The fate of the indigenous Sherpa community of Sikkim

The fate of the indigenous Sherpa community of Sikkim
The fate of the indigenous Sherpa community of Sikkim

Every year the 9th of August is celebrated as the World’s Indigenous Peoples Day, ever since the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Population held its meeting in Geneva in 1982. The main agenda behind it is to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population and thereby to honour their unique contribution towards achieving mutual understanding, peace and sustainable development. 

However, I would like to point out that I have stumbled upon the word indigenity. It has made me think, rethink, learn and unlearn certain characteristics that the UN attaches to it. So, to my understanding, the word indigenous can only be understood rather as a process which can be internalised, shaped, re-constructed and transformed over time and hence is very dynamic in nature.

Sikkim is not alone in using one’s indigeneity in politics and for reaping their rightful benefit. Ones indigenity has time and again been used for identifying the self, differentiating oneself from the other and distancing from historical affiliations, which has led to continuous ethnic differences among groups within the state. 

In Sikkim, the three major ethnic groups are the Bhutias, Lepchas and the Nepalis. The Bhutias constitute of eight other sub-groups namely Chumbipa, Tromopa, Dothapa, Yolmo, Kagate, Sherpa, Drukpa and Tibetans. While the Nepalis, constitute a heterogeneous cluster of communities consisting the Newar, Bahun, Chettri, Jogi, Sanyasi, Limbu, Rai, Magar, Thami, Tamang, Kami, Damai, Sarki and Maji. The Bhutias and the Lepchas are considered as the indigenous communities of Sikkim. 

Being born a Sherpa in Sikkim, we have had own share of struggles. From being called a ‘latecomer’ or worst so an ‘immigrant’ we have all found ourselves introspecting upon our identity. Despite being one of the indigenous sub-groups, we have time and again felt like an ‘outsider’.

A section still labels us as a sub-group of Nepalis with whom we share no cultural proximity, while the Nepalis least identify us as one among them, given that we instead share a close cultural and linguistic proximity, with the Bhutias and its sub-groups. Thus, the stark feeling of lack of belongingness to any one group in Sikkim has made us struggle amidst the identification of ‘self’ in the context of the ‘other’ for many years.

Such underlining problems have been brought forth over the years by Sherpa associations in Sikkim. Denzong Sherpa Association (DSA) established in 1984, has been playing an instrumental role in voicing their demands. It has been successful in bringing the Sherpas together for the first time, to assert unity, and to oppose the subjugation and injustices they have been meted with under the veiled deal of being included under the indigenous group.  

The long-term negligence, lack of acceptance and injustices faced by the Sherpas, has given rise to what Narang (1995) termed as ‘cultural deprivation’. According to the Cultural Deprivation theory, one of the significant inducements to an ethnic group comes from a feeling of insecurity felt among the ethnic minorities.

They fear that they would be lost amidst the sea of the majority of the dominant groups. Leo Driedger pointed out four types of discriminations implemented against the minority, such as prejudicial treatment, differential treatment, disadvantaging treatment and denial of desire. 

The Sherpas persistently have had few demands which have till date failed to catch the attention of the Government. They have demanded protection of land right under the Revenue Order No. 1 of 1917. The Revenue Order, issued by Charles Bell, prevented the Bhutias and the Lepchas from selling, mortgaging or sub-letting of their lands to any person from outside the Bhutia-Lepcha community, without the express sanction of the Durbar.

While the Nepalis are not permitted to own or purchase land from Bhutias and Lepchas, what seems problematic is when even the Chumbipa, Tromopa, Dothapa, Yolmo, Kagate, Sherpa, Drukpa and Tibetan are excluded from it, despite being a sub-group of Bhutia. 

The Revenue Order No. 1 of 1917 was directly the resulting fears among the people that the indigenous group would be endangered once in contact with the Nepalis, whose population was steadily increasing since the 18th and the 19th century.

The Sherpas of Sikkim over the years have been demanding inclusion of their rights under this order, as they are rightfully defined under the Bhutia-Lepcha category, but the Land Revenue Order No.1 has not included them under their legal right. 

The Denzong Sherpa Association has even gone further to take up the matter with the Union Ministers of India. The association states that the inclusion of the Sherpa community within the definition of Bhutia Lepcha was a historical fact dating back to 1891 when the first-ever population Census was conducted in Sikkim.

Since then the Sherpas have officially always been a part of the Bhutias. Such claims are further strengthened by Sarkar (2017) in her book “The Sherpas Across Eastern Himalayas” where she stated that the Sherpas, were found in the region known as Dorji Ling (Darjeeling) in 1800, which was then under the territoriality of Sikkim. 

The State Government’s response towards the demand has still been very lukewarm, indifferent and sometimes even hostile. 

Despite the Sherpas being one of the oldest inhabitants of the state, they do not have a separate census representation for themselves. They are till today still being included under the census representation of the Bhutias. Therefore, demand is also ongoing for a separate census representation as it ascertains the ethnic community’s exact numerical strength. According to a report by the Denzong Sherpa Association (DSA) in 2017, the Sherpa population in Sikkim is around 50,000.

The association has now further requested the Department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring & Evaluation (DESMI) for a separate census of Sherpa population in Sikkim. This was again taken to the centre at National Commission of Scheduled Tribe Chairperson, Nand Kumar Sai, and demanding protection of the land and separate census for the tribal Sherpa community of Sikkim.

The indigenity and the limited traditional rights of the Sherpas have been overlooked. This has deeply ingrained a feeling of insecurity among them. Such treatment has been posing a grave danger to their distinct identity. As until a collective cultural identity receives a proper recognition, name and a number, it lacks any sense of being recognized as a distinct community, let alone an indigenous one. 

While the language is certainly a key component for the formation of identity, it is but disheartening to mention that the Sherpas in Sikkim have been struggling to save their language. The Sherpa language belonging to the larger Sino-Tibetan language family has been categorized as an endangered language by the Centre for Endangered Languages, Sikkim University alongside Bhujel, Gurung, Magar and Rai-Rokdung.

The Denzong Sherpa Association yet again endeavoured to promote the language further amongst its community by producing a Sherpa Multilingual Dictionary. During one of my fieldworks, a respondent from Upper Martam in West Sikkim stated that “the language is diminishing amongst younger generation”. While languages such as Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha and Limboo have already established themselves till the University level, languages such as Sherpa, Tamang, Gurung, Newar and Magar still struggle to be taught up till the 10th standard with very less qualified teachers. 

The question on language and identity all the more requires an in-depth discussion and more so a different column. 

The good news remains that the Sherpas have started to reconstruct their identity discourse in the state of Sikkim and I hope in no time the legitimate rights that come with being an indigenous sub-group is granted. Till then, good luck to all of us. 

The author is Rinzing Ongmu Sherpa, a Doctoral Candidate in Centre for Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be reached at 

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