|Home away from home: Shyam Prasad Pokharel, a coalmine worker originally from Sindhuli, nepal
Photos: Dinesh Wagle
Marriages, history shows us, are often tactical arrangements between rulers to expand empires, strengthen political alliances, establish peace between warring nations, avoid wars or create harmony in a conflict-ridden society. The Romans did it, the Mughals followed suit, and Nepal’s rulers were no different, in the seventh century marrying off Princess Bhrikuti to powerful emperor Songtsan Gampo of Tibet. Similarly, in the eighth century, King Jayadev II of Nepal brought home Rajyamati, daughter of Harshavardan, the king of Kamrup, Assam.
In contrast, when Kul Bahadur Magar, a Nepali coalmine worker in an area of Meghalaya that borders Kamrup, married Deng, a local ethnic Khasi woman, he did not have lofty goals of alliance building or peace-making. ‘Who thinks like that?’ asked 45-year-old Magar. ‘I liked her, she liked me. We were both young and one day we married.’ That was 13 years ago. Since then, the couple has been living peacefully in a shack with their four children, near the coalmine where Magar works. But their peace has now been shattered. The simmering mistrust between Nepali-speakers and the local Khasi community erupted into full-scale conflict during the course of May. Several Gorkhas (Nepali-speaking Indians) and migrants from Nepal were killed, the tragedies highlighting the constant vulnerability of both categories of Nepali-speaking residents of the Northeast.
At the heart of the conflict lies a beautiful village called Langpih (or Lampi), claimed by both Assam and Meghalaya. Both states are strongly backed by villagers sharply divided along ethnic lines. The Gorkhas want the present Assamese authority in the village unchallenged, while the Khasi feel the area belongs to Meghalaya. The dispute has existed since 1972, when new states were created in the Northeast, and Meghalaya was carved out of Assam. Occasional arson and the stealing of crops belonging to members of the opposing community have been common in the area. But the latent tensions came to the world’s attention on 14 May, when the Assamese police gunned down four Khasi who were part of a mob attacking Gorkhas in the village and at the police checkpost. The mob had planned to attack the Gorkhas, particularly their leader, Chakra Bahadur Chhetri, who the Khasi feel represents and promotes the interests of Assamese administration in the village.
In turn, the Khasi started to vent their anger against Nepalis and Gorkhas throughout Meghalaya. While attacking or issuing quit notices, the Khasi rarely differentiate Gorkhas from Nepali migrants. But lately they have been raising voices against the provision of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty that allows the free movement of citizens from one country to another. The Khasi feel that this provision should not be implemented in Meghalaya, so as to stop the flow of Nepali migrant workers from Nepal. The Khasi blame Nepali migrants for ‘stealing’ their jobs – charges that Nepali migrants reject, saying it is the locals who own and run the coalmines, and hire Nepalis as cheap labour.
One 70-year-old Gorkha, Loknath Bastola, was burnt alive in Umiam (Badapani) village, just south of Shillong. The Nepali workers believe there may have been more killings in the Jaintia Hills district that borders Bangladesh, where thousands of Nepalis labour in the unregulated coalmines. After the Langpih incident, the Meghalaya government set up a police post in the village ‘to protect Khasi people’, at the insistence of Khasi organisations. The new installation is just a few hundred metres from the border outpost of the Fourth Assam Police Battalion. The village thus resembled a war zone, with armed villagers patrolling the area after dark.
|Coal man: Pokharel at work|
Settling the jungle
The level of mistrust and anger is high at all levels. For its part, the Shillong government believes Guwahati is encouraging Gorkhas to bring more of their kin to the village so as to strengthen Assam’s claim over the land. ‘Assam police is helping to bring up new [Gorkha] settlements,’ said Meghalaya chief minister, Mukul Sangma, adding that the move had ‘created a sense of mistrust and insecurity among the population’. Indeed, Gorkhas say they do feel the need to bring in more of their own from other parts of Assam, so that the Khasi cannot intimidate them. ‘We have been living here for more than two generations,’ said Chakra Bahadur Chhetri, the village headman, or gaunbudha. ‘Our grandfathers came from Nepal and settled here when no Khasi lived here. It was a jungle at that time, and our grandfathers felt it was a good place for their cattle.’
The Nepali-speakers first arrived in Meghalaya not via Guwahati, like many do today. And they did not come in search of employment. Rather, in 1827 they came armed, in uniform, as members of the Eighth Gorkha Rifles from Sylhet, in modern-day Bangladesh. In 1835, Cherrapunji, also in Assam, was made the headquarters of the Gorkha Rifles, from where the British briefly ruled. But the excessive rain and humidity of the location – said to be one of the wettest places on Earth – eventually forced the British to find a cooler area, explains Bikram Bir Thapa, a Shillong-based writer who tracks Gorkha history in the area. Ultimately, the British settled on Shillong, the capital of present-day Meghalaya, and moved in during 1866. The following year, the Eighth Gorkha Rifles also shifted their base to the new capital.
After they retired from the service, these Nepali soldiers did not return home. Rather, they stayed on near the cantonment area of Shillong, creating a community that grew as relatives and neighbours from Nepal migrated to the area. ‘Once the retired soldiers stayed here,’ said Thapa, a retired Gorkha soldier himself, ‘their near and dear ones started coming in from Nepal. Some of them were farmers and cattle herders who didn’t stay in Shillong but shifted to the surrounding hills and spread across Meghalaya.’ By all accounts, the size of the Nepali-speaking community started growing in earnest in the 1880s, and the descendents survive till today as Indian citizens of Nepali origin.
By 1876, the Gorkhas had already opened a school in Shillong, today known as the Gorkha Pathshala. According to the Gorkha community’s history, the Khasi were not living in the area when they began to settle in and around Shillong. Based on Indian census data, the Gorkhas do appear to have constituted the majority community in Shillong until around 1960. But the numbers have since dwindled sharply, with just 30,000 Gorkhas today living in the city of 600,000 – made up mostly of Khasi. On the other hand, there is no reliable data about how many Nepali seasonal migrants work in the coalmines in Meghalaya, but it is commonly accepted that more than 100,000 Nepalis work in the mines during the peak season, from December to May. Work is slow during summer, when migrant labourers go back to Nepali villages to tend to their own fields.
The presence of Nepalis in Meghalaya has been an issue in local politics since 1986, when hundreds of migrant workers were chased out of the state from the coalmine areas of the Jaintia Hills. The next year, the Gorkhas of Shillong were targeted, during which time some 30,000 Nepalis and Gorkhas were expelled from Meghalaya. Nepalis were also targeted during the anti-‘foreigner’ movement that swept the whole of the Northeast during the early 1980s, triggered by the ‘son of the soil’ agitation in Assam.
Harmonious, but few rights
Ethnicity-based conflicts are not new in the Indian Northeast, of course, and neither are they limited to those between the Nepali and Khasi communities. While the first group of Nepalis to arrive in Meghalaya were soldiers, this is not the case in other parts of the Northeast, especially present-day Assam, which had close ties with Nepal long before the arrival of the Gorkhas in Meghalaya. ‘Today, Nepalis are the only ethnic group with a presence in each of the seven states of Northeast India,’ said a Gorkha in Shillong who works for the government but asked not to be identified. ‘No Garo lives in Arunachal, no Mizo is found in Meghalaya – they prefer to live in their own respective states. But Nepalis are everywhere, and have been living in harmony with all these communities in all these states.’
This ‘harmonious’ circumstance has done little to ingratiate the Nepali community to the Indian state, however. The government worker added that Nepalis in all of these states have generally been ignored by the Indian authorities, who do not consider the population as one of its own. ‘Many of these indigenous communities in the Northeast are fighting for independence from India,’ he said. ‘But we the Nepalis are fully committed to the Indian union – we are in fact working for the strengthening of the Indian union. But the irony is that we, the linguistic minority, are taken for granted by the Indian establishment.’
The obvious problem lies in the confusion between migrants and recent arrivals who are citizens of Nepal, and Indian Nepalis or Gorkhas, who seek to consolidate their Indian citizenship. An additional complication exists in the form of the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, by which each country seeks to consider citizens of the other as its own. By this token, even the migrants from Nepal should be able to avail themselves of the Indian state’s protection. But India’s Nepalis today see the 1950 Treaty as a bane, as it does not create enough of a distinction between them as Indians and the migrants who are Nepali citizens. This mix-up of identities makes Indian Nepalis easy targets at times of tension, and makes them suspect in the eyes of officialdom in both New Delhi the states of the Northeast.
Neither has the Nepali integration into local communities been complete. Though they have been living in the region for some two centuries, the Gorkhas have found it difficult to assimilate with some indigenous communities. While most Nepalis in Assam live in harmony with the locals, having learned the language and adapted to the culture, certain cultural, linguistic and social differences has made assimilation difficult in Meghalaya. And this is not necessarily surprising: a Khasi-majority state created exclusively to look after the community’s interest, everyone else is an outsider in Meghalaya. For instance, the large majority of Khasi are Christian, while the Gorkhas are Hindu – hence worshiping the cow, which the Khasi eat. ‘They try their best to convert Nepalis to Christianity,’ said one Gorkha leader in Guwahati, adding that ‘they target those who are unwilling to convert.’
On the other hand, several factors bring the Gorkhas closer to the Assamese. Both communities speak languages that belonging to the Indo-Aryan group – Khasi belongs to the Austro-Asiatic – practice the same religion and live in patriarchal societies. (The Khasi are matrilineal.) Gorkhas can own land in Assam with ease like any other Assamese, but they cannot in Meghalaya, where tribal communities get priority. Assam also faces land disputes in other parts of the state, from Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. With the majority of the residents in their border areas belonging to the ethnic community of the claimant state, Assam has found it difficult to lay claim over these areas. In the border dispute with Meghalaya, then, the Gorkhas of Langpih have in effect become the citizen border police for Assam. The Gorkhas are hostile to the Meghalayan state, which is attempting to establish its presence in the disputed village through various development works, such as building roads, schools and health-post buildings. ‘If we leave this village, the Khasi will not just capture it but also come all the way to near Guwahati,’ said Chhetri. ‘Meghalaya has claimed all the land right up to Guwahati. In a way we are border security police for Assam.’
|Down in the mine: Due to competition over jobs, the Khasi community is pushing for a re-appraisal of the open Nepal-India border|
In many ways, the Langpih dispute is a perfect example of how ethnicity-based federalism pits communities against one another. For instance, the Assamese government encourages Gorkhas from other parts of the state to settle in Langpih while opposing the Khasi. The latter, meanwhile, have no administrative relationship with Assam (they are registered with Meghalayan authorities), and did not even participate in the recent census. The Gorkhas, on the other hand, participated enthusiastically in the exercise, with Chakra Bahadur Chhetri, the gaunbudha, as the administrator of the procedure, ignoring the call by the Meghalaya government to halt census activity in the village. The Khasi also do not send their children to the local primary and middle schools run by the Assamese government. Further, while the Meghalayan authorities are suspicious of Chhetri, the Assamese authorities have recognised him twice with annual ‘best gaunbudha’ awards for Kamrup District.
One way or another, the Gorkhas have an immense stake in the outcome of the Meghalaya-Assam feud. If Langpih eventually goes to Meghalaya – which falls under the Indian Constitution’s Sixth Schedule, on the administration of Adivasi lands – the non-Adivasi population will have no right to any land whatsoever. ‘We will be homeless, landless,’ Chhetri said. ‘On the other hand, Assam is giving us every possible help – roads hospitals, drinking water.’
At its core, the issue is that of two states fighting for a piece of resource-rich (especially uranium) land, as much as it is a conflict between two communities. Both states are under immense pressure from their respective electorates not to concede the area to the other side. While Assam maintains that it has all the documentation required to show that Langpih belongs to it, Meghalaya insists that the Centre should intervene in the matter. Meghalaya argues that since the majority of the villagers are Khasi, and that they prefer to have administrative relations (registration, etc) with it, the village should officially come under its rule. Assam, on the other hand, claims Langpih based on the findings of a 1985 committee headed by Justice Y V Chandrachud – a committee jointly formed by the two states to solve the border dispute, but the report of which Meghalaya eventually rejected.
While the Gorkha-versus-Khasi violence in Meghalaya today is not as severe as the unrest of the 1980s, the problem is clearly far from solved. Sapariwar, a Guwahati-based Nepali-language magazine, has reported that altogether 19 Nepali-speakers were killed in Meghalaya by Khasi during the May crisis, a figure also widely reported by many Kathmandu-based news media. The magazine quotes some anonymous Khasi eyewitness who said that at least six Nepali migrants were killed in a single village. The killers hid the dead bodies, the magazine writes, and the authorities did not investigate fearing that the exposure would create serious further human-rights issues. The Meghalayan government rejects the charge, however, with the chief minister saying that ‘only one Nepali person was killed’ during the crisis.
New Delhi has consistently shied away from involvement in the dispute. During a visit to the region last month, India’s union home secretary, G K Pillai, suggested that the two sides come to the table and solve the issue themselves. Though the chief ministers of Assam and Meghalaya did subsequently hold discussions, they failed to come up with a solution. This inability to do so has in turn put the Nepalis and Gorkhas of Meghalaya in an uncertain situation. ‘The fear is still there. And though it didn’t get worse this time, and no Gorkhas were evicted from Shillong or other parts of Meghalaya, you never know what happens as long as the Langpih problem remains unsolved,’ said Diwakar Poudel, a Gorkha from Assam who has been living in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya since the 1980s.
People like Kul Bahadur Magar and Deng, the couple introduced at the beginning of this article, also appear to have concluded that their marriage alone cannot bring the two communities together. After the current unrest, the couple has been rethinking the wisdom of continuing to live in their shack near the coalmine. ‘Our daughters are growing,’ said Magar, ‘and it is becoming difficult for them to live here. The Khasi target them as they are the children of a woman who ‘went for a dakhar’ – the Khasi word for foreigner. ‘Deng’, in fact, is just a nickname that means ‘second daughter’ in Khasi, as her formal name is Goma. In fact, she is a Hindu, the daughter of a Nepali man (a Tamang from Nepal) and a Khasi woman. Because of the growing insecurity, Deng, who speaks fluent Nepali, is now insisting that the family move to Nepal, where Magar continues to own ancestral land. ‘I didn’t think I would go to Nepal,’ said Magar. ‘But now I am thinking about it.’
Dinesh Wagle is the New Delhi bureau chief of the Nepali dailies Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post. More of his writings are at wagle.com.np