Changing face of Indigenous Peoples of Nepal

Binod Kumar Pathak

August 9, 2019

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Changing face of Indigenous Peoples of Nepal
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KATHMANDU: International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is commemorated on 9 August each year. Today is 9 August – the day to take stock of problems and challenges faced by indigenous peoples all around the world living in different countries under the threat of losing their language, culture, and source of livelihood.

This year’s observance is dedicated to Indigenous Peoples’ Languages because language is the very base for indigenous culture to thrive and remain alive with vivacity. Nepal is in South Asia and the entire region of South Asia is enriched by the presence of indigenous peoples which bring colors to the life of the multitudes inhabiting the region.

Indigenous peoples are known by different terms across the world such as First Peoples, Indigenous Nationalities, Aboriginal Peoples and Native People.

At present, Nepal’s population is estimated to be 29 million out of which nearly 36% of them are indigenous peoples. By any account in terms of crude numbers, indigenous peoples are not less than 12 million distributed across all the three topographical regions of Nepal — Himal (mountains), Pahad (hills and valley) and Tarai (plains).

Indigenous peoples are known by different terms across the world such as First Peoples, Indigenous Nationalities, Aboriginal Peoples and Native People. They are ethnic groups who are original settlers of a region, unlike those who have occupied, settled or colonized a region. In Nepal, indigenous peoples are called Adivasi Janjati.

The National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act-2002 defines indigenous peoples by giving out the essential characteristics. The NFDIN Act-2002 defines indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajati) as distinct communities having their own mother tongues, traditional cultures, written and unwritten histories, traditional homeland, and geographical areas, along with egalitarian social structures with strong community life.

Indigenous peoples in the context of Nepal are those communities which:

  1. Have their own distinct tradition and original lingual and cultural traditions with primitive religious faith observed in form of worship of ancestors, land, season, nature, etc.
  2. Have clear track of descendants whose ancestors were the first settlers or principal inhabitants in the present territory of Nepal before people of a different culture or ethnic origin began to arrive and influenced them.
  3. Have got displaced from their own land in last 4 centuries particularly during the expansion and establishment of modern nation-State and hence got deprived of their traditional rights over the natural resources –Kipat (communal land), cultivable land, water, minerals, trade, etc.
  4. Have been kept outside to disable them from deciding about their culture, language, religion, and social values as a result of which they feel neglected and humiliated.
  5. Have no hierarchy in their society as high and low be it caste, gender or wealth.

Nepal has as many as 126 castes and ethnic groups who speak as many as 123 languages. And 90 percent of these languages are spoken by none other than Indigenous Peoples. The Government of Nepal has recognized 59 ethnic groups (indigenous communities) in its official gazette (Rajpatra) under the criteria mentioned in NFDIN Act-2002.

A high-level task force in 2010 recommended an additional 22 ethnic and caste groups to be recognized as Indigenous Nationalities under the purview of the NFDIN Act. The government slept over the recommendation made by the task force and formed yet another task force for the same purpose. Indigenous communities are looking at the Government’s decisions with suspicion.

In the changed political system with the right to vote given to all adults on or above the age of 18 years, demands of the indigenous peoples cannot be ignored anymore.

Here are the list of some Indigenous Nationalities (or peoples) living in different topographical (or ecological) regions of Nepal:

Himal (mountains): Bhutia, Byansi, Dolpo, Larke, Lhopa, Maphali Thakali, Mugali, Siyar, Topkegola, Sherpa, Wallung, Lhomi, Thudam, Tangbe, Bara Gaunle, Chhairotan, etc.

Pahad (hills): Bankaria, Hayu, Newar, Baramo, Pahari, Bhujel/Gharti, Jirel, Rai, Chepang, Sunuwar, Chhantyal, Kusunda, Surel, Dura, Lepcha, Tamang, Limbu, Thami, Gurung, Magar, etc.

Bhitri Tarai (Inner Tarai): Bote, Kumal, Raute, Danuwar, Majhi, Darai and Raji.

Tarai: Dhanuk, Meche, Dhimal, Rajbanshi (Koch), Gangai, Satar, Jhangad, Tajpuria, Kisan Santhal and Tharu.

Indigenous people listed above follow different life patterns in Nepal. Some of them like Rautes are nomads who never stay at a place for a long period of time while others are forest dwellers like Chepang and Bankariya. Most of the indigenous peoples (ethnic communities) survive on agricultural activities.

Very few indigenous peoples are modern and wealthy. In the changed political system with the right to vote given to all adults on or above the age of 18 years, demands of the indigenous peoples cannot be ignored anymore. Their numerical strength can be taken note of from the fact that indigenous peoples are in majority in at least 27 of the total 77 districts of Nepal.

However, most of the indigenous people live in remote and rural areas waiting for full participation in political, social and economic activities of the country without which Nepal will not achieve the goals of peace, progress and prosperity as Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli often speaks about at public platforms.

In the era of political equality of ‘one person one vote’, indigenous peoples of Nepal have come together under one group called Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) to demand social justice and more slices of political powers in their hands.

Indigenous peoples of Nepal have been demanding an amendment to the new constitution of Nepal which was adopted on September 20, 2015.

It was recently evident when Government of Nepal on June 26, 2019, due to over a month-long continuous and massive protest by ethnic communities particularly Newar in Kathmandu valley, was forced to withdraw the Guthi Bill. This Bill, if allowed to become Act, would have permitted the regulation of customary land trusts.

According to Guthi Sansthan, there are over 2,400 public and private Guthis, largely managed by the Newar community. Guthis undertake religious and social ceremonies on the basis of funds generated from an estimated 1.45 million hectares of land under the ownership of Guthi. Guthi is history, and a fundamental medium for preserving the art, literature, religion of various Indigenous communities in Nepal.

Indigenous peoples of Nepal have been demanding an amendment to the new constitution of Nepal which was adopted on September 20, 2015. They are not satisfied with the set rights given to them.  Indigenous peoples along with Madhesis, Muslims, Dalits, women and other minority groups want the same rights which were given in the interim constitution, 2007.

They want all the past agreements between them and the government to be followed together with the international legal instruments that Nepal has been a party to such as the ILO Convention169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), among others.

Let us hope the Government of Nepal listens to their demands today on August 9 when the whole world is commemorating the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in recognition of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in 1982.

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