Experiencing Nepal in Assam

I spent the past three weeks in my hometown Guwahati. But Nepal was never far from me during my entire trip to Assam.

As I waited at New Jalpaiguri railway station to board the Kanchenjunga Express to home I met many Nepalis heading to Assam and other states in north-east India to spend Dashain holidays with their relatives permanently settled there.

They went their own ways once we reached our destination but throughout my stay I met many Nepalis from Assam and from Nepal and the experience made me realize how they have become an integral part of the region.

It was a delight to overhear their conversations at malls, grocery stores, ‘paan’ stalls, Durga Puja pandals and just about everywhere. Since the lingo they spoke is an Indianised version of the colloquial Nepali spoken in Kathmandu it sounded a bit different but interesting.

Talking in Nepali to a resident of Kaski who was working in a small dairy farm in Sonapur on the outskirts of Guwahati was a pleasure. He had been in India for the past 11 years doing all kinds of odd jobs from cultivating fields to repairing cars and trucks.

Not all Nepalis who go to the region in search of a better livelihood end up in menial jobs. Our neighbourhood grocer who migrated from Nepalgunj three decades ago is a successful businessman who has over the years become one of the richest persons in the locality.

Nepalis have migrated from Nepal and settled in Assam for close to two centuries now. The first recorded instance was of Jaichand Thakur, a retired Subedar of the British Gurkha Platoon based in Sylhet (in present day north-east Bangladesh), settling down in Shillong (the erstwhile capital of Assam) way back in 1824.

He was followed by many others who moved to Assam and other parts of the region to escape poverty and the difficult life in Nepal. They were also encouraged by the British rulers as labourers were needed for Assam’s tea gardens and Meghalaya’s coal mines.

Over the next century the number of Nepalis in Assam continued to rise. As per 1931 census there were 88,306 of them in the state. The figure rose to 101, 338 in the next 20 years.

The figures for 2001 census show there are 564,790 Nepali speakers in Assam—the fifth largest group after Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and Bodo speakers. Nepalis comprise 2.3% of Assam’s 31 million plus population.

This figure doesn’t take into account those Nepalis who are yet to permanently settle down and become Indian citizens.

Those who have made Assam their home have added more diversity to the state and contributed to education, literature, politics, sports and other fields. The present state assembly has two Nepali elected representatives including former Speaker Tanka Bahadur Rai and Sanjay Raj Subba, brother of former MP Mani Kumar Subba.

There are many others. Octogenarian Lil Bahadur Chettri, winner of the Sahitya Academy Award for his book ‘Brahmaputrako Chheu Chhau’ on Nepalis in Assam, and young boxer Shiva Thapa are prominent names from other fields that come to mind immediately.

The Nepali connection continued even after I entered Nepal last week. The policeman checking my bags at Bhadrapur airport on way back to Kathmandu recounted the two years he spent in Meghalaya’s coal mines once he saw the packets of tea leaves I had brought from home.

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