Indo-Nepal Border and the state of Bihari Nepali
Indo-Nepal Border and the state of Bihari Nepali
Originally appeard in The Nepal Digest – July 16, 1998 (2 Shrawan 2055 BS)
News involving Indo-Nepal border often meet the headlines of the newspapers and the magazines in Nepal, more so frequent in the recent months due to the “Kalapani crisis (in which Nepal has accused India for encroaching a piece of her border-land).” Unfortunately, a very few articles make any attempt to put the issues of Indo-Nepal border in a historical perspective. Below is an article by the title of “Indo-Nepal Border and the state of Bihari Nepali” which I have written as a response to the letter to the editor entitled “A typical Bihari town in Nepal” published in the July 4th issue of “The Kathmandu Post,” an English daily from Nepal. My article attempts to put both Indo-Nepal border and the people residing around it (i.e., the Terai people) in a historical perspective and makes a critical approach to their evolution, the patterns of settlement & migration, and the confusion surrounding them. The article aims to increase the awareness of the history of the evolution of Indo-Nepal border, highlight the plights of the Indian origined Terai people as well as pacify the growing anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal.
The letter to the editor appears first and is followed by my response.
A typical Bihari town in Nepal (The Letter to the Editor, “The Kathmandu Post,” July 4, 1998)
Your news “Residents of Morang afflicted with influx of Indian migrants” (June 6, 1998), made me remember my first visit to Biratnagar. Anyone visiting Biratnagar feels that we are somewhere in a typical Indian Bihari town.
The number of Biharis and some other Indians over there outnumber genuine Nepali citizens. One can’t but feel ‘a foreigner in his own country.’ The no man’s land between Sima VDC of Morang district and Jogbani of India has virtually become Indian land.
The day is not far off when India will begin to claim almost all border towns as their own as they are doing to Kalapani at present. It is all because of the lack of political will and strong power at the centre, highly corrupt nature of our people and la ck of the sense of love for our motherland.
Go to a rickshaw stand in Biratnagar and you will find 8 Indian rickshaw-pullers out of 10 giving tough competition to native rickshaw-pullers throwing them out their jobs. In the market, shops, cinema halls and almost all business are owned by Indians.
The minibus that took us up to the border check post was owned and even driven by an Indian driver and a khalasi speaking Hindi. When he asked for the fare from Nepali passengers he would speak Hindi only. I was alarmed and saddened to find this state of affairs in this border town of Morang district.
During my visit there, one of my friends told me that even skilled and non-skilled labourers come to work in factories from across the border of the Indian side in the morning and go back to their homes in the evening as if Nepal lacks manpower.
Here we must not forget that most of the key industries, factories and business houses belong to Indians. It’s high time Nepali citizens started asserting their rights firmly concerning the unity, integrity and Here we must not forget that most of the key industries, factories and business houses belong to Indians. It’s high time Nepali citizens started asserting their rights firmly concerning the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country.
Political sovereignty alone is not enough. What is the use of political sovereignty when we are socially, academically, and culturally conquered by others? But who cares a fig about such things when we are mad about Hindi songs and films. We are blindly aping western culture and trying to speak English as though we are ashamed to disclose our identity. Worse, there is no dearth of such politicians in our country who make merry when India or Pakistan blasts a nuke bomb. What can we expect o f them regarding the border issues and our own sovereignty.
Karna Lama Karki, Birtamode, Jhapa, Nepal
Indo-Nepal Border and the state of Bihari Nepali
This is a response to the letter to the editor “A typical Bihari town in Nepal” (July 4, 1998). The author appears to be startled on his first visit to Biratnagar, a border-town, which he symbolizes as a “typical Indian Bihari town.” He further agonizes over his feeling as “a foreigner in his own country” where, according to him, Biharis and other Indians outnumber “genuine Nepali citizens.”
Let me begin with a few comments on some of the phrases the author has used to convey his reactions. His feeling as “a foreigner in his own country” on his visit to the border-town of Biratnagar, first of all, signifies his ignorance of the geographical and ethnic diversity of Nepal. His sense of his country appears to me of what many westerners imagine how Nepal looks like — a mountainous country with high-peaked Himalayas and fair-skin people mostly of Mongoloid as well as Aryan races. Like westerners, the author seems to be unaware of the vast fertile plain lands of Terai where many dark-skin Indian origined Nepali live. He, like most of the other “hilly” Nepali, seems to perceive these dark-skin Indian origined Nepali (most of which are ethnically Biharis, i.e., their ancestors were from the Indian state of Bihar) as “foreigners,” absolutely ignoring their centuries old history and legal Nepalese citizenship. His notion of the “genuine Nepali citizens” therefore inadvertently fails to encompass the one fifth of the Nepalese population which is of Indian origin.
When the author talks about his feeling as a “foreigner” in Biratnagar, it reminds me of one of my friends who hailed from a village in Terai, himself a Bihari by ethnicity, and whose ancestors migrated to Terai from Bihar for over a couple of centuries ago when the most of Terai was still a forest and heavily infested with malaria. A very few “hilly” Nepali then dared to settle in the plains of Terai. My friend enrolled in a school in Kathmandu as a child. His experiences in Kathmandu were horrible. Over the duration of ten years of his schooling in Kathmandu, he had to endure countless encounters of racism and harassment from his colleagues, general public and even his teachers, often by the use of such popular derogatory and racist remarks as “dhoti,” “Madhise,” “Kaale,” etc. Not only he, but also his parents on their trips to Kathmandu had to face similar occasions of harassment by general public in the bus parks and other places around Kathmandu. It is hard to imagine what psychological impacts these events might have had on the young mind of my friend. However, it is evident now that his bitter experiences in Kathmandu have left him wondering about his “identity.” He still questions himself, who really is he — a Nepali or an Indian? I am sure he felt more of a “foreigner in his own country” than the author felt in Biratnagar.
Let me now present a brief history of Terai and its Indian origined inhabitants. I think the lack of an adequate historical knowledge of this area and its people have mainly led to the current state of confusion.
>From what I have read and been told, just a couple of centuries ago the
most of Terai was occupied with dense forests, wild animals and was heavily infested with deadly malaria. The only people who dwelled in Terai were the native “Tharus.” They are still dominant in certain districts of Terai. The Biharis and other Indians, pushed by the dearth of farm-land in their home states, started inhabiting Terai by heavily deforesting it. Most of these Indian origined Nepali were from the neighboring Indian states, majority of which were from Bihar. The Marwadis, the inhabitants of the Indian state of Rajashthan, didn’t appear on the Nepalese scene until about the middle of this century. Unlike Biharis and other Indian origined Nepalese who own farm lands and came here relatively earlier, Marwadis are business people and therefore dwell mostly in the cities.
The majority of “hilly” Nepali didn’t migrate down to the plains of Terai until malaria was fully under control. Again, this happened primarily during King Mahendra’s tenure (the father of the present King whose tenure began around the middle of this century). Favored by the eradication of malaria and “special privileges” by King Mahendra’s administration, many “hilly” Nepali started inhabiting the plains of Terai, several of which became the noted “landlords” possessing even more land than the traditional Bihari landlords of Terai. During the last couple of centuries, many people both from the neighboring Indian states and the hills of Nepal have settled in Terai heightening the rate of deforestation. The present day Terai represents a blending of “hilly” and “Bihari” people as well as other Indian origined immigrants. Given the open border of Nepal, migration of Indians to Nepal in search of economic opportunities is still rapid, unchecked and uncontrolled.
What should be noted in this process of settlement and migration of Indians to Terai are the context and the timeline. When the first migration of Indians took place, there was nothing like the present day “border.” Although the Kingdom of Nepal was recognized by the British, the then rulers of India, there was no distinct and rigid demarcation of the border that separated Nepal from India. For the British as well as for most of the Nepali, the consciousness of a nation-state was limited primarily to Kathmandu and other hilly parts ( Note that until recently for many village dwellers Kathmandu was synonymous to Nepal). The British and the then rulers of Kathmandu (or Nepal) cared less of Terai which they thought was hardly habitable. Since there was no distinct border, there were no custom-posts between Terai and Indian states and people could move easily in-between them. The only custom-post or similar entity, I recall, was at the entrance of the capital valley Kathmandu, i.e., at Thankot (and may be at Dhulikhel too) whose function was to regulate or keep track of the people who entered into then Nepal, i.e., Kathmandu. I think the custom-office at Thankot existed until recently and issued sort of visa to them who entered into Kathmandu!
It’s been not that long when the “official” demarcation of the border between India and Terai took place and the Indian origined citizens of Terai were persuaded as well as required to have Nepali citizenship. It should be noted that though the “Sughauli Sandhi (a treaty signed after a series of war between the Gurkhas and the British way back in the 19th century)” defined the territories of Nepal, the implementation of the present day border was not rigid until the middle of this century. Further, the area of Terai expanded after the British rewarded then Rana rulers of Nepal for their assistance in the suppression of the “Indian Mutiny” of 1857. This expansion certainly put a segment of Indian population into the Nepalese territory that otherwise would have been in India. This certainly explains the close ties of the Terai people with the people of the neighboring Indian states that I’ll explain little later.
Again, the requirement of Nepalese citizenship is such a recent phenomenon that the grandmother of my above mentioned friend obtained her citizenship just ten years ago at the age of eighty! According to him, there are numerous poor and illiterate old people in his village who were unable to obtain citizenship due to lack of money (to take a photograph or to go to the district headquarters in some cases) or awareness. It surprised my friend when he found out that those old people were barred from the social security or elderly benefits granted by the Communist Government a few years ago because they didn’t have their citizenship! I pity on those old people who were born in Nepal, probably their parents might also have been born here, and yet they were not recognized as Nepali citizens just because they didn’t have the piece of paper called citizenship. They are not Nepali because they don’t look like the so-called “genuine Nepali.” Had they been from the hills, few people would have doubted their Nepali nationality. Obviously, millions of Indian origined Nepali are facing an identity crisis!
Now let me shed some light on the close ties of the Indian origined Terai people with the people of the neighboring Indian states. Like the author of the letter to the editor who was shocked by the Indianness of Biratnagar to such an extent that he symbolized Biratnagar as a “typical Bihari” town, anybody visiting the border towns and villages will experience similar Indianness in them. In fact the whole of Terai, which is just 17% of the total area of Nepal, appears as a “natural” extension of the neighboring Indian states of Bihar, U.P., and West Bengal with common ethnic origins, religions, culture and languages, separated rather clumsily by an artificial line of national boundary. For example, the people of Janakpur area are dominantly Maithili speaking whose cultural origins spring from the ancient Mithila Kingdom located just on the other side of the border at the present day Bihar. In fact, Janakpur, the town, is supposed to be the birth place of the Sita, the heroine of the Hindu epic “Ramayana” . Similarly, Bhojpuri speaking Biharis are found on the either side of the border of Birgunj area. Likewise, the Muslims of Krishnanagar represent an extension of Muslims of the neighboring U.P. In fact, all border towns and villages of Terai represent the similar traits. These people have so intricate ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural ties with the people of the corresponding Indian states that they feel more close to them than to other “hilly” Nepali people. It is evident, for instance, from a high number of matrimonial ties between the people on each side of the border.
The only differences in the culture and polity of Terai were brought by “hilly” Nepali who later migrated to these areas. These “hilly” Nepali don’t differ much from Indian origined Terai people with respect to religion, culture or traditions. The only things they differ at, though slightly, are language and ethnic origins as well as race. The Nepali language (which itself is a daughter of the Sanskrit language along with Hindi, Maithili, or Bhojpuri) has been increasingly popular in Terai due to the contacts of the “hilly” Nepali with the Indian origined Nepali coupled with the state policy of compulsory teaching of Nepali language in the schools (This was one of the major administrative policies of King Mahendra populalry referred as the process of “Nepalization” of Terai people). Prior to these contacts, the Indian Terai people didn’t understand or speak Nepali. Even today, only those who go to schools in Nepal or are in close contacts with Nepali speaking population can understand or speak Nepali. Thus, the dominance of Hindi or other Indian languages shouldn’t surprise anyone as it surprised the author in Biratnagar where he found bus conductors and other people speaking Hindi.
Further, the Mongoloid race of some “hilly” Nepali and their slightly distinct culture and ethnicity have brought diversity in the polity of Terai. It should be noted here that many so-called “genuine” Nepali blame India and Indian origined Nepali for “encroaching” their culture. Their blame is true to a certain extent given the huge popularity of Indian movies and songs in Nepal. However, it should not be referred as an “encroachment” because the popularity of Indian songs and movies as well as TV serial such as “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” is due to the essential similarities between Indian and Nepali culture and language, both of which have origins in the ancient Indo-Aryan Hindu culture and language. Although the majority of the polity of Nepal living in the higher hills and Himalayas are rather different from Hindu Indo-Aryans since they belong to the Tibetan-Buddhist culture (many of them migrated to Nepal after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950’s) as well as are of Mongoloid race, they are in a smaller number in Terai. The only group of people therefore should worry about the cultural “encroachment,” if any, is this Mongoloid-Tibetan group and not the Indo-Aryans. Talking strictly about cultural “encroachment,” it appears to me that it is the “hilly” Nepali, who though inhabited Terai only after Indians, have “encroached” the culture of Indian origined Terai people by forcing them to the compulsory education of Nepali language and making Nepali as the only official language!
Now let me comment on the current problem of rapid and unchecked Indian migration to Nepal. Before wondering why Indians come to Nepal for work, it should be remembered that it is legal for a Nepali to work in any part of India without obtaining a work permit and the vice versa. The author of the letter to the editor was amazed by the influx of Indian workers pouring through the border into Biratnagar for employment opportunities. What he failed to mention was the similar influx of Nepali workers, both so-called “genuine Nepali” and Indian origined Nepali, who occasionally (sometimes seasonally) go to India for the employment opportunities. In fact, just the number of Non-Resident Nepali in India (Nepali in India who were born in Nepal or are descendents of them), excluding the Nepali seasonal workers in India, surpasses the combined number of Non-Resident Indians in Nepal, seasonal Indian workers and Indian origined Terai people! Have we ever thanked Indians and the government of India for providing employment opportunities for such a larger population of our country? Again, Non-Resident Nepali are treated as equal citizens in India. Shouldn’t the Indian origined Terai people, who are in fact born in Nepal, deserve the similar treatment?
Whatever the so-called “genuine” Nepali feel or say about India and the Indians, it is obvious that Nepal cannot develop unless the neighboring border states of India — Bihar, U.P., West Bengal, and Sikkim — first develop. Even if Nepal develops independently, the development will naturally be diluted by the huge influx of Indian immigrants from the neighboring states. In short, Nepal cannot develop unless India develops. India must take the lead in development and Nepal should follow the lead. As for the current problem of the influx of immigrants from Indian border towns to Nepal, no simple solution exist to this complex problem. The rapid Indian immigration may be regulated by “tightening” the border, i.e., by requiring passport and visas, or the whole notion of immigrants can be eliminated by “eliminating” the border between Nepal and India, i.e., by the political unification of Nepal to the Indian Union (in the manner similar to all other distinct and different states of India which have united under one federation thereby preserving their uniqe “state” identity while adding a separate “national” identity to them). Which course should Nepal follow or which is viable, I leave that for further debate.
Bijay Raut MC Box 3670 Middlebury College Middlebury, VT 05753
Entry filed under: Articles.