Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju / Himal Southasian (March 2011)
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju / Himal Southasian (March 2011)

A Lepcha in your own land

On being an 'outsider' in Kathmandu and remembering the past.

Peter J Karthak was a writer and editor based in Kathmandu.

At the very outset, I must be a village explainer: Firstly, my full name is Peter John Karthak, and this name has been a frequent irritant in my life. Secondly, I am a Lepcha, a far-eastern aboriginal nationality of Ilam, in Nepal, a group duly enshrined in the country's official ethnic list. But Nepali bureaucracy and even the country's intelligentsia are not fully aware of my tribe's existence, thus leading to doubts about my own Nepaliness and aggravating my identity as an irredentist. Contrary to this identity, however, I am not one to advocate for reclaiming my people's native lands, parcelled out to other newly created Southasian countries during the 20th century; I am only labelling myself as somebody who is chronically uprooted by the region's recent history.

Adding to my irredentism is the fact that, thirdly, I am a fifth-generation Christian, a rare bird for the majority Hindu and Buddhist populace of Nepal. Fourthly, I am taken as an immigrant from Darjeeling, and such a creature is called prabasi in Kathmandu. Fifthly, though my ancestral roots are in Ilam of Nepal, the then-His Majesty's Government of Nepal granted me a naturalised citizenship certificate, and this does not help address my irredentism – as further exacerbated by, sixthly, the additional fact of having been born in Shillong.

Seventhly, being tossed in and around my family farm and the tea gardens of Darjeeling before settling in the district headquarters of Darjeeling – where the native Lepcha are being reduced to a miniscule minority in the much-vaunted Gorkhaland – further added to my internal irredentism. Eighthly, as a Lepcha, I could claim Sikkim as my new home, too, if not the other sanctuaries in the Lepcha world, but Sikkim's own various turmoil were more discouraging than welcoming. So I ended up in Kathmandu, whose ownership of me is yet to materialise, even after 44 years of dwelling here.

Ninthly, had I not been a child who never saw his father, my irredentism would not have arisen in the first place; rather, my parental firm address would have solidly anchored me somewhere. Tenthly and lastly, were I living somewhere within a fold of the ancient Lepcha realms, I would not be an irredentist. Technically, I belong to Kathmandu, yes, but ethnically I belong to a territory that once embraced Ilam (in Nepal), Darjeeling and Sikkim (now in India) and west Bhutan. But since none claims me, I belong spiritually nowhere. As an irredentist, I am thus practically invisible. My parts are scattered; so the sum, the total, is far from being whole.

History's stipend

It happened when I was young, 12 years old, and it happened unknowingly. In late 1956, I was called to the school clerk's office at Turnbull High, in Darjeeling. Mr Mukhia, the head clerk, quietly counted out some money and handed it to me, telling me to sign next to my name on a form. The amount was 72 rupees in crisp banknotes. It was unexpected and, for a sixth-standard student, completely incomprehensible.

'What is it about, sir?' I braved out.

'Well, you're a Lepcha. You belong to the Scheduled Tribes of West Bengal. So you get this kind of government stipend every year,' Mr Mukhia explained. 'The higher you go up, the more money you'll get.'

Still, many questions needed answers. Why was I receiving this money only in Class Six? And what was this thing called Scheduled Tribe?

There were other students going into the administration office, each coming out with cash in hand and looking similarly flabbergasted. There were two distinct physical complexions among the recipients: one lot looked Mongolian and Tibeto-Burman, and the other group distinctly Indo-Aryan.

My younger brother, Mark, also received a stipend of 72 rupees, and we went home and together handed the money to our mother. We explained as best as we could. Mother seemed to understand; among other things, it was good to be a Karthak – a Lepcha, Lapche, Rong!

The money was a godsend, a windfall for a single mother with two sons. We had recently migrated from our self-sufficient farm in Nor Busti, on the other hill range of Darjeeling, and times were hard in a town where everything had to be paid for in cash. Our mother had brought us two brothers to Darjeeling for further education, and this was a huge risk taken by a divorced woman.

Well, that year, the stipend would pay for our stationery and textbooks. Mark and I also got a warm woollen sweater each for the harsh winter. As for the stipend itself, it was a gesture of official protection and paternalism.

From Mayel Lyang

The last Scheduled Tribe stipend I received was 1478 rupees in my final college year. Then I left Darjeeling for Birgunj, in the Nepal Tarai, and eventually landed in Kathmandu – where I was rendered an irredentist. I have been in that state for the last 44 years, while Darjeeling has become a distant memory. By leaving India, I forsook my ST opportunities for higher studies, or for competing in the Indian Administrative Service or the security services.

During my time in Darjeeling, there were two minority groups of 'miniaturised' Indian Nepalis classified as either Scheduled Tribes (STs) or Scheduled Castes (SCs). The former comprised the Bhote, Sherpa, Kagate and Lepcha; the latter, Kamis (blacksmiths), Damais (tailors, musicians) and Sarkis (cobblers, leatherworkers). While the STs were non-Hindu ethnic tribes of the Himalaya, the SCs were Hindus but sub-classified as 'low caste'. The Lepcha were also included on the ST list. While the other ST and SC groups were immigrants to Darjeeling from Nepal, the Lepcha were the indigenous lords of the 'Rongland' called Mayel Lyang, which spread from Ilam to Sikkim, Darjeeling district, a strip of Ha province in western Bhutan, to the Mechi River basin and Coochbehar.

But the entire Rongland was overtaken by outsiders. Darjeeling, for instance, was literally taken from the Sikkimpati Raja by the British in India. Instead of receiving reparations, their descendents (like me) ended up being handed annual stipends in modern India. What of the Lepcha who did not attend school was a matter not duly considered. Meanwhile, the 72 rupees I received was a pittance for the plenty my people left to those who arrived without knocking at our door. The gatecrashers were British, hordes of Nepalis, some Farsi and Anglo-Indians, many Biharis and Marwaris, among other uninvited guests.

Whom to blame? The British, of course! But they left in 1947, and departed in such a rush that their McMahon Line, Partition and Durand Line are still causing irredentist irritants as botched history's half-done measures in Southasia, as elsewhere. The miasma left by the British Raj on pristine Rongland, for one, simmers in one way or the other to this day; so much so that the present people have decided to opt for a convenient forgetfulness. Rather, it is more important, for instance, to spearhead the Gorkhaland movement in Darjeeling. As an immediate irredentist consequence, the Lepcha in Darjeeling found themselves as guests in their own country, as well as in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and elsewhere.

Irredenta interval

The obscure family of words coming from the Italian irredento (meaning 'unredeemed') is not well defined in most dictionaries, so there is a tendency to explain these words in multiple ways. One definition has it that an irredenta is an area subject to potential claim, but not all irredentas are involved in actual irredentism – ie, the pushing for annexation of neighbouring lands. This is confusing at best and, for the Lepcha, as one distinct people but scattered in four directions, it offers not even the flimsiest guidepost by which to begin. Deconstruction of the principle demands acceptance of the fact that there is more than 'an area' involved – in the Lepcha question, in fact, there are at least three, if not four, sovereign territories.

A much clearer meaning of irredenta denotes a region that is related ethnically or historically to one country, but is controlled politically by another. Notably, such cases historically have been mostly bilateral and officiated over by imposing powers-that-be – the Yoruba divided between Nigeria and Benin, or the annexation of German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. In the case of the Lepcha, however, they are left high and dry in their ancient lands because their prehistoric lands were handed out during the British Raj. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was able to sort out most irredentist claims in Europe, but what of Southasia?

In fact, other irredentist claims around the world do not bear comparison with the Lepcha situation. Here, there is no question of annexation because there is nothing left to annex in the first place; perhaps a cultural confederation, therefore, would be the ideal choice. Further, in each Lepcha habitat, ethnic nationalism is today a smouldering issue that should not be allowed to degenerate into the glare of disillusionment; again, the concept of pan-confederation would be a nobler alternative. There is also no question of what the Germans call lebensraum – space in which to live, because the Lepcha can be accommodated as a common fraternity in the region if arrangements can be made for their essential exchanges and interactions. This can be done by a clarion call of 'Lepchas of Southasia, unite!'

With that, it is time to leave the sublime peregrinations and come down to the ridiculous riddles of being an irredentist in Kathmandu. As far as my 'English' names were concerned, there was no confusion on the part of officials of various stripes. After all, there was a Peter Chhetri, from Burma, with a known surname in Nepal. Likewise there was Peter Moktan, who posed no problem because he was a Tamang. Another Peter was no headache because his last name was Giri. Then there was Peter Pandey, a Nepal Bahun (Brahmin) and a Christian convert. It was also gently explained to me that names such as Princep Shah, Helen Shah, Emerald Jung Rana, Diamond Shumsher and Victory Rana were easy for bureaucrats to accept as Nepali, because these individuals were known to be from Kathmandu and Nepal-born.

My case, on the other hand, had them all stumped, particularly my surname. When Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, I became Peter Carter. Karthak was also variously spelled as Kathak, Katar (coward), Kartik and Karthar.

And yet, I should note that all of these observations come from the Nepal post-People's Revolution of 1990. The new democracy made people more vocal, as nosey cross-examiners. Truth be told, the 30-year 'partyless' Panchayat system, under which I spent 22 years, was notable for not bothering people who did not annoy the system. No remarks were made against my 'funny' surname, no one had to worry about my 'mlechchha' religion, or where I came from. Compared to the doubts, suspicions and cynicism I experience these days in Kathmandu, the Panchayat past was a more reassuring period for those who minded their own business. But perhaps the old pent-up rages are today having their catharsis, vented in an anarchical madness that is mistaken for democracy via egalitarian free-for-all.

Many things have changed, but the woes of an irredentist remain the same. All the old Lepcha habitats are there – Ilam, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mechi and Koch – but none belongs to me, or I to them. The Mayel Lyang of the Lepcha, or Mutanchi Rong, is a paradise lost, and there is not the faintest hope of regaining it.

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