This post is part of an op-ed submissions for the question we asked, “Who is a Madhesi? Everyone who lives in Tarai or only certain castes.”
In Nepal, there are currently many theories about who is a Madhesi.
Theory 1: Madhesis are all those who live in Tarai, including the hill origin people who migrated there. In other words, Madhesi is a geographical term.
Theory 2: Madhesis are indigenous people of Tarai and excludes hill migrants since the latter are not indigenous. In other words, Madhesi is a somewhat ethno-linguistic term.
Between these two theories, there is still debate about whether Muslims, Janajatis, and Dalits who are indigenous to Tarai are Madhesis or not. The newly promulgated 2015 constitution grants several rights and reserved quotas for Madhesis but fails to define who a Madhesi is. Interestingly, it does define Khas Aryas however.
Arya means Chhetri, Brahmin, Thakuri and Sannyasi (Dasnami) community.
In 1975, Frederick Gaige wrote the book, “Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal” which has been cited 210 times, according to Google Scholar. Although Gaige was an American entomologist and herpetologist, this book is considered an important scholarly document by many intellectuals for understanding different regions and its people in Nepal.
Gaige uses the term plains people to refer to those who live in Tarai. In Nepali, we often call them “Taraibasi” or “Madhesi” interchangeably. According to Gaige,
Plains people is based on linguistic definitions. Plains people are those who speak plains languages as their mother tongues or first languages, whether they were born or live in the plains or the hills.
If plains people are those who speak plains languages as their mother tongues, well what are plains languages as defined by Gaige?
Plains languages are the languages spoken by people who live on the Gangetic plain, either on the Indian or Nepalese side of the border. The major languages are Hindi, Urdu, Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Bengali; languages spoken by fewer people include Jhangar, Marwari, Raji, and various dialects of these languages such as Awadhi and the Morang Pradesh dialects.
What is a mother tongue, as defined by Gaige?
Mother tongue is the “first language” an individual learns to speak, and the language he uses within his family circle. In the study, the terms mother tongue (used by the Nepalese census) and the first language are used interchangeably.
Are Janajatis and Tharus also plains people, according to Gaige?
Plains tribes are groups living chiefly on the plains, who do not fit into the Hindu caste system. A number of these groups are to be found in the Tarai. The Tharus are by far the most numerous.
To summarize, plains people are those who speak plains languages as their mother tongues or first languages. In other words, Janajatis, Dalits, Muslims, Hindu caste groups or anyone for that matter who lives in Tarai and speaks plains language as her mother tongue are plains people. Similarly, if the children of hill-origin people who migrated to Tarai speak plains languages as the mother tongue then they are also plains people. Moreover, if hill migrants settle in Tarai but do not speak one of the plains languages as their mother tongue then, they are not plains people, as defined by Gaige.
According to Gaige, plains people are a group of people who live in a common geographical area and speak a set of plains languages. But what is plains people? No one uses this English term in Nepal these days. Its literal translation is “Taraibasi”. So, Gaige defines Taraibasis but does not define Madhesis. It remains to be seen how the 2015 constitution of Nepal will determine who is a Madhesi and who is not, to confer reserved quotas guaranteed in the constitution.
Gaige, Frederick H. “Regionalism and national unity in Nepal.” (1975). [Scanned Glossary from Gaige’s Book]
[Ram Manohar Sah and Puru Shah collaborated on this post.]