Friday, January 27, 2012

International Indigenous Conference in Dharan, Nepal

I'm sitting in Dharan, a growing town on the borderlands between the hills and terai of Nepal at an international conference on Indigenous rights organized by Shankar Limbu and LAHURNIP, a law firm working on Indigenous Peoples (IP) issues. 

Many noted Nepali IP intellectuals and political leaders are here among us.  There are South Asian IP activists and academics from Jharkand, Nagaland, Chittagong Hill Tracks (Bangladesh), as well as experts from INGOs and a NYU law school fellow, plus a three or four hundred Nepali IP from all over the country.

A Swiss expert, Chris was speaking about land rights and subsidiary rights using his native Switzerland as examples.  He's given us some historical background on how Swiss land rights have evolved and the authorities of the cantons vis-a-vis the central government.

But, stepping back, momentarily, from the specific Swiss example, it’s interesting to consider how human settlements land rights have changed over time in various countries. 

A millennium or two ago, during the development of our early civilizations from the Euphrates and Yantze, through the later Bronze Age, one wonders how land was ‘owned’, expressed and possessed by different cultures and societies.  How those Indic, Babylonian, Ugartic and later Aegyptian societies articulated either communal or individualistic definition of land rights.  

In our Western world, of course, after the rise of royal or papal rule for centuries, the sovereign and his courtiers controlled most of the land rights.  Then, there must have been a lengthy transition to where the state began owning, allocating and registering the land and resources within its territory. 

No doubt the fame of the Magna Carta had to do w/ forcing the king to release some of his control over land rights to his dukes and earls who wanted a greater share of that land wealth and prosperity.

While these centralizing tendencies occurred across the world, many Indigenous peoples, who never formally or legally registered their community ownership of their plentiful land, lost their self-perceived g-d given land rights as external, neigboring or colonizing military powers, representing a different, distant or foreign state, gained authority by the coercive force of the newly aggrandizing empire(s). 

For most of us, these historical land use issues rarely trouble our lives.  In most Western nations, the idea of Indigenous Peoples or concerns about their minority rights has long since become a distant, sepia-toned fading memory.  The history, culture and imagination of Indigenous Peoples have been thoroughly overwhelmed by the ineluctable diffusion, aggrandizement and ‘advance’ of our modern, industrial, technological worlds.  

The cruel trauma of earlier centuries forgotten by the pressures and demands of our own modern lives and homogenizing power or our impressive and all-encompasing global cultures. 

Even in relatively recent 19th C. American history when the European immigrants and frontier worlds collided is deeply buried in our national consciousness.  The cultural scars too searing and wounded, no doubt, to acknowledge as clearly as future centuries, looking safely back across time, may likely perceive and accept... 

‎'It's this idea of destruction, this conception of near and inevitable change which gives in our opinion so original a character and so touching a beauty to the solitudes of America. One sees them with melancholy pleasure. One hastens in a way to admire them. The idea of this natural and wild grandeur which is to end mingles with the superb images to which the march of civilization gives rise. One feels proud to be a man and at the same time one experiences I know not what bitter regret at the power G-d has given us over nature. The soul is agitated by these ideas, these contrary sentiments. But all the impressions it receives are great and leave a deep mark.' 
Alexis de Tocqueville, August 1831

That torturous American history appears, at times, in award-winning films like John Ford’s classic “The Searchers” starring John Wayne, ironic exposes like “Little Big Man” starring Dustin Hoffman, Roland Joffe's brilliant "The Mission" starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro in 18th C. South America, Kevin Costner’s Civil War era “Dances with Wolves”, Bruce Beresford's haunting "Black Robe" set in 17th C. Quebec, Terrence Malick's "The New World" poetic evocation of a 17th C. Virginia settlement, or even the recent allegorical, mythological science fiction "Avatar".

Yet here, in South Asia, where the 19th C. European colonizer had neither the demographic dominance nor physical ability to completely remove the local or Indigenous communities, these original, more communitarian peoples remain scattered around their nations, often in the remote Himalayan mountains, but also in selected inner Mahabharat valleys and along the often equally isolated widespread Gangetic plains. 

Although in Bangladesh they represent only 2% of the total population, in Nepal IP are over 40% of the national population, including some 108 languages and disaggregated ethnic-indigenous communities scattered all across the country.   In Northeast India, they are a majority of most of those smaller states with on-going independence and liberation movements troubling the Indian state.

Therefore, given the much larger prominence of the IP in the social structure of Nepal, one appreciates the greater intensity and agony of debates on IP rights in the design of a modern 'new' Nepal.  

Thus, with the sudden collapse of Nepal's 240 year old Hindu monarchy and rigid hierarchical society after the 2006 People's Movement, and the centralizing, unifying role of its state, these IP issues have gained more searing prominence and priority in local politics.  

Clearly, the previous socio-political-cultural bonds of the ancien regime are slipping quickly.  The rise of identity politics, started by a sense of discrimination and alienation from the state in the 1980s then pushed more profoundly by the rhetoric of Maoist liberation in the 1990s, have opened a fascinating Pandora’s box for the realignment of a new Nepal.

No longer ‘One King, One Language, One Religion’, the Nepal of the 21st C. will be a more diverse, inclusive and argumentative nation.  

The Indigenous Peoples at this three-day conference in Dharan, in Eastern Nepal, are more aware, more conscious, more politically active than earlier generations and insistent on their rights.  They are aware of the numerous international UN human rights resolutions including ICCPR, ICESCR, CERD, UNDRIP and ILO 169.  

These Indigenous Peoples of Nepal are asking hard questions of the state regarding its authority over their cultures, their languages, their religions, their land and their resources. 

For the past two days there have been presentations on international, regional and national examples of indigenous rights issues.  These political and human rights issues would be considered ‘radical’ in the West, given the homogenizing and ‘melting pot’ nature of our federal and unitary political systems.  Yet these issues of cultural survival and rights are being debated vigorously and insistently by the many indigenous in Nepal.

How the evolving political structures of this new Nepal are able to incorporate these latent demands, the sense of historical exclusion, the pressure for recognition of their languages and cultures, the insistence on proportional representation in all state organs (to ensure access to political power) and the expanding political consciousness of these previously subaltern communities in Nepal will go far to determining how stable and successful will be the next incarnation of a new Nepali republic.

Yet we have seen, in Europe in particular, in earlier era, the tortured history of promising new republics and reichs, e.g. in France or Germany, as those ancient nations sought new, hopeful compacts with and among their peoples in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  

Will Nepal be able to navigate the process of social inclusion, diffusion of political power, restructuring a republican state, the creation of new federal units, the role of identity in the state, the issue of communitarian vs individual land, and natural resource rights without resorting to violence again?

Will the ten years of conflict from 1996 to 2006 remain a painful and persistent memory for the diverse range of people of Nepal -- Indigenous, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Dalit, high caste, Tibetans, Indian merchant traders and a few of us ex-foreigners?   

Will the effort to share power, acknowledge historical claims and soothe the rights of the Indigenous with the dominant communities find the right balance in the new constitution, form of government, judicial system and legal code?

Will the eager and upcoming local political parties that are swelling just below the surface of the currently dominant established political parties find the wisdom, maturity and influence to bring political power and better services closer to the lives of the 30 million Nepalis living across the heights and terai of his Himalayan nation?  

Will the country finally find the right balance between the recognition of cultural identity and stable economic growth for a nation desperately in need of both?

What did the Greeks say about Pandora's box?

Only time will tell...

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