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Gorkhaland Movement: History, Flaws & Prospect

By Vijay Thapa 

The year 1816 may be regarded as the turning point in the history of the Gorkha nation. Prior to this unfortunate year, the Nepalese economy was not only self-reliant but had developed in trade, while industrial production had also begun. While Bronze of Bhojpur in Eastern Nepal was famous, the mining of Copper in Charikot had begun; even guns and ammunitions were being manufactured in Puthan in Western Nepal.

While talking about the economic condition of Nepal, Colonel Kirkpatrick in his book, An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal, writes that the Nepalese metals like bronze, iron and copper were far more developed than that in neighbouring state of the Indian subcontinent and some of these productions were even competitive with similar productions of Europe. This economic development and self-reliance gave Nepal the courage to develop as an expansionist regime in the Himalayan region. Small states and tribal provinces were being merged militarily into one great nation by Nepal. This left it with battle-tested and experienced soldiers ready at hand. Its military might had reached its glory and was on the verge of swallowing almost the entire Northern and Eastern region of the Indian subcontinent. Her boundary extended from the river Sutlej in Kashmir to Teesta in the East and included areas like Gorakhpur, Kangra, Kumaon, Garhwal and part of Sikkim, east of the river Teesta, which include parts of the proposed Gorkhaland area. But this expansionist national character of Nepal terminated along with the war against the well-built power-hungry British colonialism.

The Nepalis fought the most heroic battles, formerly unseen by the British in their colonial history. The exemplary courage, skills, loyalty and mass participation in the war against the white enemy has become the most spoken period in the Nepali history. The patriotism in this legendary war is well expressed in the following statement of Nepali Commander, Amar Singh Thapa, when he stood against the ill-intention of his king to submit before the British in a bid to save his throne: “So long as we are reduced to one man, we will continue fighting, either we get victory or be martyrs, our defeat is impossible.” This exemplifies the patriotism and self-respect, which remains engraved in the cultural fibre of the Nepalese community and it has always inspired the people in their struggle. Its illustration could be found in the past Gorkhaland agitation and also in the struggles to come.

While the Britishers were well aware of this spirit and martial quality of the Gorkhas, they were looking forward to use some easy tactics in a bid to cut a profitable deal. This became possible when the internal squabbles in the Palace forced the Nepal King to hastily submit before the British, going against the enthusiasm of his subjects. Thus the most humiliating ‘Treaty of Sugaulee’ was signed on December 2, 1816.

This event even today is embedded in the hearts of every Gorkha with both negative and positive events. Positive because the Britishers recognised Nepal as a sovereign state, which otherwise in the long run is supposed to have been swallowed in the present Indian Union;  on the other hand, it is negative because the treaty remains a moment of great hardship and embarrassment resulting in the Gorkhas to suffer in subsequent years in alien hands.

The triumph of the British over the Gorkhas cornered Nepal into a land-locked country and made Nepal dependent on the imperialist powers who began penetrating its economy ever since.

Impressed by the fighting capabilities, patriotism and loyal nature of the Gorkhas, the Britishers became desirous to have the services of the Gorkhas in the endeavour to contain and subjugate other provinces in the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile, Nepalese agro-economy had begun releasing surplus labourers and the indigenous industries could not compete with British machine-made goods. This led to amassing of unused labor force in the economy. Also the need to maintain and run a huge military in view of the neighbouring province coming under one administrative unit under the British seemed wasteful for Nepal. Hence the manpower as part of a military power meant less important for Nepal.

The Britishers, hungry for more land and Nepalese masses under gross unemployment was a ‘genuine coincidence’ initiating the next move of the Nepali history. Although the Nepal government was reluctant to allow its people to be recruited by the British, the British baiting over salaries and facilities promised for the recruits encouraged Gorkha masses. The Nepalese fought for their nation in lieu of daily food and ownership of land;  they were not paid in cash. Thus by the end of 1815, 4650 Gorkhas had joined the British army. Besides the clandestine measures adopted to attract the gullible Gorkhas such as the permission and help to let them settle in the Northeast India and Darjeeling, the use of gallawalas (agents) to bribe and recruit the Gorkhas succeeded. And when the infamous Rana regime, one of whose cruel prime ministers was termed by Marx as “British watchdog”, grabbed power in 1846, a formal clearance to recruit the Gorkhas was received by the British. Thus a large population  began leaving their  motherland in search of a ‘decent life’. By 1908, 10 Gorkha regiments enlisting 55,000 Gorkhas were raised. Gorkhas even joined the Khalsa army of King Ranjit Sinjhi and they were recruited in Lahore. Thus the name ‘Lahure’ became  synonym for those leaving the country and is  very much in use till today.

The autocratic and chauvinistic Rana regime began unprecedented brutal oppression on the people of Nepal and turned the country into a bankrupt beggar. This situation became so repressive that the poor population thought the British India was comparatively better than their homeland and swarmed to British India and went as far as Burma either as a military recruit or as menial workers. It should also be noted that simultaneously the comprador bourgeoisie, patronised and backed by the British imperialism, along with skilled labourers, clerks, accountants and even domestic servants were pumped into that small kingdom, which enabled the British to capture the entire economic control of Nepal. Meanwhile, viability of tea plantation and commercialisation in 1852 could not be catered by the Gorkhas, who have been  living in Darjeeling and contiguous areas for centuries. This commercial endeavour of the British required labourers of high physical efficiency and endurance for deforestation, plantation and productions; i.e., all menial works, but in an extremely low subsistence wage and long working hours. This labour force was coming from Nepal in an unrestricted manner and assumed such proportions that a culture of going ‘Muglaan’ (foreign) took shape.

Cinchona plantation was also started in 1861 and large-scale production began during 1874-75. The expansion of this industry, because of its high demand due to perennial malaria epidemic in the subcontinent, went on covering new areas deforesting the virgin forest of the Darjeeling hills.

These two agro-based industries employed more than 60% of the working population. Meanwhile, agriculture, which is mostly done in the Kalimpong subdivision and nearby areas, developed after the replacement of the primitive shifting cultivation by modern Nepalese agricultural system. But one should take note that landlordship, in the strict sense of the term, did not develop in agriculture in these areas, though disproportion of land was inevitable.

Another major economic sector in Darjeeling is the forest products. Though the Darjeeling forests were “reserved” on May 13, 1865, yet on February 16, 1871 certain forests were declared “open”. Jobs like forest maintenance and deforestation employed a large number of workers.

The trading activity which is the oldest preoccupation in the Himalayas increased considerably by 1901 when border trade with Tibet through Pedong, Kalimpong and Sombarey as trade centres was developed. There was considerable trade in wool, musk, gold etc. and these trading activities were gradually monopolised by Marwari, Bihari and Bengali traders. 75% of the trading activity was controlled by these communities, while the Gorkhas supplied physical labour. The formerly used motor transport system which employed thousands of men in road construction was becoming less efficient to accelerate trading between the hills and the plains. Hence the transportation system was further developed with the establishment of an 80 km railroad from Siliguri to Darjeeling in 1881. This beautiful railway known for its engineering feat was completed in an astonishingly short period of only three years. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway with its headquarters in Kurseong developed transportation to unassuming proportions. This railway with 13 stations, three small loco sheds and a 6670 sq.mts factory was labour-intensive. Other transports such as rope-ways were also developed. Thus by 1920, all infrastructure for a capitalist production system had been developed by the Birtish imperialism. This development was made possible in such a short span of time by the labour of lakhs of toiling people. The population, which earlier toiled under land-based feudal economy, were now all of sudden engaged in machine-run modern capitalist production system.

Vijay Thapa
is concerned about securing a place for the Gorkhas in India. He writes often in the Himalayan Times on Gorkha issues.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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