted that since the very beginning of India’s nationhood, the government’s policies have granted recognition to linguistic groups that are able to exhibit a robust political support (“The Urge to Belong: an Identity in Waiting” in Indian Nepalis: Issues and Perspectives, edited by TB Subba, AC Sinha, GS Nepal and DR Nepal).
He says that the demonstration of such political support depends on the numerical, administrative and economic strength of a linguistic community. Unity among Gorkhas is relevant in this context. We don’t have an intimidating head count, so it is our unity that becomes the proxy for brute numerical strength. As an un-fractured community, we are as strong a political force as any other in India.
Dangerously, however, this unity is threatened by the current trend of the Gorkhas to assert their sub-identities. Everywhere – from Darjeeling to Dehradun, from Gangtok to Guwahati, from Kanglatombi to Kolkata – the Gorkhas are banding together in terms of their lesser identities as Khambu Rais and Tamu Gurungs, as Magar Thapas and Khas Jati and so on. Admittedly, this effort to subsume their corporate Gorkha identity into the more basic social sub-identities is only the result of the warped government policies that make development a part of the matrix of a citizen’s caste and community. Deprived for so long, our Gorkhas too are eager to leverage their sub-identities for government benefits.
By itself, this may not be bad. However, this erodes what we know as the corporate Gorkha identity. As a result, we are slowly but steadily weaning ourselves away from what was till today one, singular Gorkha culture. For instance, certain communities are now distancing themselves from the year’s biggest social and religious celebrations of Dasain and Tihar (or Dussehra and Diwali). They are giving up the iconic daura-suruwal for tribal costumes, and these lroti is losing ground to sectarian snacks.
Let us be clear. The power structure that has kept us marginalised for 200 years will be keen to continue doing so for another 200 years, and a disjoint Gorkha community only plays into its hands. Already the risk of pursuing sub-identities is discernible in Darjeeling. West Bengal’s ruling political party, for whom a strongly united Gorkha community is a threat, has gleefully divided the people along communal lines at a time when the Gorkhas should be standing up to Kolkata as a unitary force.
With such a stark example before us, it should be quite evident to the Gorkhas that if they are to avoid their failure to breach certain social and political walls during their 200 years as Indians, they must always remain a united people. We may live in disparate parts of the country, having assimilated the ways of life and the customs of the regions we inhabit, but we must never forget that we are one community. More importantly, we must present ourselves as such to the country at large.
In this, our corporate culture and our language are aids. We have to make our language and our culture the fuel for our unity. Without unity, the numerically minuscule Gorkha community will be trampled by the hordes of mainstream Indians. This is a realistic danger we face in the next 200 years. To thwart those who would wish to keep us permanently on the sidelines, we must never dilute our united strength by dividing ourselves into smaller units.
Joel Rai is Senior Editor of The Times of India at New Delhi. He has worked as a journalist for two decades with all national news publications based in the national capital, including with India Today magazine and The Indian Express newspaper.