Perspective on Indian inclusivenessNot only can Nepal learn from India’s inclusionary polity, India too can learn from Nepal’s exercise in inclusiveness
In an article published in these pages last month, Mahendra Lama opined that Nepal can learn a great deal from India’s inclusive order. A distinguished Indian scholar and academic of Nepali descent, Lama himself is a brand face of modern and multicultural India’s inclusiveness. To prove his point, Lama cites the names of many Nepali-Indians who reached the heights of success and were recognised in various fields in the Indian public sphere. He writes “[India] offers a number of lessons and policy prescriptions. It now has compact and comprehensive legal and constitutional provisions aimed at inclusionary practices at various levels of governance. A set of multi-cultural, politico-legal and socio-economic institutions well spread across the geographies and communities are implementing and evaluating these policies and legal provisions. A strong judiciary and executive are there to oversee the execution of entire practices/operations”.
There is no denial that Nepal, a late starter, has a long way to go to achieve the goals of institutionalising inclusion through affirmative action and other political measures—this is something that India has already achieved. We can, therefore, learn, benefit, and adopt a great deal from the experiences of our great neighbour, also because our socio-political conditions are similar. Nevertheless, Lama also admits—albeit without explaining—that “India is not a perfect example (of inclusiveness)”. While reading the article, I wondered what he could have in mind when he said so. I finally came to the conclusion that, being a native of Darjeeling, he could have been referring to the deficit of trust on the part of the Indian establishment towards Nepali speaking people in general and those from the Darjeeling area in particular. While my interpretation of Lama’s words may be wrong, it highlights a truth.
Nepali language—the lingua-franca of the hill districts of Northern Bengal and the state of Sikkim, also spoken widely in Assam and other north-eastern states and parts of Uttarakhand and Himanchal Pradesh—was denied official recognition before 1992. Although Nepali speaking people had been launching various movements since 1956 for the recognition of the Nepali language, it was listed in the 8th schedule of the Indian Constitution only in August 20, 1992. The reason for this long denial was that Indian rulers considered Nepali a “foreign” language, as admitted by the then prime minister Morarjee Desai in 1979. It took more than four decades for the “liberal” rulers of independent India to realise that a language spoken by nearly 10 million of their own citizens cannot be foreign just because it is the official language of a neighbouring country. Conversely, no Nepali rulers of any era—liberal or otherwise—have ever branded any language spoken within Nepal as foreign, including those which are also India’s official languages.
Though Indians of Nepali ancestry may not have faced discrimination in jobs, Delhi has never wanted them to be a political force. India’s political class has always been distrustful and reluctant to address their primary problem—the crises and quest of identity. That is why both Delhi and Kolkata always choose to crush all agitations demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland. The rationale behind the demand is simple and clear: Gorkhaland now belongs to West Bengal, yet it is distinctly different from the rest of the state—whether in terms of geography, ethnicity, language or culture. People who are demanding a separate Gorkhaland also want to put an end to Bengali domination in their native land. They have no desire to secede, which they have repeatedly stated and proved. All they want is a federal state within the Indian Union that is based on, and capable enough to address, the identity of their community or language. And, this is not asking for too much; most states in India are created on this basis.
Falsely and foolishly, Delhi and Kolkata see Gorkhaland as a step towards ultimate secession. Delhi has happily met the demands to create new states in far less compelling circumstances, some of which are more recent than the demand for Gorkhaland. I’ll cite only one example: Uttarakhand was a state created from the north-western districts of Uttar Pradesh in November 2000. There are both similarities and dissimilarities between these two cases, which speak for themselves. Both Uttarakhand and Gorkhaland are mostly hilly areas, while both Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are all plains. Both Gorkhaland and Uttarakhand are smaller territories compared to the large and overbearing states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. But while both Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, by and large, share the same culture, language and ethnicity, the proposed Gorkhaland and West Bengal don’t have any of these in common. People of Uttarakhand never felt a crisis of identity when they were part of Uttar Pradesh the way people of the proposed Gorkhaland have been feeling under West Bengal. Yet the former decided to separate—which Delhi gladly agreed to. On the contrary, despite all the rationale in favour of Gorkhaland, Delhi and Kolkata are hell-bent on not creating it. Is it not because they don’t trust their compatriots from Darjeeling hills as much as the ones from Uttarakhand?
Inclusiveness is not just reservations in public-funded jobs. It is not only proportional representation in the polity or public administration either. Sometimes, rulers use such arrangements as a strategy to avert secession or to contain alienated groups and communities. It is trust that matters, not political insurance policies. The Gorkhaland issue is proof of the missing trust. Nepal has already created a Tarai/Madhes only province with no hills at all—Province 2. The present government has also agreed to create another such province—Province 5—despite objections from hill communities. They have done this to honour the aspirations of identity of the Madhesi communities—people of North Indian ancestry who live in the southern plains of Nepal adjoining India. I think, therefore, that not only can Nepal learn from India’s inclusionary polity as outlined by Lama, India too can learn from Nepal’s exercise in inclusiveness.