ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Economic History of Nepali Migration and Settlement in Assam

The growth of the Nepali community in Assam is deeply embedded in the history of the region but showed a marked growth in the 20th century, actively encouraged by the British who sought an increased revenue collection through the settlement of the region.

Economic History of Nepali Migration and Settlement in Assam

The growth of the Nepali community in Assam is deeply embedded in the history of the region but showed a marked growth in the 20th century, actively encouraged by the British who sought an increased revenue collection through the settlement of the region.


ssam’s population is composed of many heterogeneous elements with a number of tribes professing different rituals and beliefs and speaking different languages and dialects. Besides natural growth, the population of Assam increased tremendously during 1901-1921 due to the flow of immigrants [Census of India 1931]. Assam has experienced four types of immigrant inflow. With the growth of the tea industry after 1855 and due to the subsequent shortage of local labour, the industry started bringing in large numbers of labourers from Benares, Ghazipur, Chhota Nagpur and Bihar. In 1901 the total number of tea garden labourers was 6,54,000, which represented one-tenth of the total population of Assam. The second flow consisted of the farm labourers from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) from 1900 onwards. The third group of migrants was from Nepal. Up to the 1921 Census, the volume of Nepali migration into Assam was very small [Census of India 1951] though in 1951 the number of Nepali speakers was enumerated as 1,25,320. The last group of immigrants comes from different parts of the rest of India. All these four immigrant groups have now become a part of Assam’s population.

In The Linguistic Survey of India, Grieson wrote that the Tibeto-Burman speaking Mongoloids with yellow complexion came to be known among vedic Aryans as ‘Kiratas’. Their presence is attested through literacy evidence by about 1000 BC. In the Mahabharata, the historical core of which probably goes back to the 10th century BC, there are suggestions that the Sino-Tibetans or Kiratas belong to the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam [Bhandari 2003]. There is also mention of the Nepalis of Assam as Kiratas, who were known to the Hindu world as a group of people whose original home was in the Himalayan slopes and in the mountains of the east, who had yellowish skin colour and presented a distinct type of culture.

They spread over the plains of Bengal up to the sea [Barpujari 1990].

From an ethnological point of view the Nepalis in the north-east are divided into three major ethnic groups. The first group, known as Kiratas, claimed to be the earliest inhabitants of the land and were traditionally hill-men ethnologically closer to the north-eastern tribes of India [Sinha 1990]. The presence of Nepalis in north-east India (earlier Assam) is historical and their role in unification and economic development of this region is very crucial. According to T B Subba, “The ancient Kamarupa kingdom is, for instance, known to have its boundaries extended right up to eastern Nepal as late as 1520, the two Kamrupa kings – Nidhwaj and Narayan had married the princess of Nepal….” Studies carried out by social scientists and scholars like Srikant Dutt, A C Sinha, T BSubba, Lopita Nath, Lokraj Baral, B C Upreti, etc, reveal that there had been marital relationships between the people of Nepal and Assam from the period of Harsha-Varmadeva (730-750 AD).

British Impetus

However, the real immigration of Nepalis into north-east India began in early 19th century, 1817 to be exact, when their first direct contact with the region took place with the deployment of the Gurkhas in the Sylhet Operation, as part of the Cuttack Legion [Shakespear 1977]. The Cuttack Legion came to be known as the “Assam Light Infantry” after its permanent location in Assam and consisted mainly of Hindustanis and Gurkhas. These Nepali sepoys continued to constitute a floating population following their respective customs, usages and traditions. The recruitment of Nepali people to the British army dates back to the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814, followed by the Treaty of Seagaul in 1816 that opened the borders between

Table: Growth of Nepali Populationin Assam, 1901-1991

Year Nepali Population As Percentage of
in Assam Total Population
1901 21,347 0.35
1911 47,654 0.67
1921 70,344 0.94
1931 88,306 1.02
1951 1, 01,338 1.26
1961 2, 15,213 1.98
1971 3, 49,116 2.38
1991 4, 32,519 1.93

Source: Census of India Reports, 1901-71; 1991, M Hussain, 1993:258.

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007 the two countries. The treaty also facilitated free recruitment of Gurkhas in a big way as the British found them loyal, hardworking, best fitted for hilly terrains and comparatively cheaper than the Hindustani soldiers. In reality though, recruitment of Gurkhas into the British army was not an easy task. In the “Nepali Durbar”, for a period of 70 years right from Bhimsen Thapa to Ranudip Singh, all the prime ministers were against the idea of recruitment of their subjects by the Indian army [Muktan 2001]. Despite strong restrictions and legal punishments however, Nepalis continued to migrate to India with their families on the instigation of the British government in India.

The social and economic conditions of Nepal were also acting as push factors for such illegal migration of Nepali people to India. The repressive government of Nepal in the mid-18th century, in which caste-based discriminatory punishment was awarded to criminals, increasing fragmentation of landholdings, growing indebtedness, deforestation, population pressure on arable lands also contributed to the flow.

In 1885, the agreement of mutual concession concluded between the British viceroy, Dufferin, and the prime minister of Nepal, Ranudip Singh, allowed the Indian government to recruit Gurkhas in exchange for arms. The expansion of British rule in India, the various expeditions against the tribes of the north-east, the two world wars, large-scale lumbering and clearing of jungles for agriculture and plantations, all of this required physically strong labourers. The Nepalese were just the people to fill this need and so they were attracted in large numbers to the forests, roads, construction sites, mines, fields, plantations and so on. Expanding economic activities, particularly with the advent of commercial cultivation of tea, construction of railways, dairy farming and commercial plantation of sugar cane, establishment of sawmills, etc, under colonial patronage, accelerated Nepali migration into Assam. Retired Nepali soldiers in India were engaged by the British in these non-military works. These immigrants were subsequently engaged in low profile jobs like guards, peons, ‘chowkidars’, bodyguards, coolies [Baruah 2003] and other civil employment.

It can be estimated that the Nepali herdsmen and marginal farmers came in great numbers from the first quarter of the 20th century. This movement of Nepali migrants grew stronger when they began to take up cultivation and livestock in the hill slopes. The main occupations of these immigrant Nepalis were cattle rearing and cultivation. Under the British regime, the traditional free right to graze cattle in village commons was gradually overturned to enhance additional revenue to the government exchequer. Though initially this revenue was insignificant, it became an expanding source because of the steady rise in Nepali immigration along with their cattle. In 1919-20 revenue of Rs 2,77,000 was collected from grazing fees from 6,319 professional graziers of whom, excepting a few hundred, all were Nepali migrants [Guha 1977]. The total number of buffaloes taxed in the Brahmaputra Valley increased through the years and the revenue from this source doubled between 1916-17 and 1920-21.

The Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1940 also became a source of inspiration and sanction for the Nepalis to come to India because of the availability of vast tracts of waste land and reserve forest for occupation. Both dairy and crop farming became possible livelihoods for the immigrant Nepalis. Later on the Nepali community of Assam took dairy farming as their primary occupation with the grazing permits provided by the government [Bhandari 2003]. Moreover, most of the Nepalis of the north-east preferred to settle in Assam. Their number further


Inclusive Growth K N Raj on Economic Development

Essays from The Economic Weekly and Economic and Political Weekly Edited by ASHOKA MODY

The essays in the book reflect Professor K N Raj’s abiding interest in economic growth as a fundamental mechanism for lifting the poor and disadvantaged out of poverty. He has also been concerned that the political bargaining process may end up undermining growth and not provide support to those who were excluded from access to economic opportunities. These essays, many of them classics and all published in Economic Weekly and Economic and Political Weekly, are drawn together in this volume both for their commentary on the last half century of economic development and for their contemporary relevance for understanding the political economy of development in India and elsewhere.

Pp viii + 338 ISBN 81-250-3045-X 2006 Rs 350

Available from

Orient Longman Ltd

Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad


Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

increased in the post-independence period following the 1950 treaty when a large number of them poured into Assam and occupied the foothill areas or jungles along riversides (ibid).

The pre-independence migrants did not have a significant impact on the social, economic or demographic balance of the region and due to the mutually accepted understanding between the two countries, Nepali migration continued in the postcolonial period. Besides grazing buffaloes on the riverine tracts, many Nepalis had settled down on the outskirts of towns along the hill slopes to sell milk and milkproducts in the urban areas. Sometimes they took up farming along with their main occupation of livestock farming [Goswami 1988]. In due course of time, the Nepalis constituted a sizeable section of Assam’s total population.

Official Records of Immigration

The presence of the Nepali community in Assam was reflected in the 1901 Census, which defined the Nepalese as a Mongolian tribe of the ‘Kirant Desh’, though the Nepalese considered themselves a military race. A more detailed reference to the Nepali community of Assam is found in the 1931 Census. This report is relevant since for the first time a detailed view on the population of Nepali origin was provided . The table provides estimates of the growth of the population of Nepali origin in Assam over the decades.

The chief commissioner of Assam reported in 1886, “…To settle the wastelands of Assam with people and to increase the revenue collection of the province the government has been making serious efforts to encourage immigration to Assam...As far as the Nepalis are concerned, besides grants of waste lands on favourable terms, the Nepali immigrants were reported to have been given pecuniary assistance for their onward journey to upper Assam” [Nag 2003]. Again the Census of India report of 1931 says, “The districts which have proved most attractive to Nepali immigrants during the last 10 years have been the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Darrang, Lakhimpur and Kamrupa. In other districts the increase in the number of persons born in Nepal is very slight or decreased… of the plains districts, Darrang as in 1921, has attracted most immigrants. The number of persons born in Nepal and censused in that district is now 24,862 against 18,997 in 1921. Altogether there are about 40,000 Nepalis in Darrang reserves, [which] offers many attractions to Nepali Khukiwalas. Kamarupa and Lakhimpur which have also large graze areas show a considerable increase in persons born in Nepal; Kamarupa from 8,527 to 10,101 and Lakhimpur from 8,440 to 11,951”.

Though Nepali migrants were scattered throughout India, the largest number (85,011) of Nepali migrants as in 1881 was settled in Bengal with Assam as the second largest catchment area hosting 6,395 immigrants [LokRaj 2001]. It was British policy to try and take care of its ex-soldiers who had given years of loyal service in the form of ex-servicemen’s resettlement colonies that could serve a dual purpose; to reward ex-soldiers and to play a strategic role. Nepali settlement of ex-servicemen in north-east India was thus actively encouraged by the British. The Assam Rifles alone have rehabilitated its Gurkha soldiers on at least 38 sites numbering as many as 3,000 individuals. Some of the sites such as Sadiya in Assam, Mantripokhori in Manipur, Aizwal in Mizoram, and Mokachuk in Nagaland are as old as 100 years and Assam alone has 13 such sites [Subba 1997]. The Nepalese initially settled in the grazing reserves, i e, in the Chapari areas (Burachapari of Tezpur was declared professional Grazing Reserve in 1881). Prior to 1890 these Nepali people settled in Kaziranga areas of Golaghat district of Assam.

The language reports of the 1991 Census reveal that Sonitpur (with 91,631 Nepalis) and Tinsukia (with 7,603 Nepalis) districts have heavy concentration of Nepali population compared to other districts [Nath 2003]. The higher number of Nepalis in the district of Tinsukia (7.91 per cent), followed by NC Hills (7.90 per cent), Karbi Anglong (5.69 per cent) and Sonitpur (6.43 per cent). There is a sizeable population in Dhemaji (4.74 per cent) followed by Kokrajhar. The districts of Darrang, North Lakhimpur and Kamrup and Golaghat have only a population of 2.5 per cent on an average. The development of Tinsukia as a business centre with innumerable opportunities encouraged a greater Nepali settlement here.

These growth dynamics of the Nepalis of Assam are relevant in the context of formulating and implementing policies for social and economic development of the community in particular and the economy of Assam in general. They also help analyse the contribution of the Nepali community to the economy of Assam that could further help in erasing prejudices between communities.



[This paper precedes a larger research on ‘The Growth Dynamics of Nepali Population in Assam’ under the guidance of Homeshwar Goswami of the Department of Economics, Dibrugarh University.]


Baral, LokRaj (2001): ‘Nepali Migration to India: Nature, Pattern and Consequences, South Asian Studies’, Series-36, by Ramakant and B C Upreti (eds), India and Nepal, Aspect of Interdependent Relations, Kalinga Publications, Delhi.

Barpujari, H K (1990): The Comprehensive History of Assam, Volume I, Publication Board, Assam.

Baruah, S L (2003): A Comprehensive History of Assam, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi.

Bhandari, Purushottam (1996): ‘Freedom Movement and Role of Indian Nepalese 18001950’, Mrs Rama Bhandari, Jagiroad, Assam.

  • (2003): ‘Evolution and Growth of Nepali Community in North-East India’ in A C Sinha and T B Subba (eds), The Nepalis in Northeast India, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi.
  • Census of India (1931): Vol Part I-Appendix B.
  • (1951): Vol XII, Part IA, pp 416-19. Goswami, P C (1988): The Economic Development of Assam, Kalyani Publishers, New Delhi.
  • Guha, Amalendu (1977): Planter-Raj to Swaraj Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam 1826-1947, Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi.

    Muktan, K K (2001): The Legendary Gorkhas, Spectrum Publishers, Guwahati.

    Nag, Sujal (2003): ‘Fei-isation of the Nepalis of North-East India’ in A C Sinha and T B Subba (eds), The Nepalis in Northeast India, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi.

    Nath, Lopita (2003): The Nepalis in Assam: Ethnicity and Cross Border Movements in the North-east, Minerva Associates Publication, New Delhi.

    Shakespear, Col L W (1977): ‘History of Assam Rifles, Aizwal’ in A C Sinha and T B Subba (eds), The Nepalis in Northeast India, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi.

    Sinha, A C (1990): ‘Indian North-East Frontier and Nepali Immigrants’ in A C Sinha and T B Subba (eds), The Nepalis in Northeast India, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi.

    – (2003): ‘Indian North-East Frontier and Nepali Immigrants’ in A C Sinha and T B Subba (eds), The Nepalis in Northeast India, Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi.

    Subba, T B (1997): ‘The Nepalis in North-East India: Political Aspirations and Ethnicity’, Occasional Paper presented in 12th Indian Anthropological Society in Danda Ajit Dasgupta et al (eds), Ethno-cultural Perspectives and Process, The Indian Anthropological Society, Calcutta.

    Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top