Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

Resistance and the state in Nepal: How representative is the Nepali state?

Paper presented to the panel on Resistance and the State in Nepal
at the 16th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies,
Edinburgh, 6-9 September 2000


The exploitative nature of the old political style seems to remain unchanged to this day. Those in
 government, continuing to practice the same old style of politics, tend to become corrupt with
 the result that the people are demoralized by submitting to them and ineffective in opposing them.1

Nepali state conception

The constitution of 1990 introduced important changes into the conception of the Nepali state. It brought a new order of national power structure. There were many who called it a reintroduction of democracy. But since the 1950s had been more a time of experiments with democratic institutions than practised democracy, it seems more appropriate to apply the term "introduction to democracy" to the year 1990.

As the 1950s had paved the way for the restoration of the monarch's traditional powers, the 1990s were thought to open the way to democracy and general participation. As a kind of symbol, the preamble of the new constitution transferred sovereignty from the hands of the king into those of the people. But, as it had already been part of the cooperation provisions of those forces that had organized the movement for democracy in 1990, monarchy was not abolished. Moreover, it remained an integral part of the constitutional foundations of the state, but with different powers and terms of reference.

Nepal entered the stage of representative democracy. Universal adult suffrage, a two-chamber parliamentary system, constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy became emphasized as the cornerstones of the new constitution. This all was thought to happen on the base of freedom and equality of all Nepali citizens safeguarded by an independent and competent judicial system. Especially laudable, in this context, are the fundamental rights mentioned in part 3 (articles 11-23) of the constitution. Apart from several contradictions to other articles, they, as far as possible, correspond to western legal maxims.

But who is the Nepali people that has to feel sovereign since 1990? Article 2 of the constitution defines the nation as follows: "Having common aspirations and united by a bond of allegiance to national independence and integrity of Nepal, the Nepali people irrespective of religion, race, caste or tribe, collectively constitute the nation." Traditionally, the relations between the Nepali state and society were based on state-centred orientations supported by patrimonialism, personalism and state intervention.2 This meant in practice that the central government had been dominated for centuries by a relatively small number of male members of interrelated families. Social mobility of population groups other than the dominating Bahun, Chetri and upper Newar castes were more or less non-existent.

The implementation of the ideals mentioned in the constitution would have meant some kind of breaking down of the traditional structures. But the creators of the constitution had already integrated some obstacles that set limits to such radical changes. Especially quoted must be article 4 (1) of the constitution: "Nepal is a multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, independent, indivisible, sovereign, Hindu and constitutional monarchical kingdom." The former term "monarchical" was changed into "constitutional monarchical". New were the termini "multiethnic", "multilingual" and "democratic", all of them aspects that had been specially emphasized during the democracy movement of spring 1990 and the months of discussions that followed it. A turning away from the Hindu state that had, in a similar way, been vehemently demanded, was rejected by the party politicians and jurists responsible for the formulation of the new constitution.

As a consequence, not only the religion but especially the Hindu social system, Hindu values, Hindu thinking and ways of living as well as Hindu political thinking were legally established by the state. In addition, there were a number of contradictions within the constitution itself, which supported the traditional establishment and hindered social reforms. To be mentioned in this context against the background of the communally defined multiethnic state are the right of equality off all citizens irrespective of religion, race, gender, caste, tribe or ideology (article 11), the right to property (article 16), the right of all communities to preserve and promote their languages, scripts and cultures and to educate their children in their respective mother tongues (article 18), the right to profess and practise the own religion (article 19), but also the non-recognition of political parties or organizations formed on the basis of religion, community, caste, tribe or region (article 112).

Participation in historical perspective

The constitution of 1990 applied the term "participation" to a very broad spectrum of population as it, so far, had been unknown in Nepal. The power structure of Gorkha had been transferred upon the new state when Nepal became militarily and politically unified by the Gorkha rulers between 1742 and 1816. Only very few Bahun and Chetri families had been participating in power at that time. It were the same families which already before had been in the Shah kings' good graces. For about 150 years that followed, power struggles caused occasional shifts of power within this circle only. Especially mentioned must be the Pande and Thapa, and later the Rana families. The latters' struggling for power went as far as ousting all other leading families from their power positions, including the royal Shah family. There was no question of participating other families than the Rana's.

The events of 1950/51 could not be called a true revolution. Indeed, Rana oligarchy was abolished, but the 1950s did not lead to mass participation as it had been suggested by the slogan of "democratization". Rather, democracy as it was practised in Nepal in the 1950s only served to hide the Shah monarchs' efforts to restore their absolute power legitimated by tradition. As it had already been the practice in times of unification, only a small elitist circle became participating in the post-Rana Nepali state. It was made up of the young party politicians and their families that had started the anti-Rana agitation from Indian territory and, thus, had laid the foundations for the system changes of 1950/51. Many of these politicians were members of Bahun families, especially from the eastern Tarai, as well as some better off Newar families from the Kathmandu valley. Others belonged to those families that had once been excluded from power participation by the Ranas. Thus, even from the aspect of participation, the events of 1950/51 led more to some kind of restoration than to revolutionary changes.

But there was a lot of dissension and rivalry even within this new political elite, and the kings, Tribhuvan and Mahendra, played their cards well in using it for their own interests. A broader participation of the people was, for the first time, implemented through the parliamentary elections in 1959. But even this participation was limited to the people's right to vote. The nomination of candidates that got a chance to be elected as "representatives" of the people remained within the close circles of the traditional elites dominating the political parties.

The introduction of the partyless panchayat system brought this cautious democratization to an end. The elite that had dominated the political parties before split into two groups. The old core of party politicians either was in prison or tried to organize the party activities from the underground or from Indian soil. Another group of mainly young party politicians changed over to king Mahendra's camp with all flags. Compared to the traditional party camp, there were more Chetri than Bahun among them. Apart from a few Newar families, the rest of the population was hardly represented in both groups.

Institutionalization and exercise of state power after 1990

Compared to the 1950/51 events, the 1990 movement for democracy and human rights established itself as a mass movement that formally washed the panchayat system away. Greater awareness, based on better education and foreign influences, lead the traditionally disadvantaged groups and the poor masses to pin their hopes on the new constitution. But they rather soon felt disappointed. One of the main symbols of Nepali traditionalism, the linking of state and Hindu religion, remained a fundamental feature of the new constitution. The supporters of the traditional system rejected the demands for secularism and special rights for cultural minorities as marginal aspects for a democratic Nepali state, while critics even went as far as talking about a failure of the democracy movement.3 As everybody knows, the former were successful in the end.

There may have been different reasons: The party political elites responsible for drafting the new constitution either saw their personal advantages best served by keeping up the traditional structures, or the old forces had still been so strong that such kind of compromise became necessary for the fathers of the constitution against their own intention. In any case, the 1990s have proved time and again that even the younger party politicians are deeply rooted in traditional thinking. A special reason for this must be seen in the Nepali education system that, for decades, had got them to believe in a Nepali mono culture. Had the disadvantaged groups found any place at all in Nepali history books? Had the party leaders, who overwhelmingly come from the high Hindu castes, ever had a critical look at the Bahun's conception of Nepali historiography? What, at all, did they know about Nepal's different ethnic groups, their languages and their cultures?

Here, the party politicians found themselves caught in a dilemma. Because of their own traditionally oriented education they just could not understand the concerns and reservations of the disadvantaged groups. And this has been reflected by the programs of the different parties until today. Social inequalities and problems may be recognized to some extent, but most politicians don't try to get to the bottom of the historical and cultural reasons. Even the numerous leftist parties which, according to their political approach, should have greater interest in the disadvantaged sections of society have a hard time with it. They transfer the western communism's critics in class consciousness upon Nepal, where the numerous political, social and economic inequalities are not based on an existing class system but on the hierarchical conceptions of history and society developed by members of some high Hindu castes and embodied in the muluki ain in the middle of the 18th century.

The constitution of 1990 tries to transfer a western democratic system upon Nepal. But the sticking to the principle of Hindu state is regarded a necessity to safeguard the Nepali identity. This means that it is taken as a matter of course that the latter is identified with the conception of historiography and the culture of the high caste state elite. Every kind of critics in this approach is met with total lack of understanding and it is seen as an attack against the traditional and cultural foundations of the Nepali state. This, for example, becomes obvious when MPs wear their respective ethnic costumes or use their ethnic or regional languages in parliament or other government institutions. The use of Nepali language may make sense, at least in parliament, since the MPs need a common language, and there is no other language than Nepali to fulfil this task. But it's hard to understand that the few MPs not belonging to high Hindu castes must deny their traditional costumes. Are not the latter traditional Nepali clothes, too?

In a special way, democracy means participation and equal opportunities for all sections of society. Indeed, very little has changed in the socio-political sector in the 1990s. The constitution has laid the key to such changes into the hands of the political parties. It is their job to implement and strengthen democracy in the country. But, to a great extent, the political parties lack democratic structures themselves. They continue to be dominated by those elite sections of society that have ruled the country for centuries. In part, they may behave in a modern western way, but at the same time, many of them are still deeply rooted in hierachical and traditional thinking, of which the characteristic feature is not equality and participation of all population groups.

One classic example may be the Nepali Congress, the grand old lady among Nepal's parties. The delegates of the party congress only elect the president, vice-president and general secretary of the party. The Central Working Committee, which is so important for the party political line, is later to be nominated by the party president giving the latter an extremely powerful position. On its central level, the Nepali Congress has been dominated by Bahuns since its inception, and this tradition has not only not changed in the 1990s but it has, instead, aggravated.4

The dominance of Bahuns is to be found in almost all the political parties. Within the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) or CPN (UML), it is even stronger than in Nepali Congress, even though there is a little bit more democracy in electing the central organs and top officials of the party. There is a striking lack of grassroots democracy in all the Nepali parties. The local party cadres are in a very strong way subject to the directives of the central party leadership. Especially negative is that the local level is not participating in the selection of representatives for the national level, i.e. the candidates for the parliamentary elections. Within all parties, the latter are nominated by the central party elites. Consequentially, power and influence of the Bahun families dominating the central party organs are preserved while, at the same time, the integration and participation of other population groups, which may play an important role on the local party level, is hindered on the central level.

Please let me illustrate this by an example from the 1999 parliamentary elections.5 Almost 40% of the MPs elected in 1999 are Bahuns (remember, their share in the total population is only 12.6% according to the 1991 census). The rest is dominated by Chetris or some elitist Newar castes. The ethnic groups are clearly underrepresented compared to their over 40% share in the total population. There are almost no Dalits at all in the lower House of Parliament. They had even not been nominated as candidates by the party leaders, even though the number of Dalits in Nepal is almost equal to that of Bahuns.6

The well-known weekly magazine Spotlight wrote as a first assessment of the election results: "Even political leaders are betraying their own classes and championing the cause of other classes. 'Nepal is the only country in the world where leaders of Hindu religion have won from Muslim-dominated constituency. Likewise a Nepali speaking person was also elected from non-Nepali speaking areas,' said a political analyst. It again proves the capability of leadership. They are able to win elections from constituencies of different ethnic and linguistic group."7 This deplorable state of affairs will hardly change as long as the party basis has no say in the selection of candidates.8

Another typical example in this context is the position and participation of women. Three parliamentary elections have taken place after 1990. But none of the parties finally made up its mind to nominate more than the 5% female candidates prescribed by the constitution. The percentage of female MPs is even lower; only 12 women have been elected in 1999, 5 more than in 1994, no voice of representative participation of women.9 So, it hardly wonders that this male body of mainly traditionally oriented MPs has been blocking a bill concerning the equal treatment of men and women for years. There are many male MPs who even openly reject the legal, social and economic equality of women as very recent discussions in Parliament have proved.

Self-perception of minorities (MSI opinion survey)

The aspect of representation and participation from a bottom-up perspective is the special concern of this panel. The groups who call themselves janajati (nationalities) and who have joined together under the umbrella organization of the Janajati Mahasangh have been in the focus of my research for the last decade. In January 2000, the Kathmandu based Media Services International (MSI) conducted an opinion poll survey10 with a sample size of 1068 in 15 districts11 encompassing the mountain, hill and Tarai areas. The interviewees were selected from among the members of 14 janajati groups.12

53% of the janajatis interviewed by MSI did not think that there had been any improvement in their lifestyle despite the introduction of a democratic system in 1990. Of the 36% who felt some improvement has been made, 44% said that improvement was visible in the social sector, 38% mentioned the political sector and 19% the economic sector.

Political sector: Surprisingly, 44% of those polled said that the janajatis had a fair representation in politics, while only 43% denied this. When the latter were asked to mention specific political areas where they saw no fair representation of the janajatis, 33% mentioned parliament, 31% the cabinet, 16% political appointments, 11% the local development committees and 9% the political parties. There are greater differences between the janajati groups. 88% of the Rai, 68% of the Tharu, 64% of the Gurung, 51% of the Thakali and Dhanuwar and 42% of the Limbu thought that their nationalities had a fair representation in politics while groups like Yolmo, Lepcha and Satar totally denied this.

One of the sectors most criticized by the ethnic elites is the representation of the janajatis in the administration. 59% of the respondents were of the view that they did not have a fair representation in the administrative sector.13 When asked if it could be improved in case a certain number of seats would be reserved for members of their community, 79% of them answered 'yes', especially those from rural areas.14 This outlook increased with growing education level.15 There were also greater differences in the attitude of specific ethnic groups. While among the Dhimal (97%), Lepcha (85%), Yolmo and Satar (83%), Thakali (78%), Rai (72%) and Magar (71%), the number of those who thought that there was no fair representation in the administration was very high, only 23% of the Limbu and 27% of the Gurung shared this opinion. With the exception of the Jyapu (26%) and the Yolmo (50%) all other groups overwhelmingly thought that there should be a reservation of seats for the janajatis.

Social sector: 65% of the respondents, with a greater proportion in urban (83%) than in rural areas (61%), said that caste-based discriminations still exist in Nepal, while 29% denied this. The participation in social ceremonies, weddings and funerals (56%),16 decision-making vis-à-vis social and community activities (20%), the domain of justice dispensation (13%) and no appropriate reward despite notable achievements (4%) were mentioned as specific areas of caste-based discrimination. Obviously, there are regional differences. All interrogated lowland communities17 were only to less than 50% of the opinion that caste-based discrimination exists, while the hill groups, with exception of the Lepcha, overwhelmingly answered in the affirmative with the Rai (98%) on top of the agenda. There were also opinion differences based on gender: 69% of the men and 60% of the women interrogated were aware of caste-based discriminations. This may be a consequence of the women's lesser school enrolment, since the awareness grows with the level of education.18 67% of the respondents said that the level of caste-based discrimination has decreased after the democratic reforms in the early 1990s; only 2% saw an increase. There were some groups which in a greater proportion did not see any significant changes after 1990 like Dhimal (42%), Yolmo (38%), Lepcha and Satar (30%), Danuwar (29%), Magar (28%) and Tharu (26%). The greatest confirmation of changes came from Rai (94%), Jyapu (86%), Jhangad (84%), Chepang (77%), Thakali (76%), Gurung (68%) and Limbu (67%).

For the ethnic elites, the rating of the ethnic languages has been of great importance, since language is one of the basic features of culture. The 1990 constitution is indistinct in the treatment of language. On the one hand, Nepal is defined as a multilingual state (article 4), but the 122 living languages of the country,19 on the other hand, are treated differently. Nepali, the mother tongue of about 50% of the population, is called language of the nation (rastra bhasa) and official language (sarkari kamkajko bhasa). The other languages are defined as national languages (Nepalka rastriya bhasa) (article 6), not mentioning what this means for their application. On June 1, 1999, the Supreme Court ultimately decided in a verdict that the use of ethnic languages like Nepal Bhasa and Maithili in offices is unconstitutional and illegal.20 This decision caused great resentment among the ethnic elites. In March 2000, the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh organised a National Conference on Linguistic Rights, in which 75 organizations participated, adopting four resolutions:

  • adoption of a "National Declaration on Linguistic Rights",
  • rejection of the Supreme Court verdict as undemocratic and against the universal norms and values of human rights,
  • immediate realization of a language survey,
  • formation of a Language Co-ordinating and Monitoring Committee under the convenorship of Padma Ratna Tuladhar.

Against this background, it is interesting to compare the corresponding results of the MSI opinion poll. 55% of the respondents thought that the government does not enough to preserve and develop the cultures, customs, languages and costumes of the nationalities; only 28% believed that it does. Again, men (60%) were more aware than women (50%). Besides, awareness is greater in urban areas (72%) than in villages (52%). 41% of the respondents mentioned special programmes to preserve the tradition and culture of the janajatis as most important areas where improvements can be initiated by the government, followed by study and research designed to highlight the cultures, languages and customs of nationalities (34%), and the preservation of traditional costumes and practices of nationalities (20%).

Asked which language they preferred for their children's education, 42% mentioned Nepali, followed by English (29%). Only 28% voted for education in mother tongue. Since all groups involved in the poll traditionally don't speak Nepali as mother tongue, this may raise some doubts in the language politics of the ethnic elites. Nevertheless, there may be several reasons for the preference of Nepali. The most important is the language politics of the Nepali state, which leaves no chance to speakers of national languages. Here again, we find great differences between the several ethnic communities. The highest vote for Nepali as language of education came from the Tharu (65%), followed by Chepang (62%), Danuwar (60%), Gurung (54%), Jhangad (50%) and Magar (47%). Remarkable support of mother tongue came from the Rai (91%) and the Limbu (57%). There was a significant support of English by the Yolmo (50%). Besides, the higher the level of education, the higher was the support of mother tongue or English.

Economic sector: 59% of the respondents knew about instances of nationalities being denied of economic opportunities; only 21% denied this. The awareness was higher among persons with university education. As specific areas of denial of economic opportunities were mentioned the recruitment for employment (43%),21 facilities given to the landless (21%), obtaining loans from the financial institutions (17%), special programmes meant for nationalities (14%) and scholarship opportunities (5%)22 with only little differences between rural and urban areas. But there were great differences between the several ethnic groups. Jhangad (80%), Yolmo (79%), Rai (75%), Jyapu (73%) and Lepcha (70%) are strongly aware of economic discriminations, while a great proportion of Dhimal (65%), Tharu (38%), Chepang and Danuwar (33%) and Magar (31%) denied this. The list of jobs preferred by the janajatis for their family members was topped by civil service (34%), followed by Royal Nepal Army (17%), police service (12%), foreign military service (10%), public organizations (9%) and foreign employment (8%).

The MSI opinion poll and the demands of ethnic elites

In many aspects, the poll results support the demands of the ethnic elites as they have been brought to public in the papers of the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh.23 The poll confirms that a majority of the ethnic basis shares the opinion of the ethnic elites that the janajatis are still disadvantaged in modern democratic Nepal, that they, especially, feel socially discriminated and that they are aware of their economic disadvantages.

On the other hand, it becomes obvious, that there are some differences in the priorities set by the elites respectively the ethnic people in the districts. Among the latter, those with university education come closest to the argumentation of the elites. It seems that the degree of awareness very strongly depends upon the level of education. But education fulfils a double function in modern Nepal. It is not only the vehicle for ethnic awareness but it is also used by the traditional state elites to preserve the status quo of their own political, social and economic positions.

Döhne, who examined the situation at three high schools in Okhaldhunga district, found that the dominance of the traditional state elite left its traces in the founding history of all the three schools and that it is even today present in the daily school routine: "Special groups of population, the Tibeto-Mongolian ethnic groups and, in an even higher degree, the occupational castes thought to be untouchables are still hindered in the Nepali school system in respect to participation and prospects of succeeding. Besides, the chances of the students to integrate knowledge transferred by school into their everyday life tasks and circumstances seem to be in close context to their socio-cultural background."24

The poll respondents from ethnic groups primarily may have seen their current situation when 42% of them preferred Nepali language as medium of education for their children. The ethnic elites go further when they lay so much stress on aspects like language, culture, history and religion. They have become aware that language is the most important pillar of every civilization, culture or nationality. As Kamal Prakash Malla put it: "Language is not only a symbol of identity, of ethnicity or nation but also the essential identifying element of its existence.... If a language is lost, the identity of the concerning ethnic group will be certainly lost, and there are very rare examples of revival of lost languages."25 Thus, the ethnic elites have taken the initiative to fight for their lingual rights as a precondition for the survival of their ethnic identities.

The Nepali state has introduced some minor reforms in the 1990s,26 but they have not been enough to guarantee the survival of ethnic cultures. The ethnic elites want that the ethnic languages are taught at school and that they can be used in government documents, public affairs and everyday life besides the Nepali language. This has become very clear from the national declaration on linguistic rights as it has been signed by the participants of the National Conference on Linguistic Rights, which took place in Kathmandu in March 2000.27 The ethnic elites see the fulfilment of these demands as a condition for participation and equality of their groups in the modern Nepali state.28 They want sustainable improvements for their groups and, so, differ from many poll respondents who seem to be satisfied with better chances for their children within the existing system.

There are similar reasons for the differences between the opinions of ethnic elites and ethnic basis concerning political views. On the one hand have the highly educated ethnic elites broader political ambitions than the rural basis. The former are closer to state level politics and have greater awareness of the discrimination of members of their ethnic groups there. On the other hand have the ethnic elites a broader perspective in mind. They want to improve their groups' situation and chances and they know this will only be possible if they get access and rights on the central political level. That the ethnic basis, too, is aware of discrimination on the political sector becomes obvious in matters which directly affect the local situation, like that of administrative participation. A very high percentage believes that only some kind of reservation politics can help to improve this situation.

Comparisons with India are always a tricky affair and disliked by many Nepalis. But they can, nevertheless, be helpful to assess the chances of ethnic demands for participation in Nepal. Different from Nepal, India has declared herself a secular state and it has introduced a reservation system for backward castes and tribes. But this did not prevent the dominance of upper and dominant castes with regional differences. In Northern India this dominance has been specially strong, because electoral politics were oriented along the Hindu-Muslim cleavage. In Southern India, politics were organized around caste lines, and this led to the empowerment of lower castes who constitute a majority in South India.

In North India, the scheduled castes and tribes had primarily supported the dominating national party, the Indian National Congress. Though its leaders typically came from the upper castes, the party managed to get the support of the scheduled castes and tribes because it established itself as a party with non-communal orientation, and partly also because the traditional patron-client relationship in the villages was still alive.29 This situation in North India has slowly changed in recent years with the decline of the Congress party which was closely interrelated to the occurrence of national and regional parties with caste or ethnic orientation.30

This development in India suggests that the reservation of seats alone will not provide greater chances for participation. The Nepali constitution, on the one hand, has defined the state in a communal way by making it a Hindu state. On the other hand, it has denied the recognition of parties oriented along communal – say ethnic, caste or regional – lines.31 Thus, Nepal's multiparty system is dominated by national parties which find themselves in similar contradictions as the Indian National Congress. In their party programs, they may call for participation and political, social and economic equality, but in practice, they uphold the traditional cleavages based on caste, language, religion and culture.

Ethnic resistance and Maoist movement

The politics of Nepal's national parties has left niches that cannot be filled by parties and organizations oriented along ethnic or regional lines because of the constitutional limitations mentioned above. This situation has helped the CPN (Maoist) to establish itself as a strong political force in the most backward rural areas of the country within a few years. In recent time, the Nepali Congress led government has declared her willingness to enter into talks with the Maoists. But it still claims not to know the Maoist agenda even though everybody knows what the Maoists' demands are since they presented them to the then Deuba led government in late 1995.32 The programs of the leading national parties hardly contain any concrete steps to eliminate the basic roots of backwardness, poverty and discrimination,33 while the Maoists' demands mention quite a number by name, like

  • Nepal should be declared a secular state.
  • Girls should be given equal property rights to those of their brothers.
  • All kinds of exploitation and prejudice based on caste should be ended.
  • In areas having a majority of one ethnic group, that group should have autonomy over that area.
  • The status of dalits as untouchables should be ended and the system of untouchability should be ended once and for all.
  • All languages should be given equal status.
  • Up until middle-high school level arrangements should be made for education to be given in the children's mother tongue.
  • In both the tarai and hilly regions there is prejudice and misunderstanding in backward areas. This should be ended and the backward areas should be assisted.
  • Decentralization in real terms should be applied to local areas which should have local rights, autonomy and control over their own resources.
  • Those who cultivate the land should own it.
  • The land of rich landlords should be confiscated and distributed to the homeless and others who have no land.
  • The homeless should be given suitable accommodation. Until HMG can provide such accommodation they should not be removed from where they are squatting.
  • Poor farmers should be completely freed from debt.34

There are often claims that the ethnic organizations are close to the Maoists, that they are even co-operating with the CPN (Maoist). But the argumentation should be vice-versa: The Maoists have come close to ethnic and dalit demands. As a matter of fact, the organizations of the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh had set up their demands and strategy long before the CPN (Maoist) was formed in February 1995. It has been part of the basic strategy of Maoist politics in Nepal to win the downtrodden sections of Nepali society as infantry for their political ambitions. Along ethnic composition, the leadership of the CPN (Maoist), so far, hardly differs from that of the leading national parties.

So, the CPN (Maoist) still has to prove if it offers more than hope for the disadvantaged sections of society. As long as it's means are terror and brutal force, the people will even be more suffering than before, especially since the government reacts in the same way. It is a matter of fact that the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh is not as united as it may seem. There are some sections within this ethnic movement that are indeed very sympathetic to the Maoist movement. They deviate from the moderate leadership of the Janajati Mahasangh and try to extend their influence whenever they can.35 Thus, the Janajati Mahasangh, too, will have to prove if it can hold on to its non-violent path.

One question will also be: How representative are the ethnic organizations. The opinion poll analysed above may prove that the ethnic basis more or less identifies with the demands and intentions of the ethnic elites. But there are sections of society that don't find representation and participation in janajati politics and demands as well. The most prominent group are the women. Ethnic leaders may argument that, contrary to Hindu society, women have equal rights in ethnic society. But neither are women really equal to men in Nepal's ethnic societies nor do they play any role in the ethnic organizations. The women's share in the ethnic leadership is as poor as that in the leadership of the political parties.

Another position that has to be cleared is the position of the dalits. The latter are excluded from janajati circles according to the janajati self definition.36 But they also don't find a place in the dialogue of the Janajati Mahasangh with the Nepali state. The dalit groups are discriminated by the traditional state elites in the same or partly even in a harder way than the ethnic communities. In interest of its credibility, the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh must make clear that the Nepali state is not only constituted of Hindu castes that dominate the state and have all rights on their side and ethnic groups that are all disadvantaged. There are sections of Hindu society that are strongly discriminated even though they share language and culture of the ruling elite, and there are sections of ethnic societies that already have better representation and participation in modern Nepal as the answers of the MSI opinion poll partly have proved.


Chandra, Kanchan. 2000. The transformation of ethnic politics in India: the decline of Congress and the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Hoshiarpur. The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:26-61.

Communist Party of Nepal (Ekikrit Marxvadi-Leninvadi) (1999). Cunav ghosana-patra 2056 [Election manifesto 2056].

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Corbridge, Stuart. 2000. Competing inequalities: the scheduled tribes and the reservations system in India's Jharkhand. The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:62-85.

Des Chene, Mary (1998). 'Black laws' and the 'limited rights' of the people in post-janandolan Nepal: the campaign against the proposed anti-terrorist act of 2054 v.s. Himalayan Research Bulletin 18,2:41-67.

Döhne, Thomas. 2000. Zwischen Bildungsgewinn und Erfahrungsverlust: Schulerziehung in einem Bergdistrikt Nepals. Frankfurt: Brandes & Apsel.

Election Commission (1999). http://www.cybermatha.net/ec

Gellner, David N., Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton (eds.). 1997. Nationalism and ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The politics of culture in contemporary Nepal. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publ.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2000. The rise of the other backward classes in the Hindi belt. The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:86-108.

Khanal, Krishna and Krishna Hachethu (1999) [2056 v.s.]. Amnirvacan 2056: sansad ra sarkarka cunautiharu. [The general election of 2056: challenges for parliament and government]. Kathmandu: Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies.

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  1. Shaha, Rishikesh. 1982. Essays in the practice of government in Nepal. New Delhi: Manohar, p. 98.

  2. Kumar, Dhruba. 1995. State, Leadership and Politics: A Preliminary Note on Transition. In: Dhruba Kumar (ed.), State, Leadership and Politics in Nepal. Kathmandu: CNAS, p. 4.

  3. Bishwanath Upadhyaya, for example, the chairman of the Constitution Recommendations Commission, explained that 95% of the suggestions brought before the commission had been related to marginal issues like cultural, lingual and religious aspects.

  4. On July 1, 1999, i.e. immediately after the general elections, the Central Working Committee (CWC) of the Nepali Congress comprised 30 persons, 16 of whom being Bahuns besides 5 Chetris, 3 Newars and 6 others. Besides, the position within the list of members is of highest importance. Under this aspect, there was only 1 non-Bahun among the first 10 positions (Sher Bahadur Deuba, no. 8). Similarly, there were only three women among the 30 members of the CWC, all of them coming from Bahun families, two Koiralas and one relative of them (Shailaja Acharya). (All data taken from the web site of the Nepali Congress: http://www.south-asia.com/nepalicongress/)

  5. See Krämer, Karl-Heinz. 2000. Elections in Nepal: 1999 and before. In INSEC (publ.), Human Rights Yearbook 2000, p. 46

  6. Besides, the parties verbally speak a totally different language. For example, the Nepali Congress wrote in its 1999 election manifesto: "The downtrodden and deprived section of society must represent fairly in the process of nation's political decision and their participation is a must in the Parliament and other institutions.... A provision will be made for the fair representation of these people in the different hierarchy of the Nepali Congress." In: The Nepali Congress Manifesto: Highlights, http://www.south-asia.com/Nepalicongress/)

  7. Spotlight, 21 May, 1999. Apart from the fact that there are no Muslim majorities in Nepal, this statement simply withholds the fact that the major parties nominated Bahuns (or Chetris) as candidates even in constituencies with predominantly ethnic population. Thus, the electorate had hardly any other chance but to give their votes to Bahun or Chetri candidates.

  8. It's devastating that the Nepali press often identifies itself with the corresponding political outlook of the high caste party leaders. A reason for this may be in the fact that most of the chief editors of the dailies and weeklies are Bahuns, too, and so find themselves in a similar position as the party politicians. Thus, many papers may prove to be politically independent but not socio-politically.

  9. Of the 2238 candidates taking part in the 1999 elections 138 have been women. In the 60-seat National Assembly the number of female MPs rose from 5 to 9 in 1999, which is also still less than 10 %. Of the 12 female MPs in the Pratinidhi Sabha, 6 are Bahun. Surprisingly, there are two Yadav among the women MPs; Chitra Lekha Yadav even became Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.

  10. Media Services International (comp.). 2000. Opinion survey regarding perceptions and feelings of the Janajatis. (Provisional report). The opinion poll was conducted between January 5 and 15, 2000, with a grant from the London-based Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). My special thanks goes to Ram Pradhan of MSI for his kind cooperation and for providing the evaluation data.

  11. The 15 districts were as follows (number of respondents in brackets): Bhojpur (121), Chitwan (51), Dang (122), Ilam (40), Jhapa (61), Kaski (79), 3 districts of Kathmandu valley (139), Lamjung (140), Makwanpur (52), Palpa (80), Panchthar (78), Sindhupalchok (80) and Sunsari (25).

  12. The 1.068 respondents came from the following groups: Chepang (52), Danuwar (51), Dhimal (31), Gurung (140), Jhangad (25), Jyapu-Newar (140), Lepcha (40), Limbu (78), Magar (80), Rai (121), Satar (30), Thakali (79), Tharu (121), Yolmo (80). 187 of them were from urban areas, 881 from villages. 496 of the respondents were women against 572 men. 699 (65.4%) called themselves Hindus, 325 (30.4%) Buddhists, 15 (1.4%) Christians and 5 (2.2%) others; 24 persons did not respond on this question. Almost half of the respondents (503) were illiterate, only 80 were from the university level. Most of the respondents came from the age groups 21-50 years.

  13. 21% believed that the representation was fair while 20% volunteered no opinion on the matter.

  14. Rural areas 85% of the respondents, urban areas 56%

  15. Illiterate 56%, school level 60%, university level 73%

  16. This aspect was felt stronger in urban (69%) than in rural areas (53%).

  17. Satar 47%, Tharu 39%, Dhimal 35%, Danuwar 27%, Jhangad 8%

  18. Illiterate 57%, school level 69%, university level 89%

  19. Tamang, Parshuram (ed.) 2000. Proceedings of National Conference on Linguistic Rights', 16-17 March 2000, Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Federation of Nationalities, p.1.

  20. On the demand of various language speakers, Kathmandu Metropolitan City had decided on August 25, 1997 to use Nepal Bhasa, and Dhanusha DDC on November 18, 1997 and Rajbiraj Municipality on November 25, 1997 to use Maithili as their official languages in addition to Nepali. These decisions were legally challenged and cases were filed at the Supreme Court. A Single Bench of the Court by an interim order prohibited the use of local or regional languages in March 1998. (ibid.)

  21. This feeling is higher among better educated persons. Probably, illiterate people will find less paid jobs more easily.

  22. Among those with university education, 9% see problems in getting scholarship opportunities.

  23. Their situation analysis demands have been best summarized in the document of the Lapsiphedi conference of 1994: National Ad Hoc Committee for International Decade for the World's Indigenous Peoples, Nepal (publ.). 1994. Nepalka adivasiharubare rastriya paramarsha-gosthi (2050 caitra 10-13 gatesamma: laksiphedi, kathmadaun). Prativedan. [Proceedings of the National Consultation on Indigenous Peoples of Nepal (March 23-26,1994), Lapsiphedi, Kathmandu. Report]. Kathmandu. See also Nepal Janajati Mahasangh (publ.). 1996 [2053 v.s.]. Nepal janajati mahasangh tesro mahadhiveshan (2053 jeth 25-27 gate: lalitpur). [Third General Assembly of the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh (Jeth, 25-27, 2053, Lalitpur)]. Kathmandu: Nepal Janajati Mahasangh.

  24. Döhne, Thomas. 2000. Zwischen Bildungsgewinn und Erfahrungsverlust: Schulerziehung in einem Bergdistrikt Nepals. Frankfurt: Brandes & Apsel, p.279. (translation by the author of this paper)

  25. Tamang, Parshuram (ed.) 2000. Proceedings of National Conference on Linguistic Rights', 16-17 March 2000, Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Federation of Nationalities, p.8.

  26. For example, radio news in quite a number of ethnic languages are monitored today by Radio Nepal and the Royal Nepal Academy has included the research of ethnic languages into its programs in the 1990s. But the state policy is still double-edged using differences among the ethnic groups for its own interests. One example may be the Tamangs whose leaders of the Tamang Ghedung recently decided to use the Tibetan script for writing their language. The government, instead, had been more interested in the use of Devanagari and, thus, took the wishes of a smaller group of Tamangs who supported the use of Devanagari as binding rule. (Information by Stella Tamang)

  27. Tamang, Parshuram (ed.) 2000. Proceedings of National Conference on Linguistic Rights', 16-17 March 2000, Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Federation of Nationalities, pp.18-24.

  28. I still wonder why they don't go a step further and demand education in ethnic languages, cultures and history as a compulsory subject for all Nepali students. This would be the only way to open the minds of those traditional elites who still think of Nepal as a state of one language, one culture and one religion.

  29. Varshney, Ashutosh. 2000. Is India becoming more democratic? The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:8.

  30. For recent situational studies see: Chandra, Kanchan. 2000. The transformation of ethnic politics in India: the decline of Congress and the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Hoshiarpur. The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:26-61. Corbridge, Stuart. 2000. Competing inequalities: the scheduled tribes and the reservations system in India's Jharkhand. The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:62-85. Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2000. The rise of the other backward classes in the Hindi belt. The Journal of Asian Studies 59,1:86-108.

  31. Only a few parties have been recognized by the Election Commission even though they represent regional or ethnic aspects like the Nepal Sadbhavana Party or the Rastriya Jana Mukti Party.

  32. Paradoxically, the government has nominated Sher Bahadur Deuba as negotiator for talks with the Maoists. The latter started their so-called people's war in February 1996 because the then prime minister Deuba was totally deaf to their demands. Thus the government's chief negotiator has to bear great responsibility for the escalation of the conflict during his prime ministership.

  33. The ruling Nepali Congress, for example, hardly touches basic ethnic demands like those concerning ethnic language, culture and religion when it writes: "The party will avow itself to preserve and promote the language, art, culture and religion that reflect the national identity of Nepal and its people. The Royal Academy, which looks after the promotion of literature, arts and culture and its activities, will be made more effective. People dedicating their lives to the promotion and preservation of arts, culture and literature will be honoured with public felicitations. The religious freedom of minorities will be preserved." (see web site of the Nepali Congress: http://www.south-asia.com/nepalicongress/ncmanifesto.htm) This is more an avowal to language and culture of the central elite than a concession to ethnic demands. The official 1999 election manifesto of the party has a more extensive coverage on the theme but it is deaf to ethnic demands, too. (See NC (1999). Nepali kangresko ghosanapatra – amnirvacan, 2056 [Manifesto of the Nepali Congress – general elections 2056], p. 38.)

  34. The People's Review, May 7, 1998.

  35. The recent event when Gore Bahadur Khapangi tried to topple general secretary Parshuram Tamang may prove this. (Information by Stella Tamang)

  36. National Ad Hoc Committee for International Decade for the World's Indigenous Peoples, Nepal (publ.). 1994. Nepalka adivasiharubare rastriya paramarsha-gosthi (2050 caitra 10-13 gatesamma: laksiphedi, kathmadaun). Prativedan. [Proceedings of the National Consultation on Indigenous Peoples of Nepal (March 23-26,1994), Lapsiphedi, Kathmandu. Report]. Kathmandu, p.15.