Monday, February 22, 2010

Shakun's 'The Way Forward' Op-Ed in The Kathmandu Post

The Way Forward | Op-Ed | :: The Kathmandu Post ::

Laxman Tharu, Buddha Tsering Moktan and Shakun Sherchand Leslie

Adivasi Janajatis, Dalits, Madhesis, Muslims, Khasas and Brahmins are all Nepalis; and yet, why do we feel pointedly obliged to redefine ourselves more than ever before? Is it because Nepali nationalism remains rigid in content and vague in inspiration?

First of all, it has to be clear that the Tharus, Tamangs, Thakalis, Limbus, Newars, Rais and Magars are comfortable in defining themselves as Adivasi Janajatis for a reason. Adivasi connotes the indigenous peoples of Nepal while Janajati refers to its tribal/ethnic heritage. Autochthonous (derived from Greek), meaning “sprung from the earth”, Adivasi Janajatis were settlers rather than conquistadores. The Neolithic tools found in Nepal hint of our presence here 9,000 years ago. We were taught verbatim that our ancestors had prepared a survival kit to connect with the land, air, trees, water and mysticism. In their quest for survival and in order to give meaning to their existence, they adopted animistic, shamanistic and Buddhist practices.

When the interlopers came, instead of embracing harmony, they brought a foreign religion and forcibly replaced ancestor worship by idol worship. They trespassed upon Adivasi land by manipulation and conquest. Therefore, the indigenous ethnic people can be defined as “a politically underprivileged group, who share a similar ethnic identity different to the nation in power, and who have been an ethnic entity in the locality before the present ruling nation took over power”.

Adivasi Janajatis did not emerge from caste Hinduism, and discrimination is incompatible with the practice of ahimsa (non-violence) and karuna (compassion). Brahmins in Nepal have to understand the marginalised, discriminated and exploited are fighting not those who are Brahmins by birth, but the deplorable and excessive practice of the laws of Manu.

What went wrong?

Before the concept of nation state emerged, the diversity of human culture in Nepal was as varied as the biodiversity of the flora and fauna, and peace depended on the symbiotic relationship based on their needs. However, Hinduism undid the various ethnic principalities. Hindu Brahminbad was introduced during the Lichchhavi period and established in 1437 B.S. by Jayasthiti Malla when he invited five Brahmins from South India to introduce casteism and discrimination according to the Manava-Dharmashastra (Laws of Manu).

What is unnerving for Adivasi Janajatis is their systematic elimination through application of “law of all the social classes”, whereby a majority of Nepalis are socially and politically disenfranchised. In 1870, the Ranas tried to suppress the indigenous people’s languages and in the process, many were executed or chased from the country.

As Adivasi Thakalis, we realised that our father’s inheritance was a shift in history. Their forefathers had traded language, culture and identity for the license to trade in salt; for salt was the subsistence of their tribe, and a man who did not know how to fulfill the needs of his tribe could not be called a Thakali, literally the oldest and the wisest.

The Tharus can trace their lineage back to Shakyamuni Buddha, Ashoka and the Koli heritage. But the Tharus — an indigenous, self-sufficient group — were debased to Kamaiyas, the poor share croppers, through an enforced social hierarchy. The Ranas had given up large parts of the Tarai and present day Sikkim in exchange for Nepali autonomy. The Ranas followed internal colonisation after assisting the British in the Indian rebellion of 1857 and both world wars.

The Tharus had lost their land through the manipulation of land rights tied up with what was considered development aid. In 1952, the joint collaboration of the US Operation Mission and WHO helped eradicate malaria from the Rapti Valley, benefiting the mid-hill Brahmins and Chhetris to exclude the Tharus from their own territory, as earlier they were the only inhabitants resistant to malaria. The Tarai progressed to becoming the rice bowl of Nepal, upgrading the land value. By the mid-1960s, two million people had migrated to the Tarai. By 1971, the proportion of cultivated land in the Tarai was 41 percent compared to 9 percent in the hills and 2 percent in the mountains. They gradually watched their land slip away from their hands — 75 percent of the land being transferred to Brahmin zamindars, 10 percent to Chhetris and 15 percent to Janajati and Tharu landlords.

Between the Muluki Ain (Civil Code) of 1854 to Bhumisudhar (Land Reform Act) of 1963, the laws and directives sidetracked the Adivasi Janajatis through a land grabbing mechanism and huge tracts of land were passed as state gifts to priests, advisors and administrators. This displaced and shrunk the livelihood of the Tharus as they turned into Kamaiyas (serfs). Kippat (community) land was taken from the Tamangs and Limbus, and guthi (religious community) land from the Newars. Ownership of land by Adivasi Janajatis dropped from approximately 100 percent to 60 percent during this period.

The declaration of Nepal as a Hindu state diminished the cultural practices of the Adivasi Janajatis. Dashain (a Hindu festival) was declared a national holiday. Citizenship papers were processed with Hinduised names for land ownership. Adivasi Janajatis, who were mostly Buddhist practitioners, were forced into caste categories. Eating beef was made sacrilegious, and violators were imprisoned. Even now, there are 200 discriminatory laws.

Sanskritised Nepali was the predominant official language. The Nepali vernacular was used as the medium of education and elimination of other dialects, pushed out by humiliating their speakers. Systematic exclusion of Adivasi Janajatis from the administration, civil service, media, high posts in the military and political parties was initiated and soon became the standard. The Adivasi Janajatis, with their limited skills in spoken/written Nepali, were at a huge disadvantage.

Civil distress

Adivasi Janajatis as Nepalis are trying to reclaim their lost dignity through agradhikar (restorative justice).

“Ek Madhes, Ek Pradesh”, which is basically a slogan against Brahmin hegemony, is not just an ideology of some political party, but a demand for identity. Meanwhile, the CA has become a 24-party arena for social inclusion debates. The country is at high risk of political and social polarisation. The ham-fisted state restructuring invites another level of controversy and especially puts the Tharus and the Madhesi on alert. Recently, the Khasa people congregated to declare their desire to declared Adivasi Janajatis.

To ignore social inclusion through proportionate representation in federal Nepal will be akin to taking the country from the hands of authoritarian feudalists and putting it into the hands of repressive totalitarians. Hence, our common cause has to be ‘drafting equality, executing equality and administering equality’ and thereby bringing Nepali nationalism to a full circle.

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