Book Review: ‘Ethnicity and Democracy in the Eastern Himalayan Borderland’

Author: Ranu Kunwar, a PhD student in Anthropology at the Australian National University. She studies the Nepali community in Darjeeling hills and the terai through questions of migration, personhood, and shared belongings. Previously, she taught in the Department of English, Shivaji College, Delhi University. Her primary areas of interests include Nepali identity politics in India, the Gorkhaland movement, development and urbanisation in the terai, particularly in Siliguri, West Bengal.

The Eastern Himalayan (EH) borderland is a space marked by movement of commodities, people, and ideas. Although separated politically as a result of colonial intervention and modern state formation, the region maintains a contiguous character in terms of culture, geography, cuisine, and language which is shared by several communities on both sides of the Indo-Nepal border. 

In the book Ethnicity and Democracy, Mona Chettri offers a rich ethnography originating from fieldwork conducted in three EH borderland areas: Darjeeling (India), Sikkim (India), and Ilam in East Nepal. These three areas were traditionally seen as continuous cultural landscapes bounded by fluid and porous borders, defining trade, livelihood, and everyday life in the region. Chettri’s book is one of the first few works to identify the continuous yet discrete nature of Darjeeling, Sikkim, and East Nepal. Invoking the EH as a conceptual, geographical, and political space, Chettri offers a new framework within which questions of ethnic revivalism, ethnic politics, representation, political and economic vagaries, and political rights across these regions can be analysed. 

The book focuses on the way politics is enacted in the EH within the framework of ethnicity and offers three central arguments: 

  • a. ethnic identity in the EH is utilised as a political resource for mobilising Nepalis and a bargaining tool for claiming rights and ownership over state resources; 
  • b. the pervasiveness of ethnic politics, proliferation of ethnic organisations, and success of ethic political parties in the EH show that ethnicity often features as a structural framework recognized by the state itself; 
  • c. ethnic politics is embedded in democratic ideals which constantly vernacularises the idea of democracy and brings the ethnic groups in the fold of democratic structures.

‘Becoming Nepali’: identity and self-knowledge

The book is divided into five chapters, organised thematically, with each chapter focusing on all the three sites across three subsections. In addition to ethnography, Chettri utilises historical data to offer a historically rooted overview of ‘becoming Nepali’ in these transnational sites.

Chettri invokes her own position as an upper caste (Chettri-Kshatriya) Nepali which made it easier for her to find accommodation in Ilam in east Nepal and was always welcomed into people’s homes. While the upper caste identity helped in gaining access to most spaces, Chettri’s Magar or Matwali background (according to the caste hierarchy, Matwalis are above ‘untouchables’ but below Chettri/Bahuns) helped her integrate with the matwali community in Ilam, who were the primary subjects of her ethnography in East Nepal. 

In Darjeeling, however, her identity as a Sikkimese (Sikkim is seen as a land of development and imagined as an ideal Himalayan town in popular perception) defined much of how people perceived her. Ironically in Sikkim, neither of these varied identities played a determining role; rather, navigating bureaucratic networks and knowing ‘the right people’ were crucial to gaining access to ethnographic data. These shifting identities, with varied degrees of malleability manifested in the act of traversing through both material and imagined borders, informs much of the methodology and conceptual apparatus deployed in the ethnography. 

Chettri thus identifies her experience of ‘lifetime observation and inhabitation’ in the EH alongside fieldwork, as a crucial resource on which the book relies. Yet, for Chettri, such research is also an act of self-knowledge. Given how little knowledge there is amongst mainland Indians about the Nepali community, Chettri is often confronted by the question of “where are you from?” Whilst occasioning moments of existential crisis, Chettri notes that ethnographic research becomes a tool to know oneself whereby one’s situatedness in particular geographical, cultural, and political space can be pinned down. 

Ethnic politics and borders

Chettri argues that ethnic politics transcends political borders in the EH and one common factor that occupies the centrestage of ethnic politics in Darjeeling, Sikkim, and East Nepal is the Nepali ethnic community present on either side of the borders, be it interstate (Darjeeling-Sikkim) or international (India-Nepal; India-Tibet). The material realities that Nepalis find themselves in, enforced by political and administrative borders, dictates much of how and why boundaries are drawn around the very categorization of the Nepali identity, and the strategies through which it is utilised by people who occupy these spaces. 

As context for her discussion on the contemporary enactment and discursive formation of ethnic identity, Chettri takes the reader through an excursion of the rich and diverse history of this Himalayan region. The key underlying theme here is that borders are formed and broken as kings and principalities rise and fall, especially before colonial intervention. An integral part of this history is the Prithvi Narayan Shah conquering the Kathmandu Valley in 1768, which marks the beginning of the Hinduisation of the region, cemented through state rituals and practices. The entrance of the British after the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814-1816 marks the beginning of the colonial impact on the region. Crucially, after these events and throughout the 19th century, there is large-scale migration throughout these borderlands, which becomes an integral part of the social history of almost all the ethnic groups in the region.

Key points – kings in the 12th century up to the 14th century. Numerous principalities. The Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Kathmandu Valley, nascent Nepal national borders. Hinduism gains prominence, cemented through various state practices. Anglo-Gorkha war (1814-1816) – eastern borders redrawn, and signals the beginning of the British colonial intervention in the region. Large-scale migration throughout the borderlands in this region during the 19th century forms an important part of the social history of almost all ethnic groups.

The contemporary ethnic politics, particularly the specific character that it acquires in Darjeeling, Sikkim, and East Nepal, is deeply rooted in this history and direction of migration. Chettri identifies the different ways in which Nepali ethnic identity is utilised (or not utilised (e.g. in Sikkim) depending upon the dictates of the political borders that communities inhabit. Chettri observes how ethnic politics plays out in these three areas: 

  • a. In Darjeeling, the assertion of a homogenous Nepali identity is paramount for the demand of statehood; 
  • b. In East Nepal, ethnic politics of the Limbus (indigenous tribe, belonging to the Kirata group) is informed by their peripheral status in Nepal and caste domination by upper caste groups who are over represented in state administrative jobs; 
  • c. In Sikkim, where Nepalis have always occupied a complex position vis-à-vis the Bhutia and Lepcha communities (indigenous people of Sikkim) have encouraged the transition from a homogenous Nepali to heterogenous collective.


Within Ethnicity and Democracy in the Eastern Himalayan Borderland, Chettri presents a nuanced and detailed description and analysis of ethnic identity formation in the EH and the ways in which it is utilised in the cultural, social, and political lives of Nepalis in the region. Extensive attention is paid to the historical context and its influence on identity, with insights gleaned from the shifting cross-border movement of ideas and people over the centuries. There remains some scope for Chettri to address the question of democracy and its place in this region. Although Chettri explains the processes through which the localization of democracy takes place, she does not engage in a theoretical debate to show how ethnic politics is inherently ‘an anti-thesis’ to democracy. Moreover, the structural implications of the interaction between Nepali ethnic identity and Nepali also as a nationality in East Nepal could have been explored. However, this book provides substantial insight into a little-studied topic and is overall a highly recommended read for scholars of ethnic identities.

[Image of the prayer flags in the Himalayan mountain valley is by Raimond Klavins sourced from Unsplash.]

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