Hill history

The Darjeeling hill region was not a gift from Nepal. It was territory annexed by the House of Gorkha and won back by the British. Gorkha statehood activists are distorting history,
says Chhanda Chakraborty

Darjeeling, a creation of the 19th century, was the result of the British Indian government’s active and direct involvement with Nepal. The East India Company’s acquaintance with Nepal goes as far back as 1767, however, when the three Newar kingdoms occupying the valley of Nepal appealed for British military assistance against the aggressive designs of Prithvi Narayan, the Gorkha ruler. Captain Kinloch was dispatched with a force but was compelled to retire due to the deadly climate of the Terai. The Gorkha chief overran Nepal and established his sway over the whole country, extending westward to the Kali river and eastward to Mechi.

The expansionist policy of Nepal under the Gorkhas continued, thereby bringing her into confrontation with Tibet, China, Sikkim and finally the East India Company. To cut a long story short, it is to be remembered that between 1804 and 1812, the relationship between Nepal and British India continued to deteriorate till war was declared in November 1814. After an arduous campaign the British took possession of the whole territory between the Kali and Sutlej rivers which had been annexed by Nepal. The Gorkha troops withdrew and the East India Company established direct control of the Himalayan districts of Kumaon and Garhwal. The remainder of the hill country was restored to the rajas (of whom Sikkim’s was one) and chiefs from whom Nepal had wrested these territories. All this was done by the Treaty of Segauli in 1816.

The East India Company’s relations with Sikkim may be traced to the Anglo-Nepalese war. The British had sought Sikkim’s support during the war due to its strategic position. It is essential to point out here that Darjeeling was originally a part of Sikkim. From the 1780s till the early 1800s, Sikkim was the victim of several inroads by the Gorkhas. At the end of the Anglo-Nepalese war the East India Company restored to Sikkim, by the Treaty of Titaliya in 1817, the territories that had been occupied by Nepal for quite sometime. It included the hill lands east of the Mechi and part of the terai between the Mechi and the Teesta. Henceforth the East India Company assumed a position of paramount importance in Sikkim; the company’s arbitration was to be sought in any dispute between Sikkim and her neighbouring states.

Ten years later, when a dispute arose again between Sikkim and Nepal, two Britishers, Liod George and JW Grant were sent by the East India Company to arbitrate in this dispute. Attracted by the captivating natural splendour of Darjeeling they requested the then Governor General, Lord Bentinck, to acquire it for a sanatorium. The British were quick to realise too the strategic importance of Darjeeling as a frontier station. Several advantages of the station came under consideration: its central position between Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and British India; the nearest road to Lhasa from the British territory lay through Darjeeling by the Choomti valley; its military importance as the key of a pass into Nepal; its advantages as a sanatorium; and finally its proximity to Kolkata. On February 1835, by a deed of grant the Sikkim raja ceded Darjeeling to the company: “I the Sikkimese Raja, out of friendship for the said Governor General, hereby present Darjeeling to the East India Company, that is all the lands south of the Great Rangit river, east of the Balason, Kahail and little Rangit rivers and west of Rangno and Mahanadi rivers.”

Later in 1850, following an altercation between Sikkim and British India, all of Sikkim’s terai lands were seized by the British. This linked Darjeeling to the terai below ~ it ceased to be an enclave within Sikkimese territory. In the process Sikkim was cut off from all access to the plains. Finally after the Anglo-Bhutanese war of 1865, Kalimpong, along with the territories of western Dooars, was annexed and later in incorporated with Darjeeling in 1870.

When the British first acquired the hill territory in 1835 it was almost entirely under forests. The tract measuring 138 square miles contained a very scanty population consisting of the Lepchas of Sikkim who numbered roughly around a hundred. Once it came under the company, progress was quick particularly under the supervision of the first superintendent, Dr Campbell. The presence of Europeans in the hills with their many wants and demand for labour offered splendid job opportunities which the Nepalese were quick to grasp. With the introduction of tea and European capital investment in it, a big source of wealth was opened up ~ a new socio-economic pattern began emerging in the hills. To the timid, peace-loving Lepchas and Bhutias inhabiting particularly the tract of the Teesta were added the pushy, assertive Nepalese who flocked in hundreds from Nepal in search of employment. They were much in demand as labourers, in tea and cinchona gardens, for construction work on roads and for cultivation by clearing forests. These were the pull factors. There were also some push factors behind this heavy migration from Nepal ~ pressure on land leading to impoverishment of the peasantry, the system of conscription in the army, insufficient food supply and so on. Thus these men were pushed “from feudal Nepal to become the industrial proletariat of India”.

With these historical facts before us it would be erroneous to say that Nepal made a gift of the land east of the Mechi river, comprising the Darjeeling hills extending to the borders of Assam and on the west the land beyond the river Kali extending to the Garhwal region. These were not gifted by Nepal to the British, as a matter of fact, Nepal was forced to withdraw from these territories, which it had forcibly taken by way of aggression. The East India Company by taking a good share of its gain in the Anglo-Nepalese war returned the rest to their respective legal owners. It’s a pity that history is being distorted to suit narrow political ends and people, unaware of these details, are being misled.

To end, a word of caution. Statehood activists may be reminded that most statehood demands are more emotional than logical. With emotions running high, economic viability and ground realities are not properly investigated. Sound homework is needed.  (http://dbhaumik.blogspot.com/2008/07/darjeeling_17.html)

(The writer is former Professor of History, North Bengal University)


One Response

  1. Author seems lost in history writen by herself/himself

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