Away from the world of competitive running and ‘comparathons’, one runner’s incredible journey is being propelled by a cause. Her cause represents the cause of an entire community as they fight to reclaim their identity in their own country. Roshni Rai has become an emblem for the pride of the Gorkha community. All across India, North East Indians often face racism in their own motherland. Mainland Indians often look at the distinct physical features of people from the North East and mistake them for foreigners, or worse, they are subjected to insensitive racial slurs. One of these communities is the Gorkha community, which has been fighting for their national identity as Indians to be rightfully recognized. The Gorkhas are a Nepali speaking population whose nationality is Indian. The Gorkha regiments of the Indian army are known for their valor and devotion towards the country; yet, because of widespread ignorance, Gorkhas are often misidentified as being of Nepali or Chinese origin. One runner is trying to reclaim the Gorkha identity, and her feet are doing all the talking. We talk to Comrades finisher and Mumbai-based runner, Roshni Rai about the ‘Run with Roshni’ cause, and her quest to educate Indians about the diversity of their own country. You are the public face for a wonderful cause that is trying to raise awareness about Gorkha identity. How did the idea germinate of using running to spread awareness of such an important issue? I did the Landmark Forum in 2011 to get a breakthrough in my career. The Landmark Forum is a three day course and on the first day itself, I realized that I had an inferiority complex about my identity. One exercise was going on, in which the Landmark Leader was asking us about our linguistic skills. The 300 participants started sharing that they knew Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and other commonly recognized Indian languages. I wanted to shout out that I knew Nepali, but something was stopping me. With some courage, I shouted, “I know Nepali” and all 300 heads turned towards me- to my surprise, I felt awkward. Till that moment, I used to consider myself a very confident girl, who was born and brought up in the small village of Pedong in Darjeeling. I had come to this city and made my career as an independent woman. I started wondering why I was hesitant to introduce myself as a Nepali Girl. Different conversations were going on with the leader in Landmark Forum, and I realized that as soon I revealed that I was Nepali, I was asked questions like ‘are you from Nepal?’ Or many times, I have heard my colleagues saying, ‘my building’s Gorkha’. The term ‘Gorkha’ has become synonymous with a security guard. These things used to make me feel that I was being treated like a foreigner in my own motherland. Hence, I was hesitating in disclosing my own identity. After Landmark Forum, I did the Landmark Advance course and the Landmark Self Expression and Leadership Program (SELP), which is a three months course. In SELP, we had to take a project, which should be our self-expression and it should benefit our community. By then, I had run many marathons and I had understood that my true self-expression was running. I also understood by then that people were asking me question like ‘Are you from Nepali?’ or using the statement like, ‘my building’s Gorkha’ because there was not much awareness about Nepali-speaking Indians or about the Gorkha Community. So, I thought of doing something to bring awareness about Nepali-speaking Indians through running. That’s how we started the project, ‘Run with Roshni’, through which we are now supporting runners from Darjeeling to run marathons in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai since 2012. While running marathons, we wear a t-shirt with the slogan, ‘WE ARE GORKHAS AND PROUD TO BE INDIAN. JAI GORKHA, JAI HIND.’ Before India’s Independence, one-third of the Kingdom of Nepal spreading from the borders of Assam to Garhwal now in India was ceded to British India under the Treaty of Sugauli. Hence, our ancestors became Indian. Many are not aware of this and we have to keep on explaining our history, and how Nepali speaking people are also Indian. In 1950, India and Nepal signed a treaty by virtue of which both the countries allowed free entry and settling of their citizens on either soil. This treaty served to aggravate the identity crisis situation of the Gorkhas of Indian origin, for they were seen as Nepali citizens residing on Indian soil. Nepali is a recognized language under the Constitution of India and it is one of the languages mentioned in Indian currency. While I’m being interviewed, I have been asked my many reporters to show them which one is the Nepali inscription that is printed on the Indian currency notes. Prejudice from fellow Indians often stems from ignorance and stereotypes depicted in popular culture (like Bollywood films), and it must be very hard to deal with such attitudes. How do you approach this prejudice and the mislabeling of your identity? I got lots of breakthrough after doing the Landmark forum. Before I did the Landmark Forum, I personally confronted people in Mumbai, who passed derogatory comments on my looks. In retrospect, I understand that they were passing such comments out of their own ignorance. Now, if I have the time, I go to such and educate them on how I am also Indian. Once, at Kanjurmarg Station, one man looked at me, and said to two of his friends, “Dekh, Chinese item aa rahi hai!” (Look, A Chinese item is coming) I confronted him by asking, “Whom are you referring to as a ‘Chinese item’?” He replied,” Yahan se dafa ho jao!” (You and get lost from here). At the top of my voice, I shouted at him, “dhikkar hai tere jaisa indian paar, jo apne desh basi ko nahi pahechanta.” (Shame on Indian like you, can’t even recognize a fellow Indian). I told him,”I am from Darjeeling and I have represented India in four international marathons. I am an advocate by profession and I can get you arrested for passing such racial comments”. His friend apologized on his behalf, and by then, a crowd had surrounded us. I could hear them murmuring, agreeing with me. I was happy to have educated someone that day. Now, I go to many schools and colleges to share my experiences of running marathons and about ‘Run with Roshni’. Before starting my presentation, I ask students, ‘can you guess where I am from?’ Many of them say China. Only a few say North East India. Through running and sharing, I am bringing awareness that how Nepali speaking people are Indians. And now I am going to publish a book. I hope it will help me to reach out to more people and help to bring awareness. You are originally from Darjeeling. What has the reaction in Darjeeling and of fellow Gorkha citizens been towards the ‘Run with Roshni’ initiative? Initially in 2011, when I conducted seminars to share the vision of ‘Run with Roshni’, people were little skeptical. I conducted seminars in Kalimpong and Pedong, and the attendance was good. Overall, the support has been great. Darjeeling is demanding separation from West Bengal by creating a separate state of Gorkhaland. Demand for the same started prior to Independence. During 1980s, more than 2000 people died for the cause of Gorkhaland but the mainstream media did not cover any story. When we ran marathons with slogan in our t shirt- ‘WE ARE GORKHAS AND PROUD TO BE INDIAN. JAI GORKHA JAI HIND’- we got media mentions in more than 15 national newspapers like TOI, DNA, Midday, Hindustan Times, Telegraph etc. For this particular initiative reason, I was awarded the Kalimpong Ratna Award 2013 by the Kalimpong press club. A lot of prejudice stems from the fact that people just aren’t exposed to more national diversity. How do you think we can promote diversity in our organizations to fight prejudice? I think cultural exchange initiatives should be promoted. More students from big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore should be encouraged to visit North East states. I am associated with an NGO that conducts a Kalimpong Village Discovery Tour. It is not a profit making operation. It is run under Mondo Challenge Kalimpong, a non-profit social organization, which is working in three major areas- educational, Economic and social development in the region. On the 1st May, 2015, we are organizing the Kalimpong Half Marathon, and after that we are offering the village discovery tour to the runners coming from outside Darjeeling,. The contribution goes directly to the villages, as well as to the village & school development activities conducted by Mondo Challenge Kalimpong.
Motto of the Mondo Challenge is “PEOPLE WORKING WITH PEOPLE FOR SUCCESSFUL DEVELOPMENT”.
One group’s fight for their Indian identity should be every Indian’s fight – apart from public causes like yours, how else can we educate fellow Indians about the diversity of India and its people? How can we encourage them to join in the endeavor to end discrimination? How can we all help?
You have given this opportunity of sharing my story in your monthly magazine. It’s a great way for me to reach out to more people.
More and more people are now joining in the ‘Run with Roshni’ movement. Runesh Tamang and Kamal Thapa ran 1600K in January to let India know that “Gorkhali are indians too”. What is your dream for the future of this movement?
I am very proud of Runesh and Kamal. Yes, they participated in “I love my Tiranga Relay 2015′ from Mumbai to Delhi. I want to encourage all the youths in Darjeeling to participate in Marathons and get the world class runners. The vision of ‘Run with Roshni’ is to see Gorkha runners representing India in the Olympic Marathon. Once that happens, we wouldn’t need to keep on explaining how Nepali speaking people are Indians.
Your ultimate running dream?
To run 100K with my husband 😉
Your message to the running community in India? Anything you would like to say, in particular, to fellow women runners in India?
Run to enjoy. Don’t make it an obsession. For women who are yet to start running, I would like to say that there is no scarcity of time to run. All of us can spare half an hour time every day for running, which can create magic in our lives.