This article was written two decades ago after a series of conference related trips to Kathmandu when an ethnic churning had begun to show up in Nepal, threatening to plunge the nation into the kind of turmoil competitive identity politics has brought to the Northeast region for decades now.
Is Nepal in for an ethnic strife of the variety that much of the northeast region of India is going through? The starkness of this question became evident even during a 10 day stay in the nation’s capital Kathmandu to take part in a European Union sponsored workshop on Xenophobia and Racism for South Asian countries, and jointly organized by five different NGOs from the various South Asian countries and one from Europe.
This is one question which is increasingly gaining currency in this landlocked Himalayan kingdom. Apart from the caste-Hindu (those falling within the four-fold Hindu varna or caste system) Nepali, who are basically of Indo-aryan descent originally having migrated from India, there are 59 officially recognized ethnic indigenous communities in the state, although the actual number is as much as 102. Most of these communities are of the Mongolian stock speaking variants of the Tibeto-Burman language strain. The sanskritized Nepali language (or Khash Nepali), which is the official language of Nepal, serves as the lingua franca of the country and Nepali population in neighbouring countries, most prominently India. In recent times however, there has been an unprecedented upsurge in the identity assertion by most of the 59 indigenous Nepali communities, each claiming to be unique linguistically and conturally, but sharing their living space with other neighbouring communities.
Declining Hindu population:
Curiously, this resurgence of identity amongst Nepal’s ethnic communities is marked by tendencies towards revivalism. As a result, this theocratic Hindu nation is witnessing a rapid decline in the Hindus population since the 1991 decadal population census. It is unlikely the revivalism wave will be total, as is the case with all such phenomenon everywhere, but if it was to be so, the official claim of the country being 90 percent Hindu may have to revise the figure to far less than 40, the indigenous, non caste-Hindu population in the country being close to 50 percent, and another 10 percent or so constituting of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.
The Nepali communities falling within the Hindu varna are: The Hill Brahmins constituting 12.7 percent, the Chhetri (15.8 percent), the Yadav (3.9 percent), and the Kami (3.9 percent). Among the major indigenous communities are the Magar (7.1 percent), Tharu (6.7 percent), Tamang (5.6 percent), Newar (5.5 percent) and the Rai (2.8 percent). Nepali Muslims account for 4.3 percent of the country’s population.
Rise of the Kirat:
Today more and more of Nepal’s ethnic communities are registering themselves as followers of Kirat or indigenous animism which they now forcefully assert is as much a religion as any other. The rate of growth of the population registering themselves under this religious category in just the past decade beginning 1991 is estimated at 157 percent. Christianity is also on a rapid increase. During the same decade, followers of the religion is said to have grown 226 percent.
According to Balkrishna Mabuhang, a lecturer in the Tribhuvan University Kritipur, teaching in the central department of population studies, who belongs to the Limbu indigenous community, in the past, the practice has been to enlist anybody who does not belong to the established religions, most particularly Islam and Christianity, as a Hindu. The result has been the total denial of an independent space for the cultural, religious and other practices of the indigenous peoples of Nepal he said. Some terms and labels very familiar to India’s northeast, such as “sankritization of culture”, “Hindu colonization”, “Brahmin hegemony” etc, are today becoming part of the parlance in any discussion on the indigenous question in Nepal.
Mabuhang says for instance that Nepal’s indigenous population without exception love meat eating, including beef. But the superimposed Brahmanical order has declared a ban on cow slaughter. Persons guilty of the crime is punishable by a prison term of 15 years and those found selling beef can earn a jail term for 6 years. Many of the indigenous population including Kathmandu’s dominant community, the Newars, who have not been able to give up the taste of beef has found a substitute – Buffalo meat. The meat is widely sold and eaten in Nepal today, and one finds the meat openly sold and relished even in vending shops on the streets of Kathmandu.
Not tribals please:
Curiously again, the non-caste Hindu population refuse to be called “tribals”. They prefer to be referred to simply as “indigenous people”, or “ethnic nationalities” or “Janjatis” saying the concept “tribal” carries with it negative and derogatory images, quite unlike in India where the official incentive structuring has brought about a total metamorphosis of the concept of pride and prejudices with regards to the term. There is no reservation policy in the country, although it is quite likely demands for such a policy may grow in the near future, considering 80 to 90 percent of all the white collared jobs in the country is currently the monopoly of the upper caste Brahminincal order. As of today the prospect of preferred treatment is met with a degree of indignation by many amongst the indigenous population who feel the pinch on their pride at being thus patronised. “We want equality not patronization,” they said.
Quite predicably, the main thrusts of the demands by the ethnic communities of Nepal today are:
* Equality of Language: Nepal has “Khash Nepali” as the official language. Everybody citizen in Nepal is expected to be proficient in it for all official transactions and job recruitment is to be based on it.
* Secular policy: Nepal is a theocratic state and Hinduism is the state religion. The Hinduism here is also openly discriminatory against non-caste Hindus, non-Hindus and the Dalits. Nepal’s indigenous populations now want their traditional religion and customs to be officially recognized and given the freedom to be pursued and practiced.
* Ethnic autonomy and ethnic self-rule: There is also a growing demand for autonomy of the traditional territories of the ethnic communities where each can preserve their identities and customs more freely.
Interestingly, the ongoing Maoist insurrection in Nepal encompasses all these aspirations within its revolutionary objectives. It is not a co-incidence hence that the backbone of this insurrection is formed by the indigenous population of the country. According to knowledgeable sources, 65 to 70 percent of the country is under the control of the Maoists, and the government controls merely the Kathmandu valley and its adjoining districts.
The question that not many are asking at the moment however is, what if the Maoist movement in the country fails? Would that amount to the subsiding of the growing ethnic identity assertions as well? The Maoist movement which draws much of its succour from the expanding ethnic churning is not secessionist. It is on the other hand a movement that seeks to re-order the power structure in the country by overthrowing the monarchy and ushering in a communist egalitarian rule. They are able to hold the energy unleashed by the ethnic unrest for the moment but what if the Nepali state manages to break the Maoist movement? Where would this energy go? Unchannelised, this energy can become a very dangerous loose cannon, destructive on its own, but viciously so when it falls into the hands of vested sectarian interests. Is Nepal in for the extremely divisive and fissured politics of ethnic insurgency as is witnessed in most of northeast India today? These are questions which should surely begin to ring the alarm bells sooner than later.
Compounding Nepal’s problem is the insipid politics in the country. The monarchy which has grossly over-lived its utility, despite the popular demand for the ushering in of democracy, have shown no intent of relinquishing power. This notwithstanding there are not many who doubt its days are numbered and sooner than later it would be reduced to what it is virtually now – a vestigial organ. But the country’s trouble is, at least for the moment, there seems no institution capable of filling the political vacuum this would leave. The various political parties continue to fail miserably to raise even one leader capable of taking on the challenge. They are mutually suspicious of each other, and indications are, the monarchy would be able to divide them to destroy the anti-monarchy movement they now are jointly leading currently. Nepali intellectuals are however convinced that even if a compromise is worked out between the monarchy and the political parties, it cannot end the pro-democracy movement of the people. In the eventuality of a possible compromise between the monarchy and the political parties, not just the monarchy, but also the traditional political parties may end up alienating themselves from the people.
The complexity of the situation is again highlighted by the fact that the power tussles and equations are not just between the people and the ruling institutions. It is also between the different sections of the people as well. Call it the curse of democracy in its infancy, but democracy’s mode of power sharing is creating many fissures within the Nepali society. Learning from the northeast experience, we can quite comfortably predict these fissures will harden further in the near future.
Furthermore, Nepal’s poverty is amplifying its problems manifold. It is a large country with not enough for everybody. All the resources of the country are funneled into the Kathmandu valley, just about half the size of Imphal valley, but with a population of nearly 25 lakhs concentrated in it. Beyond the valley, there is practically nothing in terms of economic infrastructure or administrative presence, according to local journalists and intellectuals who have done extensive field studies. Poverty is all pervading and in such a situation, the sense of deprivation and neglect is natural. Not that everybody is well off in Kathmandu where most of the government infrastructures are concentrated. A mid level class one government officer in the Nepal government for instance draws approximately Rs 10,000 in Nepali currency, equivalent to a little over Rs 6000 Indian rupees.
Roots for mistrust:
But in an atmosphere of all round deprivation, relative prosperity is often interpreted as exploitation as we in the northeast have all seen all too frequently. The Sherpas for instance are seen as a major asset for the Nepali economy. They bring in big money spending foreign tourists, and today because of the mystique attached to this mountain community, prestigious mountaineering gears, ruggedly fashionable jackets, perfumes etc, use the community as their brand names. And yet, the revenue the Sherpas bring into the country, tend to ajain find their way back to Kathmandu even at the cost of the continued neglect of the Sherpa territory in the upper Himalayas. It may be a natural tendency in an unregulated or poorly regulated economy for wealth and commerce to concentrate in urban areas where it can transact and multiply most easily, but the natural pressures of economics is often overlooked and communal and sectarian motive attributed in a situation of widespread impoverishment. We have also seen this happen in our own environment before to mistake it for anything else.
Nepal’s road ahead is as far as anybody can see it, arduous. Its salvation will have to lie in its ability to throw up capable, considerate, firm, visionary leadership and politics. We wish it precisely this so that its agonizing solitude is not prolonged unnecessarily.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author