Being Nepali in Northeast India

“So where does your son work?” I asked; ‘Hajirabad’, replied Ghanshyam Thapa, a Nepali elder from Bhutankhuti village falling under Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Confused initially, I said that it’s Hyderabad, in vain though. “Yes, that place – Hajirabad” replied Ghanshyam. Later it dawned in my mind that the apparent linguistic travesty of Ghanshyam Thapa inadvertently represented the stark reality of Bhutankhuti along with most of the villages of the region falling under Baksa district in Western Assam. Hajira in Assamese roughly translates in English as labour, hence as Hyderabad hosts a large number of migrants from northeast India, it becomes ‘Hajirabad’ to Ghyansam Thapa. Bhutankhuti is the last village in India before the Bhutan border; lying 21 km north of the National highway 31. A random interview in the households of the nearby villages, across the different communities would provide similar narratives of out migration.

According to the Census of India, the total number of migrants from Northeastern region to other parts of India has increased from 0.6 million in 1991 to 1.1 million in 2001. More people are leaving the Northeast than ever before, and the heightened scale of migration is relatively new, especially since the second half of the 2000s. According to National Skill Development Council 14 million labourers are to move out from northeast between 2011 and 2021, as 2.6 million more jobs to be generated against 17 million labour demands

While livelihood challenges are main catalyst of outmigration, in Northeast India the communities without a clean chit over their indigienity face different kinds of hurdles over their claim to existence; Nepalis have been the victim of ethno-political assertions and homeland demands in the region which began with the Assam Movement (1979-1985). Nepalis have mainly indulged in grazing activities in the region. Over the time with changing land use pattern and increasing population, the Nepalis found their livelihood to be constrained and in conflict with tribal communities with regards to control over land resources. In Bhutankhuti, alternate livelihood like agriculture is characterized by limited access to technology, credits, and market, along with raids by elephant and wild boars. Lack of adequate income generation opportunities therefore creates out-migrants, who migrate to nearby Meghalaya to work in the timber and coal enterprises, as well as to faraway places like Bangalore and Chennai to work as security guards and wage-labourers. The migrants outside northeast India would return to home once in one/two years during the Durga Puja. While the labour migrants are exclusively male, there have been cases of female-trafficking to the Middle East via Nepal.

The narratives of the Nepalis in Bhutankhuti suggests a contested existence within the BTC. While recounting the victimized experiences of the Bodo Movement (1985-2003), the Nepali respondents alleged ethnic favouritism in recruitment in local government institutions by the BTC. While there has been several instances of inter marriage of among the Nepali and Bodo community the collective psyche of the Nepali community is still apprehensive of the Bodo hierarchy in the region with which they have to negotiate at both micro and macro level. Such experience suggests that centuries of assimilation within the social milieu of the region, capped with legal provisions like the Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950 barely act as lip service to the validation of the Nepali community’s citizenship in Northeast India.

With the foray of new forms of capital in Northeast India for infrastructure and logistical expansions under the pretext of India’s ‘Look East Policy’, the resources of the region are being increasingly chased by the different forces of capital. While such developments make the natural resources of the region more precious, it also places communities like the Nepalis with contested identities in front of precariousness.

The fieldwork was undertaken under the project ‘”The Indian Underbelly: Marginalisation, Migration and State Intervention in the Periphery”(2014-2015) supported by Stockholm University.


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Snehashish Mitra Written by:

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