Monday, December 24, 2007

Nepal and Desire for Ethnic Autonomy

Nepal and Desire for Ethnic Autonomy

- Bishnu Pathak, PhD *


The history of human race records hundreds of struggles for emancipation against injustice, inequality, restriction, repression, absolutism and so on. In the ancient period, struggles were confined for the means of human survival, for instance food, housing, clothing and so forth. Along with these, as human beings became aware of their basic needs and considered them as basic rights, the forms of struggle changed one after another. The dissident politico-ideological domination in 20th century has now turned to identity-based, cultural, or ethnic conflicts and also as Western versus non-Western blocs in 21st century.

Nepal is not unaffected from such movements either. Its history has recorded dozens of ethnic revolts against the state and its rulers. If we look at the 250 years' history of modern Nepal, we find that ethnic conflict or liberation movement had taken place when Drabya Shah had become the king of Gorkha by defeating the then king Ghale Gurung in a race competition called Lig Lig. His immediate descendent Prithvi Narayan Shah introduced the campaign of "territorial integration" and expanded the boundaries of Nepal. Shifting the capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu , he started feudal rule and proclaimed Nepal as a Hindu state which is still in force.

As Prithvi Narayan Shah strongly believed in Hindu religion and culture, he took steps to impose the belief on the people [1]. He prescribed "one nation and one Hindu Varna system" for all. That may be the reason why he ordered to slash the tips of nose and ears of the people of Kirtipur, his arch opponents, that eventually weighed 18 dharnis [2] (Bhattachan:2000:140). Slavery and bonded labor were widely practiced during his reign, but his descendants banned the practices for bahuns and chhetris by promulgating an act in 1803 [3]. With that, only lower caste people were compelled to work as slaves and bonded laborers. Since then, t he structure of political opportunities in Nepal has been unduly favorable to bahuns and chhetris as against other castes and ethnic groups. When we look at the history of 250 years, we find that they were able to capture more than 80 percent of the seniormost positions in all political, executive, judiciary, legislative, and security dimensions. That has widened the gap between the rulers and the people and it still continues.

The Tamangs revolted twice against King Rana Bahadur Shah and King Girvan Bikram Shah in 1873 [4], but they could not succeed. Yakha Rai says that the region of Majh Kirant also revolted twice against the State in 1807 [5].

Through the bloodshed and violence of Kot Parwa and Bhadarkhal Parwa , Janga Bahadur Rana emerged in the history of Nepal and his brothers ruled the country for 104 years in succession. His younger brother Badri Narsingh, along with Prince Upendra Bikram Shah, had made the first ever secret plot against him but it was all in vain. Later, Janga Bahadur also exposed the plot made by the soldiers of Gurung Regiment for his assassination in May/June 1857 and got the conspirator slashed into pieces by a Gurung soldier at Tundikhel [6]. This action made the Gurung community to revolt against him.

Jamadar Sripati Gurung of Lamjung, a leader among the Gurungs, revolted against Janga Bahadur in 1857 during a military parade at Tundikhel. Later he was killed. Shuk Dev Gurung proclaimed himself a Baudha King against Ranaism. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in 1876 in prison because of inhumane torture. After his arrest, another Gurung led the insurgency against the then Rana ruler proclaiming himself as the Baudha King of Gorkha and Lamjung, but he was later arrested and could not succeed. Thus, successive Gurung revolts were suppressed by force.

Lakhan Thapa, an ex-soldier and the follower of Saint Gyani Dildas of Joshmani faith, opposed discrimination and intolerance of Janga Bahadur under the shield of Manakamana Mai in 1876. Both Thapa and Dildas were taken into custody and their weapons were seized. Lakhan Thapa, Aj Singh, Achhami Magar and seven others were hanged to death, whereas Kanu Lamsal was excused from capital punishment because he was a bahun. Six months later, Gyani Dildas was released from the jail and sent to Darjeeling [7].

Kancha Lama, a Tibetan Guru who visited Kathmandu to pay homage to Swayambhu, initiated Dhamma Sabha. Seeing increasing participation of Bhikshus and people at the Sabha, many of them were taken into custody and forcibly exiled in 1925. Thus, Ranas suppressed the movement of Buddhism as well.

The lower caste in Hindu Varna system called untouchables such as kamis (iron and gold smiths), damais (tailors), and sarkis (shoe-makers) also raised their voices, but soon they were arrested and tortured inhumanely. Protesting against such moves, Ranu Damai from Darjeeling dispatched a letter to Chandra Shamsher pleading how kamis, damais, and sarkis had been living in a miserable situation in the land which was no better than the territory without a king [8].

Besides, the issue of linguistic equality was raised even during the Rana period. When Shiri Thebe Limbu tried to teach Limbu script, he was exiled to Sikkim [9]. The Madhesi (tarai dwellers) people demanded that Hindi be given the status of a national language. K.I Singh's ministry passed a resolution, but could not implement it [10]. Similarly, Madhesi Liberation Front also launched an armed revolution against Panchayati system at Taulihawa in June 1963 [11].

There is no record to show who was the first person to advocate for ethnic and regional autonomy in Nepal. But Janak Lal Sharma writes that Khagendra Jung Gurung, an ex-minister, was the first ever man in Nepal for the cause of ethnic and regional autonomy. As a result, he was kept in jail for 7 years during the Panchayat era. He was once again taken into custody even after the restoration of democracy in 1990.

In order to promote and strengthen their communities and languages, some ethnic organizations were set up during the partyless Panchayat system but they could not function effectively. These were: Tharu Kalyan Kari Sabha in 1950; Nepal Buddha Dharma Sangh in 1953 which later changed into Nepal Tamang Committee; Nepal Manka Khala in 1979; Nepal Magar Langhali Sangh in 1982; Sarbajatiya Mancha in 1982; Utpidit Jatiya Sangh in 1987 and Se-Ta-Ma-Gu-Ra-Li (Sherpa, Tamang, Magar, Gurung, Rai and Limbu). Despite their different interests and objectives, some of their demands were similar with the present Maoists' demands such as the right to self-determination, autonomy and secular state. However, such issues did not come up in a public debate as only one language Nepali was recognized as the official language in the Hindu state. Besides, the repressive policy of the state was always there.

After the restoration of democracy, dozens of ethnic groups, organizations, languages, and religious practices have come into public lime light as the Constitution has guaranteed equality in all quarters. The constitution has envisaged for uplifting the living standards of all the disadvantaged ethnic groups and vulnerable communities belonging to any ethnicity, color, and belief, disallowing all kinds of existing economic, social, political, and cultural discrimination and inequalities. His Majesty's Government has also constituted a National Ethnic Development Committee (NEDC) in 1997 to formulate policies and programs necessary for the socioeconomic uplift of the janajatis.

As a result, a considerable number of ethnic organizations and liberation fronts have come up in the last 17 years to pressure both the government and civil society for the cause of autonomy, secularism, self-determination, and federal structure of government. But, the rights to self-determination and ethnic and regional autonomy have been made most controversial as all the mainstream political forces, particularly Nepali Congress (NC) except CPN (Maoist) are against such liberty for the fear of secession.

Ethnic Policy of CPN (Maoist)

In the process of winning confidence, the pro-communist forces established Nepal Federation of Nationalities (NEFEN) – the umbrella institute of ethnic communities under the founder convener Suresh Ale Magar. Due to different communist ideologies and some tactical differences on the methods of their emancipation, the revolutionary communist wing formed a separate organization called Akhil Nepal Janjati Sangh (All Nepal Nationalities Association) in November 1994 under the convenorship of the same Suresh Ale Magar. As the sizes of the ethnic communities engaged in the People's War got enlarged, the central committee meeting of the CPN (Maoist) decided to put forward the issue of ethnic autonomy along the party's policy of 'Develop Guerrilla Warfare in a Planned Manner' with the advancement of the Second Plan. Later, the politburo meeting of the CPN (Maoist) was held in December 1996 ( Poush 2053 BS) and decided to raise the issues of regional and ethnic autonomy as major issues in their forthcoming movement. Though they are not secessionists, the Maoists have used this assurance to bring together ethnic activists to their ranks. As a result, great numbers of ethnic people are involved in the People's War and the demand of autonomy has become the heart and soul of the Maoists.

After the fusion of some communist revolutionaries of Nepal on November 23, 1990, the First National Unity Convention (FNUC) of Unity Center (UC) was held in November 1991. To extend and heighten the New Democratic People's Revolution, the party put forward class, cultural, religious, linguistic and regional issues as a matter of right to attract greater number of poor, disadvantaged, marginalized, and vulnerable (PDMV) communities. The UC adopted the following policy and program:

  • A secular state would be established by ending the dominance of one particular religion. Religious and linguistic freedom would be guaranteed to all.
  • Instead of establishing one particular language as the national language or the main language, linguistic and ethnic equality would be practiced. The language which is found suitable for the majority of the people would be used as the main language for the purposes of new democratic system. But the policy of promoting it would be discouraged [12].

When UC split into two, the revolutionary line of CPN (Maoist) adopted it as their own party policy, but the party did not have a clear-cut policy on ethnic issues. Later, the party refined its policy on such issues, including the rights of all ethnic communities. The Maoist leader, pseudonymph Comrade Sangham, presented the proposal on Ethnic Policy in Nepal at the First National Conference held in Kathmandu in July 1995. The conference passed the following policies on ethnic matters of interest:

  • Free education in all languages. Media, communiqué, government notices and documents should be available/printed in all languages.
  • Special privilege given to Hindu religion should end. Religion should be separated from the state and secular nation should be declared. Equal freedom should be provided to all religions.
  • Special privilege should be provided to the Dalit community in sectors like education, administration, health, and development works.
  • Ethnic Academy should be established for the preservation and uplift of the language and culture of ethnic communities.
  • Special privilege given to Hindu religion at present in terms of religious festivals and government holidays should end. Instead, equal freedom should be provided to all religions to celebrate their social customs and festivals.
  • Equal opportunity for all the languages should be provided for their uplift and preservation against the present system when there is special support for the Khas language. Likewise, no particular language should be made compulsory. In government works and education sector, the choice of language should be left to the will of the respective ethnic community.
  • Special focus should be given to the communities like Chepang (which are in the verge of extinction) and backward communities like Raute, Raji, Majhi, Darai and Kumbhal. Various programs should be run for their uplift.
  • Discrimination towards the tarai people should be ended. Special efforts should be made for their wider participation in political, administrative and economic sectors without any prejudice. Likewise, socioeconomic programs should be run in the backward sectors of tarai [13].

The 40-point demands put forward to the His Majesty's Government (earlier government) by the United People's Front (UPF) on February 2, 1996 are believed to constitute the core content of the People's War in Nepal , which is divided into three parts such as nationality, democracy, and people's livelihood. In the demands concerning people's democracy, the UPF has given special attention to non-discrimination and the right to self-determination of ethnic communities as follows:

· Declare Nepal as a secular state (Demand No. 18);

· Install self-government for ethnic communities and stop racial discrimination (Demand No. 20);

· Ensure equal opportunity to all dialects and design courses up to higher education in them (Demand No. 22); and

· Abolish regional discrimination and establish autonomy (Demand No. 25).

Talks I, between the government and the Maoists were held at Thakurdwar, Bardia from August 30 to November 9, 2001. Right to self determination; national/regional autonomy and secular state Nepalwere forwarded to address the ethnic, regional and caste contradictions, the negotiation team of CPN (Maoist) put forward the following demands on September 13, 2001 :

Talks II, the CPN (Maoist) slightly modified these demands in the first round of talks which was held at Shankar Hotel, Kathmandu on April 4, 2003 as follows: right to self-determination, ethnic and regional autonomy, and secular nation. The goals and objectives of the CPN (Maoist) were:

  • To address the regional, ethnic, caste, gender, and classical contradictions through progressive and radical, political, social, and economic changes. And also to develop a democratic and prosperous Nepal by seeking solutions to the problems associated with nationality, people's democracy, and livelihood.
  • To create a strong and pro-people national unity by developing democracy and nationality as inseparable parts and accordingly to protect national integrity and sovereignty.

In view of the main political agendas and the process to formulate a new constitution through an election for a constituent assembly, the Talks II proposal read: "The interim government should conduct an election to a Constituent Assembly (CA) within six months. The CA will be inclusive of different groups, castes, regions, and communities". The proposal stressed upon equal representation from all groups and communities in both the parliament and government bodies. It stated:

  • As the supreme representative of the people, an elected people's house of representatives will be formed which will include representatives from all sectors and groups, such as women, dalits, janajatis, ethnic minorities, linguistic groups, different religions, regions, etc…. Accordingly, there will be representation of different groups in the government as well;
  • Regional and ethnic self-governance should be implemented to give people the right to self-determination; and
  • The country should be made a fully secular state.

Utilizing the four-month long truce in 2001 as an opportunity, the CPN (Maoist) formally set up its central level people's government called as United Revolutionary People's Council (URPC) and named its military force as the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Dr. Baburam Bhattarai was appointed as the Coordinator of the 37-member URPC which is a combined product of the Party, PLA, and the fronts representing various regions, nationalities and ethnic groups. In order to guide the armed struggle and to complete the New Democratic Revolution, the CPN (Maoist) had put forward the following 75-point minimum policy and program framed by the URPC. The policies and programs concerned with the ethnic and regional aspirations included in it were as follows:

  • There shall be no discrimination against anybody on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender etc. and the state shall guarantee equal treatment and opportunities to all. Equal wages for equal work shall be guaranteed to all.
  • The state shall be delinked from religion and it shall be fully secular. Religion shall be regarded as a personal matter of an individual and there shall be no favor for or discrimination against any religion. However, cheating, fraud, corruption, exploitation, oppression, subversive activities etc., on the pretext of religion, shall be curbed.
  • The state shall guarantee equal treatment to all nationalities of the country and their languages. All the nationalities traditionally oppressed by the ruling Aryan- Khas people shall exercise the right to self-determination and their problems shall be resolved within the framework of national autonomy program in the People's New Democratic system according to which all forms of exploitation of the oppressed nationalities shall be ended and they shall exercise their own autonomous rule in the land they inhabit. If a nationality is distributed in more than one area, there shall be more than one autonomous area for it. The House of People's Representatives and People's Committees/Governments elected by them shall be the means of their state power. Except for the People's Army, foreign relations, finance, currency, measurements, communication, international trade, large basic industries, and large hydel projects, all other sectors shall fall under the jurisdiction of the autonomy which will be exercised within the framework of the approved rules and laws.
  • In case of the areas with mixed nationalities, or if there are other nationalities in the autonomous area of a particular nationality, there shall be representation of all for the local state powers on proportional basis.
  • All the oppressed nationalities shall have the right to join the People's Army and they may also form the People's Militia as a security force at the local level under the central command.
  • All the oppressed nationalities shall enjoy the freedom to promote their languages and to preserve or reform their traditional values and systems. The People's Central Government shall assist the people of oppressed nationalities in their political, economic, cultural, and educational development.
  • In the high Himalayan regions such as Karnali region and Seti-Mahakali region‚ which have been regionally oppressed because of unequal economic development‚ there shall be regional autonomy. The nature of regional autonomy shall be basically the same as the autonomy to be enjoyed by the nationalities.
  • The issue of tarai‚ which is inhabited by the people of various linguistic groups, concerns with both: exploitation of the nationalities as well as the region. However, since it is primarily an issue of the exploitation of nationalities, there shall be separate autonomous regions for the nationalities speaking different languages ( e.g., Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi etc.) and all the oppression and unequal treatment meted out to tarai dwellers in general and Madheshi people in particular shall be ended. The prolonged issue of citizenship to the Madheshi people shall be resolved in a scientific, just and democratic manner.

The Central Government of the CPN (Maoist) previously called UPRC that had formed nine autonomous republics [14] is now restructured into 11 federal state committees and 3 federal sub-state committees.

1. Limbuwan State Committee: Taplejung, Panchthar, Ilam, Terhathum, and Dhankuta districts.

2. Kochila State Committee: Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari districts.

3. Kirant State Committee: Solukhumbu, Okhaldhunga, Udayapur, Khotang, Bhojpur and Sankhuwasabha districts.

4. Newa State Committee: Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur districts.

5. Tamang-Saling State Committee: Chitwan, Makawanpur, Sindhuli, Ramechhap, Dolakha, Sindhupalchowk, Kavre, Rasuwa, Nuwakot and Dhading districts.

6. Tamuwan State Committee: Parbat and all districts of Gandaki zone – Gorkha, Lamjung, Tanahu, Syanjya, Kaski and Manang.

7. Magarat State Committee: Rukum, Rolpa, Salyan, Pyuthan, Arghakhanchi, Gulmi, Palpa, Baglung, Myagdi and Mustang districts.

8. Bheri-Karnali State Committee: Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Kalikot, Dolpa, Jajarkot, Dailekh and Surkhet districts.

9. Tharuwan State Committee: Dang, Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kandhanpur districts.

10. Seti-Mahakali State Committee: Darchula, Baitadi, Dadeldhura, Bajhang, Bajura, Achham and Doti districts.

11. Madhes State Committee : Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari and Sarlahi districts as Mithila sub-state committee; Rautahat, Bara and Parsa districts as Bhojpura sub-state committee; and Nawalparasi, Rupandehi and Kapilbastu districts as Awadh sub-state committee [15].

The 10-year People's War made aware to PDMV on inclusion, proportionate representation and autonomy across the horizontal and vertical of Nepal. As the CPN (Maoist) deviated a little bit on such crucial issues on the course to assign in understandings, agreements and peace accord, they received profound pressure from their cadres at their extended plenary meetings, ethnic organizations, madhesis and dalits fronts. As a result, the Maoist leadership put forward the 22-point demands including proportionate election system (PES) before going for CA election scheduled for November 22, 2007 ignoring the constitutional provision of 50% first-past-the-post (FPTP) and 50% party-list proportional representation. The Maoists and the UML including a few others finally passed a resolution of PES for the CA by simple majority from the Interim Parliament (IP) calling a special session. The NC voted against the motion.

The Interim Constitution (IC) could not be changed due to the amendment provision of two-thirds majority. The much-awaited protracted negotiations of the 7-party alliance agreed to amend the IC declaring Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic (but first meeting of the CA shall implement the republic) signing 23-understanding on the night of Sunday, December 23, 2007. The political stalemate has finally ended following Maoist withdrawal from the government on September 18, 2007, even though; the resignations were yet to be accepted. On the principal Maoist demand of PES, the high-level meeting of 7-party alliance agreed to hold CA election by mid-April increasing the number of CA members up to 601 (in 2.5 million population): 335 to be elected under PES, 240 through FPTP and 26 cabinet nominees. It has mixed systems – FPTP and PES, to cover 42% and 58% respectively. The Maoists are able to increase the participation of ethnicities, madhesis, dalits and women in CA, but failed to incorporate the voices of PDMV in fully proportionate election system. The Civic Conference, which was organized under the leadership of Padma Ratna Tuladhar, did not succeed as much as it was expected. The Maoist leadership has been receiving heavy pressure from janajatis, dalits and madhesis not to leave their stand on PES. The caste/ethnic, regional and linguistic issues are recognized as issues of struggle of emancipation versus limitation of rights along with autonomy. Indeed, the Maoists led as the progressive force, whereas the NC appeared as the conformist force. It was the CPN (UML) between them that played the pivotal role to minimize the differences of both conflicting parties.

However, there has been a concern that the aspiration for autonomy and right to self-determination encourage ethnic movements for secession that may result in increased anxiety for the disintegration of the cultural/territorial/religious/linguistic unity of Nepal.


* Dr. Pathak has extracted this update from globally circulated book Politics of People's War and Human Rights in Nepal. This update is prepared on the support of Chitra Niraula, Ganga Puri, Joseph Bergson, Rushma Shakya and Rita Chaudhary.

[1] Mulyankan. 2048. Year 10. No. 1. Kathmandu: Mulyankan Prakashan Griha P. Ltd.
[2]About 42 kg.

[3] Tamang, Sitaram. 2000. Marxism and Nationalities' Movement in Nepal . Kathmandu: Pragati Pustak Sadan.
[4] Neupane, Govinda. 2000. Nepalko Jatiya Prashna (Ethnic Question of Nepal ). Kathmandu: Center for Development.
[5] Adhikari, Neelam Shekhar. 2000. Ethnic Movement in Nepal. Kathmandu: Sri Kripashur Sherpa.
[6] Human Rights Year Book 1993. 1993. Kathmandu: INSEC
[7] Human Rights Year Book 1994. 1994. Kathmandu: INSEC.
[8] Human Rights Year Book: 1994
[9] Nepal Janajati Federation:2054
[10] Human Rights Year Book 1994
[11] Devkota, Grishma Bahadur. 2036. Nepalko Rajnitik Darpan. Kathmandu : Umesh Bahadur Devkota.
[12] Sharma, Sudheer. March 2000. " Helicopter Biruddha Maobadi (Maoists are against Helicopter)." in Himal. Year 9, No. 22. Kathmandu : Himalmedia P. Ltd.
[13] Sharma:2000.
[14] The Central Government of CPN (Maoist) formed nine autonomous republics during the People's War on the basis of ethnicity, geo-political and linguistic dimensions. Five of those are based on ethnicity, three are on based on regional location and one is linguistic: 5-ethnic: Kirat Autonomous Region (the mountain and hill areas of the present Mechi, Koshi, and Sagarmatha zones); Tamang-Saling Autonomous Region (the mountain and hill areas of present Bagmati, Narayani, and Janakpur zones except Kathmandu Valley); Tamuwan Autonomous Region (Gandak region); Magarat Autonomous Region (from Kali Gandaki region to the hill areas of present Dhaulagiri, Rapti, and Lumbini zones); and Tharuwan Autonomous Region (western terai areas from present Rapti to Mahakali zones); 3-regional: Bheri-Karnali Autonomous Region (the hill areas of present Bheri and Karnali region); Seti-Mahakali Autonomous Region (the hill areas of present Seti and Mahakali zone); and Madhesh Autonomous Region (Awadh area of mid- tarai and Bhojpur and Mithila Pradesh of eastern tarai); and 1-linguistic - Newa Autonomous Region in Kathmandu Valley. For details see Situation Update 26: February 22, 2007 .
[15] Situation Update: September 47, 2007

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