In view of the misunderstandings and confusions which are being deliberately created regarding the history of the region and the migratory movements, we are setting out below a brief outline of the history based on official sources.
Historically, what is known as the district of Darjeeling today was parts of two kingdoms during the pre-British period – the kingdoms of Sikkim and Bhutan. Following wars and treaties signed with these two kingdoms, this territory came under the control of the British Empire in India. This territory was not a part of Nepal when the British took over, and, therefore, cannot be considered as part of the ‘ceded territories’ of Nepal, as is being claimed by GNLF.
The present territory of Darjeeling came under British occupation during the nineteenth century in three stages. In 1835, by a deed of grants signed on 1st February, the Raja of Sikkim ceded a portion of the hills to the British to help them to set up a sanatorium. This area covered all the land south of the Great Rangit river, east of Balasan, Kahel and Little Rangit rivers and west of the Rangnu and Mahananda rivers. The second stage followed war with Sikkim, which resulted in the annexation of ‘Sikkim Morang’ or ‘Terai’ at the foot of the hills, and a portion of the Sikkim hills bounded by the Rammam rivers on the north, by the Great Rangit and the Teesta on the east and by the Nepal frontier on the west. This area too had always been under Sikkim, excepting the Morang or Terai in the foothills which was for a time (1788-1816) conquered and ruled by Nepal, but, following the war with Nepal during (1814-1816) this tract was ceded to the British Government which in turn returned it to the Raja of Sikkim. The third stage was marked by a war between British India and Bhutan, which led in 1864 to the annexation of the hill tract to the east of Teesta, west of Ne-chu and De-chu rivers and south of Sikkim.
In other words, the present territory of Darjeeling historically belonged to Sikkim and Bhutan, and was included in India following wars and agreement with these two countries. Only the Terai part of the territory (and not the hills) was for a time conquered by Nepal from Sikkim, but was then returned to Sikkim in 1816, long before the district of Darjeeling took shape. As for the hill areas of the present day Darjeeling, where the Nepali-speaking population constitute the overwhelming majority, there is no recorded historical evidence of this ever being part of Nepal.
Furthermore, the native population of the district did not comprise of the population of Nepali origin. Both the Nepalis and the Bengalis came to the territory as immigrants following the development of the tea industry and the expansion of the administration. To quote the Bengal district Gazetteers, authors by Arthur Jules Dash and published by the British government of Bengal (1947 edition, Darjeeling part, Chapter III):
“When the East India Company in 1835 first acquired the nucleus of the Darjeeling district from the Raja of Sikkim, it was almost entirely under forest and practically inhabited… this hill tract of 138 square miles contained a population of 100”.
“The decision of the Company to develop Darjeeling as a hill resort gave the opportunity to neighbouring peoples to immigrate and take part in the development. The original inhabitants, probably Lepchas, were rapidly outnumbered by settlers from Nepal and Sikkim. By the year 1850, Dr. Campbell, the first superintendent reported that the number of inhabitants had risen to 10,000. The rapid influx was noted by Sir Joseph Hocker when he visited Darjeeling about that time. When in 1869 a rough census was taken of the inhabitants of this tract, the total was found to be over 22,000.”
Thus it was overwhelmingly a forest land by 1869, with a population of not more than 22,000. However by the time of the first census of India in 1872, the population had rapidly increased to 94,712, and by the turn of the century, in 1901 it was 2,49,117. This increase was mainly connected with the development of tea industry and the opportunities for wasteland cultivation. The tea plantations, beginning in the 1850s, increased to 74 estates covering 14,000 acres in 1872, 153 estates and 30,000 acres in 1881, and 177 estates and 45,000 acres in 1891. While the labourers for the tea estates in the Terai plains were mostly tribals from Bihar, in the hills the great majority of the workers were from Nepal. Once the tea industry developed, this led to further economic activities and created demand for more immigrants, many of whom now took to agriculture. The migration from Nepal continued in subsequent years. Even in 1931, out of a total population of 3,19,635, there were 59,016 had come from Nepal, in addition to the vast number of offsprings from the earlier waves of migration from Nepal, who constituted the majority, By 1941, 86.8 per cent of the population in the three hill sub-divisions on Darjeeling were Nepali-speaking, while other hillmen and scheduled castes constituted another 8.1 per cent.
To quote from W. W. Hunter’s authoritative account (A Statistical Account of Bengal, Volume X, London, 1876);
“The Lepchas are considered to be the aboriginal inhabitants of the hilly portion of the district. At all events they are the first known occupiers of this tract and of independent Sikkim.”
Regarding the Nepalis, who constituted 34 per cent of the population of the district by 1876, while the majority of the populations in the district were non-Nepaliese, Hunter’s account stated:
“The Nepalise, who form 34 per cent of the population of the district, are all immigrants from the state of Nepal to the westward. They are a pushing, thriving race, and the Deputy Commissioner is of opinion that they will in time occupy the whole district.”
According to Hunter, even by 1876, “the population of the district is entirely rural,” and even Darjeeling and Kurseong had populations less than 5,000. But in subsequent years the population of Darjeeling grew, thanks to the support given by the British as a health resort for the Europeans, from 3,157 in 1872 to 7,018 in 1881; 14,145 in 1891, and 16,924 in 1901.
This historical account is given to make the point that the development of the hill area of Darjeeling has been largely the outcome of activities relating to tea and tourist industries over the past one hundred years or so, before which it was sparsely populated, and the people of Nepali origin constituting the vast majority of the population there now came as immigrants from Nepal. There is, therefore, no historical validity in claiming this as a part of the territory ceded by the Government of Nepal to the British Empire in India.
Nor is this proper to view the growth of population in the hills in isolation from the developments in the plains, where too the forest lands were cleared to set up plantations and migrant labourers were brought in for work in tea gardens and associated activities. As in the case of Darjeeling hills, the towns in Jalpaiguri and Siliguri sub-division largely owe their origin to tea industry, but whereas in Darjeeling the migrant labourers were mostly from Nepal, in the plains they were mostly recruited from the tribal areas of Bihar. In addition the Bengalis were brought in for clerical and administrative work and for various professional activities. After the partition of the country, in 1947, a large number of refugees from East Pakistan came to this area.
Until the recent happenings, the four major communities in the hills and plains of Darjeeling district – the Nepalis, the Tribals, the Bengalis, and the original inhabitants (Mech, Rajbansi, Lepcha, Bhutia etc.) – lived peacefully and amicably. There had been no instance of any major communal tension between these communities, and the law and order situation was normal. Nor had there been instances of serious confrontation between a section of the population and the police and civil authorities.
The Nepali community of hardworking peasants toiling on a difficult terrain, devoted industrial workers in the tea gardens and valiant soldiers earning distinction in many wars, had no difficulty in working side by side with the Bengalis, the tribals, and other Indians. The atmosphere in the hills of Darjeeling was in keeping with the excellent tradition of communal harmony in the rest of the state…
An Information Document 29.10.86
Government of West Bengal
(Compendium of documents by R Moktan)
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