Ethnicity and inclusion is a prime talk in the current context of crisis after the promulgation of historic constitution in Nepal, not well received by the minority and the marginalized sections of Nepal. The country is in a deep crisis dragged down by four months long civilian protests in the southern part that has crippled life hugely in the affected areas as well as in the capital. All this could not happen at any worse time in a country hit by the devastating April Earthquake earlier this year that saw unprecedented loss of life. The dissenting sections claims that the charter and the mainstream parties have further marginalized their population by regressing from the inclusive clauses of the interim constitution, mainly provisions relating to citizenship, proportionate representation in all organs of state, constituency delineation and federal demarcation.
Bit of History – Diversity in Nepal
Nepal is a cultural mosaic of people with many distinct races and languages. History can give valuable appreciation of the distinct identities or smaller nations that are assimilated within Nepal.
The land south of Himalayas were primarily inhabited by people who migrated north from Indian Subcontinent with exception of indigenous population. Notable civilizations and dynasties that ruled Nepal in an order are Gupta, Kirati, Somvanshi, Suryavanshi, Thakuri or Rajput – Licchavis, Karnataki, Ayodha in Simraugarh, Mallas in Kathmandu Valley and the most recent one as Gorkhali Dynasty. Different civilizations have left a great deal of diversity in Nepal. National Census of Nepal 2011 categorizes people living in Nepal among 126 caste/ethnic groups with 123 major languages spoken in the country.
Richard Burghart mentioned about the historic states of Nepal in the paper, “The formation of the concept of nation-state in Nepal”. In his language, ‘khas des’ stretched from Kumaon in the west to Nuwakot in the east, a place inhabited by the autochthonous Kshatriyas of the Himalayas (Hitchcock 1978), later associated with the epicenter of Nepali identity. ‘Bhot des’ was North of the Khas country, a territory that was occupied by Tibeto-Burmane peoples such as the Sherpa and Thakali. ‘Nepal des’ lied to the east of the Khas des, lived by the Newari-speaking people. ‘Kirant des’, who also called themselves Khwombo and Limbu, inhabited the far east (Hodgson 1874). They were called Kirant by the Sanskrit and Khas language speakers. Mithila des and Oudh des stretched in south of Khas along the Gangetic plains. Later, the regions had been administered by the kings of Makwanpur, Vijaypur and the League of Twenty-Four Kingdoms (Burghart 1984). Prithivi Narayan Shah, a Kshatriya, was a Thakuri – Rajput of western India. He is credited for the unification of distinct countries and land that were annexed to Nepal by taking gradual control of League of twenty-four powerful Kingdoms through his stratagem. Mahendra later succeeded a period after Rana regime where he laid out the concept of a one identity Nation-State in Nepal through 1962 constitution. The key episodes over the course of Nepal’s history that conform to this concept were the interpretation of country in terms of species castes or commonly called as ‘Jat’ (1860), the designation of Nepali as the official language of Nepal (1930), the implicit differentiation of the kingship from the state (1960) and the formation of a culturally unique polity (1960) – (Burghart)
Mahendra set a benchmark for cultural unity through one identity – Khas identity, also interchangeably called as Parbatiye, Gorkhali, Gurkhali and Nepali by the external subjects such as annexed territories of Nepal and East India Company. The concept was reprehended by distinct identities living in Nepal such as indigenous populations of Limbu, Magar, Newar and the southern population in the plains commonly known as Madhesi. Over the course of the period, the Nepal identity preceded over other identities through calculated measures of governance legitimized by Muluki Ain 1854, Nepal Constitution 1959 – use of Nepali as the only language and prohibiting any other language education in school even optionally. Mahendra’s policy has impeded the assimilation of non Khas identities to the mainstream. Consequently, they are limited to prosper with further marginalization from National politics and institutions. This claim is backed by the larger percentage of Khas origin cluster in all sectors and machineries of Nepal Government including national politics.
Constitution 2072 and political discourse
The current discourse and crisis in Nepal is an evolution of desire for assimilation, equality and inclusion as the first and the foremost need for the nation building.
The new constitution has arguably failed on delivering the promises made to the marginalized Madhesi and Indigenous populations in securing identity based federal states with autonomy and allegiance to the greater Nepal. The eight years of long discourse on how the federal structure of Nepal will be shaped was shattered by the 16 point agreement between the three big parties who expedited the constitution to produce demarcation of federal provinces in haste undermining recommendations from the State Reconstruction Committee of Constituent Assembly. Adding on to the resentment of the dissenting groups, the six state declaration was amended to 7 state declaration within a week of protest in western Nepal with Khas Majority while a greater protest in Tarai for demarcation of state boundaries has been ignored till this day. The marginalized Madhesi protest is ongoing for more than four months resulting in death of more than fifty people including civilians and security forces. Morcha led protests is demanding swift amendment or re-writing of the constitution to address their key demands of change to the state demarcation, proportionate representation and inclusion, issues of citizenship and delineation of constituency based on population.
Continuity to Mahendra’s policy has also instigated division in the context of religion and nationality. Religions precedence opposed ethnicities different from the core Hindu practices and the National precedence limited in its definition opposed all Madhesi ethnicities in the south claiming their association and ties with India. It sounds hypocritical for the exclusion of Madhesi as people culturally and socially linked with India because Khas identity itself could be traced back to India from the times the Hindu Khas clan moved northward to evade the muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent and spread south of the Himalayas. Madhesis are the conglomeration of various ethnicities. Many find its origin from the historical times in Mithila and Avadh, with some tracking back from the northward migration from India in the region for business and opportunities. To this date, Madhesis in the plains have social matrimonial relations with the people of India because of the open border policy and similar geography. This relationship is broadly termed as Roti-Beti relationship. Over the course of history, Nepal kingdom, dominated by Khas identity, has detached itself from the people in south for their cultural association with India. Madhesi diaspora alleges this very notion to be still present in modern society of Nepal. With a population of over 35 %, they are still a marginalized group with a deep identity crisis surrounding them. They demand for the greater representation in all organs of the Nation, including literature, culture and politics. The present impasse is the result of protest against the New constitution which regressed from the previous achievement registered in the Interim Constitution that provided greater representation and inclusion.
An inclusive Nepal that accommodates aspiration of people of all ethnicities is a good starting point for a country who should be rather in a long catch up mode with its neighbour – China, India and the world. A starting point again would be the interim constitution of 2006 that was well received by the marginalized sections such as Indigenous and Madhesi population and by the international communities. Although the process of capturing true spirit of inclusion into action is challenging, building upon a solid foundation for inclusion guaranteed by constitutional law to incorporate and encourage the non participating population into the mainstream would be welcomed in this hour of crisis.
Historical Content References:
Burghart, Richard. “The Formation of the Concept of Nation-state in Nepal”. The Journal of Asian Studies 44.1 (1984): 101–125. Web…
Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal – December, 1975 by Frederick H. Gaige