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

Excerpt from: Ethnizität und nationale Integration: Eine Untersuchung zur Politisierung der ethnischen Gruppen im modernen Nepal, pp. 468-474. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 1996


Similar to other South Asian nations Nepal is facing a growing number of ethnic and social tensions and conflicts. These on the one hand must be interpreted as a result of the multiethnic and multicultural social set-up of the country, but they are on the other hand also the consequence of the historical processes that led to the formation of the modern Nepalese state. Until the arrival of high caste Hindus from the Indian plains in the 14th/15th century the territory of what today is called Nepal had been mainly populated by Tibeto-Mongolian peoples, whose societies were characterized by animist or Buddhist beliefs and practices.

Before the arrival of the high Hindu castes there had been only exceptional cases of nation states' formations in the central Himalayan region, so in the Kathmandu valley, in North-western Nepal, in the area of Palpa and in the eastern part of the country. The penetrating Hindu castes forced the formation of great a number of mini-states based on Hindu law and social order. There was no political participation of the former owners of the territories, i. e. the numerous ethnic groups, who were socially and economically marginalized and robbed of their clan lands.

After the military unification of the country by the Gorkha emperor Prithvinarayan Shah and his successors this development was intensified in the first half of the 19th century to reach political, administrative and legal unity. This process culminated in the legal definition of the political and social order of the state by the first Nepalese legal code, the muluki ain of 1854. It was by this law that its creators, the high Hindu castes of Bahun, Thakuri and Chetri, legalized their status as absolute lords of the country. All political and economic power struggles of the past 150 years have been fought by members of these castes only.

The numerous ethnic groups being non-Hindus were classified as low caste people. They were made labourers, servants, bond agents and slaves, and they were exploited down to the subsistence level. Many persons belonging to these peoples, mainly those from Eastern Nepal, eluded this fate by emigrating to neighbouring Indian territories, especially to Darjeeling and Sikkim, but also to Bhutan and to the north-eastern Indian states.

The only ethnic group that was better treated were the Newars. Their better lot had several reasons. One is their main settlement area, which has traditionally been the Kathmandu valley and its surroundings, i. e. the centre of power in Nepal. Another important reason is the social and cultural set-up of Newar society. The Newars are Nepal’s only ethnic group with a caste system. This may be the result of the long history of almost 2.000 years of Hindu dynasties of Indian origin in the valley. But the statistical figures of Newar participation are misleading. According to the muluki ain the Newar castes had been incorporated into the legalised social order at different levels. Participating in politics, economy and administration are only the high caste Hindu Newars, who constitute about 20 % of Newar society. The remaining Newar castes are sharing the fate of the other ethnic groups and the so-called untouchable Hindu castes of the country.

During the past fifty years Nepal has seen two revolutions and one coup d’état. The revolution of 1950/51 that led to the abrogation of the Rana regime and to the opening of the country to the modern world was supported by the elite of high caste Hindus who were dissatisfied with the situation in the country. Most of these elitist leaders had been educated in India, where they had supported the young political Indian elite during their fight for independence from the British colonial power. With the retreat of the British from the Indian subcontinent the Rana oligarchy had lost one of its most important pillars. Nepal's first revolution was ended by the so-called "Delhi compromise" of January 1951 arranged by the Indian government. It led to three important changes: The authoritarian Rana regime was abrogated, the absolute royal power reduced by Jang Bahadur Rana in 1846 was restored, and western democratic ideas entered into Nepal.

The next ten years were characterized by the intentions of two monarchs, Tribhuvan and Mahendra, to consolidate their regained power and to set limits to the influence of the political parties, whose leadership lay in the hands of high caste Hindus. It was especially King Mahendra, who used the close relations of the Nepalese parties to the Indian ones, mainly those of the popular Nepali Congress, as an argument for the endangering of Nepalese independence. The Hindu king as the unifying bond of the nation and the politics of separation from India became the fundamental bases of Mahendra's new Nepalese nationalism. The political parties on the other hand were unable to withdraw from the influences of secular India, that time and again tried to interfere in Nepal's domestic affairs. This situation was used by Mahendra to strengthen his position. Even the short phase of a democratically elected government in 1959/60 was based on a constitution with only limited power of the representatives of the people and an almost absolute power of the king.

King Mahendra's coup d'état of 15 December 1960 was the final deathblow to western democratic experiments. Instead of a secular democratic state the king bestowed the panchayat system upon the country, a system that was to complete the restoration of absolute royal power and to keep away western and especially Indian influences from the country during the next 30 years. The panchayat constitution of 1962 must be seen in line with the muluki ain of 1854. Under the guise of modern institutions of national law the latter's basis of Hindu law was assumed, revised and perfected; all power lay in the hands of the Hindu monarch.

The panchayat system, that rejected democratic pluralism and suppressed every kind of critic against and deviation from its ideology, was characterized by the propagation of a uniform way of thinking in all spheres of life. Nepal's characteristic wealth in ethnic groups, cultures, languages and religions was denied. It was declared instead, that at least 90 % of the population were Hindus and that almost 60 % would speak Nepali, the language of the ruling elite, as their mother tongue. All kinds of statistics running in contradiction to this declaration were avoided. Buddhism, which traditionally was of great importance for most the ethnic cultures, was made a minority religion of only 7 % of the total population of the country. Animist practices that can be found in almost all ethnic societies remained totally unmentioned. The same can be said about the linguistic statistics. Nepali was declared the mother tongue of everybody who was able to speak this language. Nepali was made the national language, the only acknowledged and promoted language of the country. This led to a steady grow of Nepali speakers in the national censuses. Whoever wanted to have any chance in the Hindu state Nepal had to declare himself a Hindu with Nepali as his mother tongue.

But such a declaration nevertheless did not bring real participation. All power remained in the hands of the small elite of high caste Hindus. The panchayat system claimed to provide equal chances to all people irrespective of race, ethnicity, religion and sex, but it was only a handful of members of the ethnic groups that got some kind of participation on lower levels of the system. The panchayat era brought only a change within the tagadhari groups. The domination elite now came from the Chetri castes instead from the Bahuns, who had been leading during the fifties. But within the outlawed political parties still working in the underground the leaders have remained Bahuns till today.

The downfall of the panchayat system began with student riots in spring 1979. They led to a national referendum in 1980 the result of which was a partly opening of the system. During the eighties the outlawed political parties increasingly used the legal possibilities to undermine the panchayat system. At the same time a widening section of the population showed signs of a growing political consciousness. More and more people were dissatisfied and called for social, cultural and political rights. The growing number of ethnic organizations, which called for protection and promotion of their cultures, indicated this trend.

The culmination of this development was the second Nepalese revolution that took place in spring 1990. While the revolution of 1950/51 had only been the work of the small elite of high caste Hindus, that one of 1990 was based on different forces. Even though the people's movement of 1990 was organized by the political parties dominated by high caste Hindus, it could only be successful within such a short span of time, because it got large scale popular support. So the movement of 1990 was not only a movement of the parties, but also of human rights activists and intellectuals like physicians, lawyers and teachers. Numerous ethnic and non-Hindu religious organizations and groups representing the interests of the so-called untouchable Hindu castes and the women must especially be mentioned, because these organizations represented social groups that had been hardly discriminated by the Hindu state Nepal.

But after the success of the movement these groups were not involved in the formulation of the new constitution. So their special matter of concern, the replacing of the Hindu state by a secular one, was disregarded. The new constitution is the exclusive work of male members of the high Hindu castes, who dominate the political parties, especially the Nepali Congress and the communist parties of the United Left Front of 1990. So the revolution of 1990 again did not bring an essential change towards the participation of the numerous ethnic groups of the country. There had only been an elitist change from the Chetris to the Bahuns, since the latter were still dominating the political parties.

But the situation has also changed for the discriminated sections of the population. Two fundamental rights provided by the new constitution are determinedly used by them to demand greater political, economic, cultural and social rights, i. e. the freedom of opinion and expression and the freedom to form associations. Unlike during panchayat times these rights are guaranteed without any restriction. As a result the number of organizations representing the ethnic groups, the so-called untouchable castes and the Muslims have sharply increased after 1990. Most of these organizations lay great emphasis upon their cultural alignment, while trying to preserve and foster their ethnic cultures. But when they demand an equal treatment of their own culture, language and religion in comparison to the Hindu culture of the ruling elite, the national language Nepali and the state religion of Hinduism, at least then they enter the political level.

It is in this context that the historiography is of special importance. In the well-known version of Nepalese history, as it is taught at schools and interpreted in the books of prominent Nepalese historians, you hardly find any information on the ethnic groups. They simply do not exist; what you read it is only a history of the ruling elite. The western kind of historiography has never been of any meaning for the ethnic groups. As far as the past was important, it had been interpreted by traditional myths and stories. But this kind of historical account is insufficient, when they want to begin a dialogue with the ruling elite and demand equal rights. The ethnic groups must verify, that they are not ahistorical entities as claimed by the state, but that they have their own history, which is older than that one of the ruling elite or at least as old as the latter. This ethnic history must prove the injustice and discrimination against the ethnic groups by the immigrated high Hindu castes since the beginning of the unification process.

So the ethnic groups are mainly engaged with refurbishing their history. This task is complicated by the lack of historical documents. Neither the Nepalese state nor western researchers have so far shown great interest in the exploration of the history of the ethnic groups. So the first interpretations of ethnic history are mainly based on usable facts contained in the ethnic myths, the anthropological reports and the works of the Nepalese historians. The next step is the exchange of the findings of the different ethnic organizations. This scarce historical material can already be an important tool for the argumentation of the ethnic organizations. They can counter the glorifying historical interpretation of the state with their history of conquest, confiscation of ethnic territories, enslavement and legal, economic, political and social incapacitation.

So the history becomes the most important argument for the shaping of political ideas and identity of Nepal's ethnic groups. It proves that the land now in the hands of the central elite of high caste Hindus has been the property of the ethnic groups some centuries ago. It was stolen by force and by discriminating laws and regulations. The state has subverted the ethnic settlement areas by single-minded assignment of ethnic lands to members of the high Hindu castes. The ethnic history also proves the destruction of the indigenous cultures and social orders of the non-Hindu peoples of Nepal. The strange caste system was forcefully imposed on them, and they were only classified in the lower ranks of that system as servants and slaves without any participation in the state and without the right of political and economic participation and education. The ethnic history finally proves that the Nepalese state with its unitarian politics of Sanskritization has pushed ahead the continuous destruction of ethnic cultures, languages and religions. To safeguard the claim of power of the ruling elite, there could only be allowed the Hindu religion and social order within the territory of the Hindu state Nepal.

This non-Hindu interpretation of history is used today by the leaders of the ethnic organizations, when they demand the abandonment of the one-sided promotion of Hinduism and Nepali language and the equal treatment of the ethnic languages, religions and cultures with reference to the directive principles and policies of the state as provided by the new constitution. The equal treatment of ethnic and Hindu interests and values would be a prerogative for an indiscriminating participation of all Nepalese peoples.

The constitutional definition of Nepal as a Hindu state is seen by the ethnic leaders as the main obstacle for an improvement of the situation. There can be no equal participation of the non-Hindu peoples, who constitute 80 % of the total population according to ethnic leaders and 45 % according to the national census of 1991, as long as this self-definition of the state is not changed. Today there are no chances for such amendments of the constitution. The participation of members of the ethnic groups within the political parties may have grown, but still only a few of them have got executive duties.

It is a special problem of the ethnic elites that their respective communities have a very small share in the total population of the country. There are only a few ethnic groups with more than 1 % share in the total population according to the national statistics. But the situation and the matters of concern are the same for all Nepalese ethnic groups. To avoid this minority status some ethnic organizations have joined under umbrella organizations. The most important one is the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh founded in 1990, which today has 22 member organizations. Its leaders speak about their ethnic groups as nationalities (janajati), which demand an appropriate place in a secular multiethnic state of Nepal. They have used the international year of indigenous peoples (1993) to internationalize their matters of concern. The ruling elite on the other hand always calls the ethnic organizations as communal ones. But nevertheless they have scored minor successes at least in linguistic aspects. The news for example is transmitted by Radio Nepal in some ethnic languages and the promotion of ethnic languages has been made a task of the Royal Nepal Academy by law.

But the ruling elite still vehemently rejects every attack against the foundation of its claim to power, i. e. the Hindu state, as the militant discussions about some statements of the then health minister Padma Ratna Tuladhar have proved in April/May 1995. Nevertheless the Nepalese state will be forced to further concessions within the future, if it wants to avoid an escalation of the ethnic conflict. The Nepal Janajati Mahasangh, which regards itself as a cultural umbrella organization and not as a political party, stands for moderate actions by utilization of the constitutional regulations.

Other organizations, which partly call themselves political parties and work on a comprehensive ethnic basis, are more militant. Their arguments are similar to those of the organizations of the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh, but they are carried forward more aggressively. The decisive distinction lies within the aims of the organizations. While the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh is fighting for an integration of the ethnic communities into the Nepalese state with equal rights and opportunities, the militant organizations demand a change of the foundations of the state. They want to replace the constitutional monarchy by a republic with autonomous but not independent provinces. The state refuses to recognize these organizations as political parties with reference to article 113 of the constitution because of their alleged communal orientation. But in the Hindu state Nepal this article of the constitution is only applied to non-Hindu organizations. It is disregarded, that the state itself has a communal orientation.

The demands of the Tarai population of Indian origin, which are carried forward especially by the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, constitute another variant. Even though this organization also only represents a special group of population, i. e. the Hindu population of the Tarai that has immigrated from India quite recently, it nevertheless had no problems to be recognized as a political party. This may admit the conclusion, that the non-recognition of the ethnic organizations as political parties depends upon their non-Hindu orientation. Apart from that the Nepal Sadbhavana Party has similar demands as the ethnic political parties like that one of an autonomous Tarai region.

The special Problem of the Tarai is its proximity and ethnic closeness to India. Anti-Indian sentiments have been an essential part of Nepalese nationalism since Rana times and this tendency has been intensified after Mahendra's accession to the throne in 1955. This attitude is further stirred up by the insensitive behaviour of India, that often made no attempt to hide the reality of Nepal's dependency. The ones to suffer are not only the Indians living in Nepal but also the Nepali living in India, even though freedom of movement has been guaranteed by the treaty of peace and friendship of 1950 to citizens of both states. Even though this population often lives in the respective neighbouring country for generations, there are always problems in regard to citizenship and language. It had been the Ranas who called in Indian population for settlement in the Nepalese Tarai. The Ranas' aim was to exploit the economic potentials of the then malaria affected Tarai areas covered with jungles. Today Nepal would like to get rid of those Indian settlers because of the growing population pressure in the Pahar area. Further immigration of Indian population cannot be prevented because of the open border. So the Nepalese state vehemently rejects the integration of the Tarai population of Indian origin, since this would intensify the Indian undermining of Nepal.

The Nepali living in India, especially in its north-eastern states, are in a similar situation. The majority of the population of Sikkim and the Darjeeling district is of Nepalese origin. Their ancestors had been called in for settlement in till then Tibetan-Buddhist areas by the British since the middle of the 19th century because of political and economic reasons. Most of the new settlers belonged to ethnic groups. Their emigration was a reaction to hardships caused by the expansion and Hinduization of the Nepalese state. Irrespective of their ethnic diversity the Nepalese settlers in India have developed a common feeling of identity around their lingua franca Nepali. While Nepali has been recognized as a national language of India in 1993, the demand of the people of Indian origin living in the Nepalese Tarai to recognize their lingua franca Hindi as one of the languages of the nation has so far been rejected by the Nepalese state.

The question of the integration of the Tarai population and of the Nepali living in North-eastern India as well as in Bhutan has to be resolved in the near future. Solutions are not possible without a revision of the bilateral treaties, especially of the treaty of peace and friendship between India and Nepal. The involved countries must integrate the people now living on their territories into their respective countries and prevent further illegal immigration. This is the only way to get rid of the bogey of the Indian undermining of Nepal, the Nepalese undermining of Bhutan or the movement for a "Greater Nepal" as evoked by some irresponsible politicians and journalists from Nepal, India and Bhutan.

Nepal must make the diversity of her ethnic groups, religions and cultures an essential feature of her nationalism. The unity of the nation can only be preserved, if the uniforming politics of the Hindu state are brought to an end, and if the constitutional declaration in the multiethnicity of the country is implemented by politics of integration and equal treatment of all groups of the Nepalese society.

Copyright © 1996, Karl-Heinz Kraemer