There has always been an undercurrent of hostility towards people of Nepali descent here, and that has its roots in the historical memory of the atrocities of the Gorkha conquest more than 200 years ago. But it has been accentuated lately after the Kalapani dispute.
It surfaces unexpectedly in a chance conversation when a reporter mentions to an Indian Air Force pilot in a cafe in McLeodganj that she is from Nepal. The pilot’s previously affable demeanour changes abruptly, and he warns: “You Nepalis should not act too big for your boots and cross the border into our territory. You have become Chinese puppets.”
There are currently 28,000 Nepali nationals in the seven Gurkha regiments of the Indian Army. These regiments have 39 battalions with a 50-60% representation from Nepal. Every year, some 2,000 Nepali youth are selected to join the Indian Army.
The Indian Army’s Gorkha troops are held in high regard, and tales of their bravery in battle either on the Pakistan or China border resonate with often-quoted remarks like this one by the former chief of the Indian Army Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he’s a Gurkha.”
But with the border dispute, Nepalis and Gorkhalis here feel like they are regarded with new suspicion. When this reporter reached Almora to visit the oldest Gorkha fort in Kumaon which is now a part of the 13th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment, she was denied entry solely on grounds that she was a Nepali.
Although descendants of Gorkhalis here prefer not to be called ‘Nepali’, that is not the case in Darjeeling and Sikkim. The reason for that could be because those regions have more recent Nepali migrants, and were not militarily conquered by the Gorkha Empire.
“The threat of the Anglo-Nepal war never reached Darjeeling and Sikkim, which is why Nepalis there have a slightly different self-identity,” explains historian Dinesh Raj Panta in Kathmandu.
The demand for ‘Gorkhaland’ has dominated the politics of Darjeeling and Kalimpong for decades, and is an expression of a hankering for autonomy from the rule of West Bengal in faraway Kolkata. In fact, the name Gorkhaland appears more appropriate for Kumaon and Garwhal on the other side of Nepal, since that is where the real descendants of the Gorkhalis live.
While author Jyoti Thapa Mani and other Gorkhalis take pride in their ancestry, many in Kumaon, Garhwal, and Himachal do not acknowledge the conquest of their land by the invading Gorkha army.
Historian Shekhar Pathak in Nainital says that the very word ‘Gorkhali’ has become synonymous with oppression and cruelty in the local Garhwali and Kumaoni dialects.
“Gorkhyo jaise banna hai?” (You want to become like a Gorkhali?) is often used as a warning not to be too aggressive. Gorkhalis are referred to as Gorkhyani, Gorkhyo, or Gorakhchayani.
The brutality of the Gorkha conquerors is not as well known in Nepal, where it is glossed over in history books. But here it is a part of historic lore and legend, passed down over the generations in Garhwal and Kumaon.
However, Garhwali historian Shiva Dabrawal in his book, Gorkhyani I and II, says that even official Indian history books do not delve into the cruelty of Gorkha rule, and it has only been passed down orally.
In Kathmandu, Dinesh Raj Panta says: “Enough time has passed, we must revisit our past, our common history between India and Nepal, and discuss both the good and the bad sides of the conquest. As a general rule, nobody likes conquerors.”