Last week, Assam saw an interesting development in its landmark National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued an official notice stating that the Assam government cannot refer members of the Gorkha community living in India to the Foreigners Tribunal (where authorities adjudicate whether a person is an Indian citizen or not) by citing the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Friendship.
So, who are the Gorkhas?
To the uninitiated, Gorkhas are people of Nepali-origin, who derive their name from the 8th-century Hindu saint Guru Gorakhnath and by some accounts the Nepal hill town of Gorkha, which is six hours from Kathmandu. However, there are two types of Gorkhas residing in India—Nepali citizens and those who have obtained Indian citizenship.
Who are the Gorkhas with Indian citizenship?
They are essentially descendants of Gorkhas who settled in India during British colonial rule. After the East India Company won the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1815 against the Gurkha Kingdom, the British recognised their potential as soldiers and ensued to enlist Gurkha defectors into their armies.
Initially, a band of 5,000 soldiers, made up of not just Gorkhalis, but other ethnolinguistic groups like the Kumaonis and Garhwalis, enlisted with the British. All these men were lumped together under one title, Gurkha, and soon became critical elements of British Indian forces.
The British went onto raise many such Gorkha units in their erstwhile colony. Following Independence and Partition, however, six regiments from the Brigade of Gurkhas were transferred to the Indian Army under a 1947 Tripartite Agreement between Nepal, Britain and India.
However, further official recognition of their claim to Indian citizenship came with an MHA-issued notification on August 23, 1988. According to this notification, the Gorkhas domiciled in India from “commencement of the Constitution, i.e., as from 26-1-1950, born in the territory of India, either of whose parents was born in the territory of India,” are Indian citizens. West Bengal tops the list with the number of Nepali-speaking Indian citizens, while Sikkim contains the highest density.
Nonetheless, six million Nepali citizens are living in India, according to the Ministry of External Affairs, and are legally living and working in the country. Among other things, the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship allows for “on a reciprocal basis, 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.”
The Gorkhas living in Assam are mostly descendants of those who migrated or were transferred from Nepal as soldiers, road construction and tea plantation workers, labourers working for the railways and associated industries like coal and marginal farmers, by the British.
By some estimates there are approximately 22 lakh Gorkhas currently residing in the state.
When the Assam government was conducting its NRC exercise earlier this year, members of the influential All Assam Gorkha Students’ Union (AAGSU) issued a complaint with the MHA about many members of their community being excluded from the NRC.
Approximately 1.5 lakh applicants from their community have been excluded, of which 50,000 are ‘D’ (doubtful) Voters, a classification which was introduced in 1997 to mark out alleged Nepali citizens who aren’t eligible to vote. Community leaders, however, allege that the process of marking of ‘D’ voters was marked with irregularities. Anyone with a ‘D’ classification is immediately left out.
Responding to the AAGSU’s complaint, the MHA issued a notification. It cited the 1950 treaty, according to which “any member of the Gorkha community holding Nepalese nationality and who has arrived in India by land or air over the Nepal border even without a passport or visa and staying in India for any length of time” cannot be treated as an illegal migrant by Indian authorities.
This provided they have certain documents in their possession like a Nepalese passport, voter ID or other such identifiable Nepalese citizenship-related certificates.
Thus, Nepali citizens are legal migrants, and the 1950 treaty saves them from being sent to a Foreigners Tribunal. Having said that, many Gorkhas with Indian citizenship are having a hard time with the NRC project, including those who have served in the armed forces.
Nonetheless, many Gorkhas with Indian citizenship, particularly those residing in the Darjeeling Hills and calling for a separate Gorkhaland state, are against provisions in the treaty protecting Nepali citizens.
Why? Thanks to these provisions, mainland Indians have a hard time distinguishing between the two, and thus refer to Indian Gorkhas as foreigners.
Speaking to The Indian Express, AAGSU president Prem Tamang supported this position.
“Because of the treaty, Gorkha people living in India from the early 1900s are being compared with Nepal-origin people who came to India recently. We believe that in Assam the cut-off should be 1971, irrespective of the treaty,” he told the publication.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)