LANGUAGE, LITERATURE AND IDENTITY: Locating ‘Bhanubhakta’ and Nepali Language as a Platform for Political Assertions of Nepali Ethnicity in India.

Yogesh Khati

Language and literature have often given empirical and theoretical grounds for the construction of ethnic identity in the social discourses around the world. The construction of Nepali identity in India in general and Darjeeling in particular has not been an exception to this. Time and again, the Indian Nepali speaking community has shown an arena of political assertions of identity through linguistic and cultural uniqueness and its expression. The Nepali language and literature in India has been found to be an associated pillar in the construction of political space for assertions. Thus, this study attempts to analyse the symbolisation of Nepali poet Bhanubhakta as a figure for linguistic commonness as well as the celebration of Bhanu Jayanti as an arena of socio-cultural and even political dialogues among the participants. This study, therefore, is directed towards the attempts of constructing Nepali ethnicity as unique vis-a-vis others and the demands for political recognition of the same through different forms of democratic exercises and political bargaining. To this backdrop, Bhanubhakta as a symbolic person and Bhanu Jayanti as a platform for political assertions of Indian Nepali ethnicity in India deserve a critical study, to which the present study is an attempt.



India is a democratic country adorned with the varied cultural, lingual, spiritual and political diversities. The multi lingual communities and their cultural practices carry a distinct space for discourse here in India. These multi lingual, multicultural and multiethnic communities have been in constant attempt to safeguard their language, literature, culture and ethnic identities. The language and the literature bears no boundaries as believed universally yet in some point of events and the social behaviour of these groups with the major chunk of the groups vis-a-vis paves the way for a serious observation and studies. The language and literature in particular have been the major means to safeguard the identity of the group concerned.

India and Nepal share a political border with different and distinct cultural, social, political, lingual, economical and spiritual aspects. The language and the literature, Nepali in particular bring some aspects togetherness for broader discourse. This discourse paves the way for locating the relevance of Bhanubhakta, a pioneer poet of Nepali Literature in establishing the ethnic identity of the Nepali speaking social group settled outside Nepal and more particularly in India. Bhanubhakta was born in the year 1814 in a remote place of Nepal called Ramgha in the district of Tanahun. He translated an epic Ramayana from the originally written in Sanskrit into the Nepali language, which laid the foundation of a standard Nepali language. He was reintroduced in Nepali literature with the title Aadi Kavi, means ‘the pioneer poet’ by Motiram Bhatt exactly after 20 yrs of his death. The popularity of his translated Ramayana started defining different dimensions and relevance in the Nepali linguistic groups in Nepal and abroad especially in India. As a result, the importance of the Ramayana within the two social groups of the same language and literature in the two political countries rooted firm simultaneously. In this process, person Bhanubhakta and the event Bhanu Jayanti (the birth anniversary celebration) every year propelled towards an ideal platform for social interaction and dialogue amongst the participants abroad Nepal.


Bhanubhakta and Nepali Language:

The emergence of Bhanubhakta in the Nepali world after his death through the epic he translated is a great scoring point in this study. The mention of social condition and the ethnic conscience amongst the people of Darjeeling during the time of Bhanubhakta carry an important relevance, as Darjeeling was the epicentre of the language and literary activities then. In 1840, Dr. Campbell started tea plantation in the foothills of Darjeeling. During that period the Nepali population was more than half the total population of Darjeeling. (Melle, L.S.S.O, 1999 (Reprint), Bengal District Gazetteers, Logos Press, pages 41 and 72). This citation precisely cements the fact about the vibrant presence and active participation of the majority Nepali linguistic group in India. As the plantation carried on, the social groups came in interactions and dialogues on the issues related to the wage, justice; equality etc., which was then argued as being unequal, discriminatory and unjustified. Finally, this process prepared the ambience for interactions on ethnic and political identity. ‘The political and ethnic conscience had started developing with the beginning of the 19th century amongst the people of Darjeeling. The events of repeated memorandum served to then British Government and Indian Government between the years 1907, 1917, 1929, 1930, 1934, 1947, 1952 and 1955 marks the mention on the said developments.(Rai, Banadana, 2009, Gorkhas-The Warrior Race, New Delhi, Kalpaj Publication, page 27). The essence of the series of memorandum starting from the beginning of the 19th century to mid 1950s was on single point demand of establishment of a separate province in British India, as well as separation from Bengal and formation of a separate state in the independent India creating a distinct identity. This social process steps in the firm footing with the question of the ethnic identity based on language, literature and culture in the Indian democratic parlance.


The pre independent and post independent situation in India is still engraved with the question on the separate identity and the future of Gorkhas is quite a natural thought even today. The then Darjeeling being on the feeble economy and educational condition needed just a rallying point and a common platform to open an interaction and dialogue within the groups to participate in this process.  A series of social organisations started cropping up with the beginning of the19th century. Thus, various social organisations emerged much before the Indian Independence, to safeguard the Nepali ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities. The establishment of Gorkha Public Library in Kurseong on 8th June1913, Nepali Sahitya Sammelan in Darjeeling on 25 May’ 1924, Gorkha Dukkha Niwarak Sangh in Darjeeling on 3rd June 1932 and formation of a political party named All India Gorkha League in Darjeeling on 15th May 1943 etc. (Rai, I.B, 1984, Darjeelingma Nepali Natakko Ardhshatavdi, Darjeeling Sajha Pustak Prakashan, page 59, 79) are major events to be mentioned. In the words of Guman Singh Chamling, a renowned Nepali critic, “Political consciousness in real sense in Darjeeling has thus begun with the formation of this political party.”(Chamling, Guman Singh, 1978, Moulo, Darjeeling Shyam Prakashan, page 173) In real sense, these events carry significance in constructing a socio-political discourse among the Nepali linguistic social groups of India.

In this backdrop, Nepali language started emerging as a unifying element amongst the Nepali speaking people in India and more particularly in Darjeeling and therefore it acted as a rallying point for articulating the inner pulse of the people against the articulated socio-political and ethnic injustice. Dr. Kumar Pradhan, an eminent historian opines that, “Nepali language has played a decisive role in concentrating the Nepali ethnic feelings in the mainstream Indian context.” (Pradhan, Kumar, 1982, Pahilo Pahar, Darjeeling, Shyam Prakashan, page 32). To support this statement a citation may be made here-  the introduction of Nepali language at matriculation, intermediary and Bachelor levels of study in Calcutta University added an additional encouragement to the growing ethnic consciousness of the Nepali speaking people in India.(Rai, I.B, 1984, Darjeelingma Nepali Natakko Ardhshatavdi, Darjeeling Sajha Pustak Prakashan, page 45).The growing ethnic consciousness also attracted the attention of the Nepali speaking people living across India including the North-East, India. There also a variety of activities sprung up to which the mention may be made of-

Gorkha Sewak, A Nepali journal published from Meghalaya, 1935

Yuwak, handwritten paper published from Assam, 1946

Gorkha Star, Kopila (papers) published from Mizoram, 1978

Upahar, a paper published from Nagaland, 1970,

Sandesh, a paper published from Manipur. (Upadhyaya,Tek Narayan, Adhikari, Roma, 2007, Contribution of the Nepalese of North East India to the development of Nepali Literature, Sinha,A.C, Subba,T.B.(Edited) The Nepalese of North East India- a community in search of Indian Identity, New Delhi, Indus Publishing Company, page 150,160-164).

The above-mentioned papers bear a significant testimony of the prevalence of Nepali language and literature much before the entry of Bhanubhakta as a platform for the expression of Nepali linguistic and ethnic solidarity. However, and simultaneously, Bhanu Jayanti was being celebrated as an ‘ethnic festival’ in India’s North-east since 1953. This provided a background for the propagation of Nepali ethnic identity in India’s Northeast to which Nepali language acted as a common platform,  Bhanubhakta a poet and Bhanu Jayanti a celebration.



Bhanubhakta and Nepali Ethnic Identity

The Indian Nepali linguistic community had been realising the piteous condition in the Indian social backdrop much before the Indian Independence. The beginning of modern education system in India and introduction of the same to the few fortunate Nepali speaking people helped in realising their social and political position. The dawn of independence in India is argued to be not as expected by the Nepali speaking people then in India. This might be because of the perpetuation of the similar social, economic and political dominance though in an apparent manner. To clarify, the reference of Dr. Kumar Pradhan may be made here who argued that, ‘After independence the social and political consciousness had fully developed in the people of Darjeeling where the Nepali language had played a vital and an instrumental role in imbibing such consciousness.(Pradhan, Kumar, 2005, Adhiti Kehi, Siliguri, Purnima Prakashan, page 03.) The Nepali language here acted as a unifying element among the ethnic group and provided a cementing effect to the then Nepali community. However, there was a massive derth of common platform for the exchange of dialogues on the divergent issues impacting the community at large. To this, the “collective consciousness” that had been germinating among the Nepali community in Darjeeling, found its strong support base in the Nepali Language. Here, the language became a medium of common socio-cultural and ethnic exchanges. (Pradhan, Kumar, 2005, Adhiti Kehi, Siliguri, Purnima Prakashan, page 03).

In this context, the translated Ramayana of Bhanubhakta occupied a welcoming space in every Nepali household. The propagation of Ramayana in every household was neither against the British government nor against the Missionaries of that time but the attraction of its sweetness and simplicity. This made Ramayana a daily talk of the people and Bhanubhakta emerged as a rallying point amongst the Nepali speaking people in India. Laxmi Prasad Devkota, a great Nepali poet is found to have said- ‘When Bhanubhakta decided to write Ramayana, the Nepali language existed only on the lips of the Nepalese people. It possessed no definite form or aim and its grammar lay in the womb, yet unborn.’ In this situation, Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana provided a proper support base more for the linguistic and ethnic solidarity than the religious. The publication of Bhanubhakta Smarak Grantha by Surya Bikram Gyawali in 1939 has also been instrumental in establishing Bhanubhakta more firmly in Indian Nepali Society. The Nepali Sahitya Sammelan hailed Bhanubhakta, in its appeal letter as ‘Utthapak Mahatma’ and initiated the idea of erecting a statue of Bhanubhakta in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong during 1947.(Rai, Indra Bahadur, 1976,Tipeka Tippaniharu, Nepali Sahitya Sanchayika, Darjeeling Prakashan, page 111). Accordingly, statue of Bhanubhakta was erected in these different places soon after the Indian independence. These news was reported in Amrita Bazaar Patrika, an English newspaper on 20th June 1949, where the then Governor of West Bengal, Hon’ble Dr. Kailashnath Katju had praised Bhanubhakta as not only the poet of Nepal but of great India as well.( Rai, Indra Bahadur, 1976,Tipeka Tippaniharu, Nepali Sahitya Sanchayika, Darjeeling Prakashan, page 111). This recognition in the official record on Bhanubhakta provided an intellectual, moral and psychological energy to the Indian Nepali’s quest for identity.

The glorification of Bhanubhakta symbolised the glorification of the Nepali language and hence Bhanubhakta’s birthday started being celebrated as an event named Bhanu Jayanti across the Nepali majority settlements in India. Later, the continuation of Bhanu Jayanti celebration provided a conclave for discussing linguistic, cultural, and ethnic and identity questions for the Nepali speaking people in India. However, in a distinct manner, Bhanubhakta and Bhanu Jayanti provided an opportunity for dialogues on the existence, identity and political security in the present day contexts. Bhanu Jayanti not only emerged as an attempt to glorify his contribution to Nepali language and literature but also became a rallying point of social interaction, where people could interact with each other on the various linguistic, cultural, ethnic and political issues and could exchange ideas. It also provided an opportunity for the socialisation attempting to attract the upcoming generation towards the ethnicity, language, culture, literature and identity issues and questions. At the same time, the celebration of Bhanu Jayanti provided an opportunity to display the cultural and linguistic uniqueness vis-s-vis others and depict the presence of selves in the greater Indian context. So it emerged as an attempt of self realisation and actualisation and manifestation against the marginalisation of the community in the mainstream Indian Civilisation. Here, one cannot deny that Bhanu Jayanti has been emerging as a rallying point for unification of Nepali speaking people in India and established itself as an ethnic festival in India comprising the areas of Sikkim, North-eastern states, Darjeeling and Doars in West Bengal, Uttarakhand and also in other parts of India.


Concluding Observations:

In the context of Bhanubhakta and Bhanu Jayanti as a platform and rallying point for construction of Nepali ethnicity, the following observations have been noted:

  • Spread and expansion of Nepali language emerged as a platform and Bhanubhakta emed as a rallying point.
  • Along with discussions on linguistic, cultural, educational issues, provided a platform for emerging ethnic and political issues.
  • In the name of Bhanubhakta the social gatherings developed the consciousness of political marginalisation.
  • The search for linguistic and ethnic identity inside Bengal and also in India became more prominent.
  • Political parties and leadership instead of deviating; capitalised the platform.


The Indian Nepalese identity and the recognition of the same through the formation of a separate state or province within the framework of Indian constitution for the Gorkhas have repeatedly surfaced in both the pre and post Independent India till present time. These movements have often shown a political assertion related to the distinct Language, Literature and Identity. To be more precise, these exercises have engaged the community in constant process of identity construction and deliberation for the same. So, the establishment of Bhanubhakta and celebration of Bhanu Jayanti for more than two hundred years still stands as a symbol of ethnic unity and platform for the assertion of Nepali ethnic identity in India till today.







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Mr. Khati is Associate Professor, Post Graduate Department of Nepali, Kurseong College, Darjeeling, India