In the last of this 3-part series, we look at three main factors which encouraged Gorkhas to settle down in Assam. Cheap and fertile land; attractive incomes and marital alliances
By K. K.Muktan
Livelihood and Economy
In Assam, where land was a plenty but population thin, it made agricultural prospects very promising. But the local Assamese were slothful, totally uninterested in work and given to opium addiction. They loved to cultivate opium but for home consumption only. So the British Government was looking for people from outside Assam who would be interested in coming to the state to carry out cultivation.
The retired Gorkhas who had settled in Assam were hard-working, diligent and good at cultivation. Hence the Government encouraged them by giving as much land as they could put to use. David Scott, the political agent to the Governor in Council, authorized Captain Neufville to grant his Gorkhas who had brought their families with them, lands at a very moderate rate of eight Annas per pura annually.
The Gorkhas took full advantage of this concessional offer. Immigration of Nepalis was not only due to encouragement of the British but also welcomed by the Assamese intelligentsia. Anandoram Dhekial Phukan(1827-1859) commented, “More than one-half of the country is now a vast extant of waste” and that the “Government should bring experienced people from outside for increasing food production.”
Gunaviram Barua (1834-1894) estimated that no less than a million people fromoutside could easily be settled on the wide areas of Assam. He enumerated three factors which were favorable to such immigration. First, cheap and fertile land; attractive earnings in view of the local manpower shortage and, the prevailing condition of easy matrimony into local families”[i].
In a letter addressed to A.J.M. Mills in 1853 Major H.Vetch, the Deputy Commissioner wrote, “In a country so abounding with wasteland as Assam and with so scanty a population, Government may well part with a portion on any term, if thereby settlers be induced to come into the country”[ii].
Therefore lands were freely given to Gorkha ex-service men in the vicinity of the regimental homes, as well as civilians who came from Nepal to settle down. Needless to say, collection of land revenue was one of the main objectives of British agrarian policy. For this purpose the land was classified into different categories in 1868-69 and different rates of land revenue were imposed.[iii].
The migration of Gorkhas from Nepal increased and very soon the hard-working Gorkha peasants were able to double food production against soaring demand. They brought more and more land under cultivation and engaged additional men and materials into cultivation.
Dr. A. Guha writes, “Increase of tea garden labourers pushed the demand for food. To meet this demand, Nepalis agriculture got boosted up. With the increase in population the demand for food grains increased. Government encouraged increase of agricultural activities by importing Nepalis and settling them in Assam.”[iv]
The enterprising Gorkhas cultivated multiple crops such as paddy, mustard seed, jute, sugar cane, pulses and various kinds of vegetables and fruits throughout the year, from season to season. Betel-nut, paanleaf and fruits were grown in their backyards which also brought them extra income without additional work.
They also reared livestock such as goats, pigs and poultry which were sufficient for daily requirements. Sugarcane was the main crop grown by Gorkhas of Darrang, Lakhimpur and Sibsagar districts where large tracts of land were brought underthis crop cultivation. The hardworking Gorkhas became successful and rich.
Cattle rearing and dairy farming became another major occupation of the Gorkhas in Assam. The vast expanse of pastoral lands lying along River Brahmaputra, the green hills and valleys in Assam attracted the enterprising Gorkhas as early as the middle of the nineteenth century.
They came in large numbers and set up cattle farms (Goths) and turned it into a monopoly occupation. No other community was interested in this occupation as drinking of milk was alien to many people especially the tribals in the hills.
The British Government too encouraged the Gorkha herdsmen by constituting Professional Grazing Reserves (PGRs) and Village Grazing Reserves (VGRs) or Village Grazing Grounds (VGGs) at various places around the Brahmaputra banks, chars and river derelicts. The profession of cattle rearing in Assam flourished and very soon the cattle farms (khuties) mushroomed all over. This led to a rapid increase in cattle population as well.
The Forest Department collected cattle tax at the initial rates of 8 Annas per buffalo and 4 Annas per cow annually (1888) which became a good source of income for the Government.
Gorkhas as Industrial Labour
During the middle of 19th century Assam saw tremendous growth of industries like tea, coal, petroleum and railway expansion. Coal and petroleum-mining being labour intensive required considerable manpower andthe indigenous Assamese refused to work in coal mines.
The Naga labourers were initially engaged but they were scared to go deep into the tunnels. Therefore, the choiceonce again fell on the fearless and hard-working Gorkha labourers. A large number of Gorkha workers were drawn from Jalpaiguri and Duors areas with the help of thikadars (contractors).
In 1825, petroleum deposit was discovered in Digboi and the first oil well was dug near Jaypore in 1866. Thereafter, the drilling of oil wells progressed so fast that by 1893 many more were drilled in Digboi, Nagarkatia, Moran, Rudrasagar, Sonari, Amguri, Geleki etc. To meet the increased demand for labour a large number of Gorkhas from North Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan were imported to Assam.
This adversely affected the tea gardens in Darjeeling and Duors due to which the Government of West Bengal objected because it was facing shortage of skilled labour. Finally, the problem of labour shortage was resolved in 1919 after an agreement was reached with the Government of Nepal to allow its subjects to be recruited in the coal and petroleum industries of Assam.
After this agreement Assam never faced a problem of manpower as plenty of Gorkha labour was available for all industries including the timber operation – like felling of trees, cutting into logs, sawing and producing millions of railway sleepers needed for the expansion of railway lines in Assam.
Integration with Assamese society
The Gorkhas adjusted well with the larger Assamese society. Whether they settled down in hills or plains, they adopted the local language, dress and culture of that region and shared with the locals their problems and prospects. They loved their new found land Assam as their motherland. They sent their children to Assamese medium schools right from primary until matriculation.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Gorkhas in India are the only community who adopted another culture without a whimper and, simultaneously kept their own too. Noted social scientist Prof. A. C. Sinha has remarked, “The Nepalis have a great capacity to assimilate themselves with the hill communities. They adopt the language of their neighbourhood, contract marital alliances and turn out to be an inseparable part of the local economy.”[v]
The Gorkhas have a sizeable population in Assam, a rich and diverse culture and a language (Nepali) whose literature is sufficiently advanced and which has found a place in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution of India. They want to live in Assam in complete harmony and brotherhood with the local people and at the same time preserve, protect and develop their own culture and language. They like to be called Assamese Gorkhas to distinguish themselves from the Nepalese of Nepal.
Gorkhas in Politics
The Gorkhas became politically conscious around 1920 when Mahatma Gandhi started the Satyagraha movement. Babu Chhabilal Upadhyaya, the forerunner of Gorkha politics joined Congress the same year and actively took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement.
Upadhyaya presided over the meeting of the Assam Association held in Jorhat on 17April 1921 which adopted the historic decision to dissolve Assam Association, while marking the birth of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee. Upadhyaya, thus, became Father of the Assam Congress Party.
Together with him, other elite Gorkhas like Hari Prasad Upadhyaya, Tikaram Upadhyaya, Dalbir Singh Lohar, Bhakta Bahadur Pradhan, Bishnulal Upadhyaya, Kumud Chandra Sarma, Devi Prasad Upadhyaya, Annapurna Devi andTilarupa Devi among others, joined the Assam Congress Party. They co-operated with Assamese leaders like Chandra NathSarma, Omeo Kumar Das, Gahan Chandra Goswami, Vijay Chandra Bhagabatietc and participated in national political campaigns like Civil Disobedience Movement and Quit India Movement.
Chhabilal Upadhyaya, his brother Hari Prasad Upadhyaya, Bishnulal Upadhyaya and Kumud Chandra Sarmawere also imprisoned for actively participating in the Quit India Movement. In 1942, a large number of Gorkhas of Majhgoan, Behali, Sootiya, Jamuguri, Dhekiajuli and more actively took part in the Independence movement and many of them courted arrest and imprisonment.
[i]. Ibid, p 68
[ii] . AJM.Mills, Report to Government, 1854, xiv.
[iii]. Sajal Nag, Politics of People, in Society and Economy in North-East India, Vol III, Edt.
David R. Syiemlieh/Manorama Sharma, p 110-111.
[iv] . A.Guha. Medieval and Early Colonial Assam, 1991, New Delhi, p 9
[v] . A,C.Sinha, 1990,The Indian North East Frontier and Nepali Immigrants in Himalayan Environment
and Culture, Edt.by N.K.Rustomji and Charles Ramble, New Delhi, pp 236
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Mr. K. K. Muktan is a retired Meghalaya Civil Service (MCS) -turned-author. Mr. Muktan is deeply interested in the dynamics of Indian culture, especially of the Gorkha community in India. Mr. Muktan has authored a number of books such as –The Legendary Gorkhas, The Gorkhas in the Freedom Struggle of India, and The Comprehensive History of the Nepalis in Northeast India(in three volumes) to name a few.