Not If but How

Prof. David Gellner


Nepali Anthropologists have long been interested in relations between Nepal’s different castes and ethnic groups, but it is only recently, with the publication of the recommendations of the Constituent Assembly’s Committee for State Restructuring Committee and the Division of State Power, that these relations have risen to the top of the political agenda. In response, the Central Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Tribhuvan University organised a stimulating four-day conference that was extremely well attended by activists, intellectuals and representatives of civil society. Ten foreign scholars (eight of them anthropologists) and 14 Nepalis (seven anthropologists) were invited to discuss whether, and if so to what extent, ethnicity should be a fundamental principle of the new federal constitution.

The hope seems to have been that contemporary anthropological theory could be mobilised to show that ethnic identities are fluid, manipulable, and contested. (For example, the identity ‘Tamang’ emerged only in the early 20th century and the identity ‘Chhantyel’ crystallised only after 1990. Others are emerging even now. Manangis decided to be Gurungs and many have changed their surname in order to facilitate recruitment into the British Gurkhas. The list goes on.) On this view, the assumption of rigid and unchanging identities is a leftover of discredited 19th-century ways of understanding peoples and cultures, unwisely revived by contemporary ethnic activists. Therefore, building a constitution on the basis of ethnicity is theoretically naive, empirically false, and politically dangerous (though one might ask: If ethnic identities are really so fluid, how come institutionalising them is so dangerous?).

At the other end of the spectrum, the hope of other Nepali anthropologists—those arguing the case for indigenous rights—seems to have been that foreign anthropologists of Nepal would openly back the underdog. In this line of thinking, to do anything else would be a shameful continuation of anthropology’s complicity with colonial regimes of the period before 1960.

Nepali anthropologists are split—rather like politicians—along ethnic lines. There is no prominent anthropologist from a Janajati background arguing against ethnic federalism; there is no prominent Bahun or Chhetri arguing for it. It remains impressive, and I take it as a sign of hope, that despite this split, Nepali academics address each other with respect and listen to each other’s arguments.

It was obvious even in the 1980s that there were barely suppressed ethnic resentments. These came out in the open with the great efflorescence of ethnic organisations and events after 1990. Further evidence came with the increasing strength and reach of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN).

Moreover, the argument has moved on: it is no longer about ethnicity but about indigeneity. With the endorsement of indigeneity by the UN in 1993, and the acceptance by the Janajati movement’s leaders that in the Nepali context “indigenous” and “Janajati” mean the same thing, the Janajati movement has moved ahead by leaps and bounds. Nepal signed up to International Labour Organisation Convention 169 in 2007: it guarantees indigenous peoples equal treatment, the right to be consulted, and government support for the development of indigenous languages and cultures. Nepal also voted for the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights in 2007. The National Foundation for Indigenous Nationalities was set up under the Ministry of Local Affairs in 2003 and has been working on indigenous issues ever since.

The central issue therefore is not whether to give ethnicity a role, but how to do so. Ethnic identities cannot be put back in a Panchayat-era box marked “harmless folklore”. Expectations have been raised far too high, particularly in the eastern part of the country—but not just there—for that to be possible.

The key questions are: “Who is indigenous?” and “Should there be preferential rights (agradhikar)?” In settler countries like the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, there is a clear distinction to be made between those who came much earlier and the later settlers who took their land away and reduced them to a marginalised minority. In Nepal, it is much less clear cut. The Sherpas are officially recognised as indigenous, but they only moved into Solu and Khumbu around 4-500 years ago. Understandably, Bahuns, Chhetris, and Dalits (who suffer more disadvantage than anyone) want to know why they, who have been in Nepal a good deal longer, are not equally considered indigenous. The recent High-Level Task Force led by Professor Om Gurung discovered 28 new Janajati groups to be added to the current official list of 59. The report has not yet been published, but when it is, we can be confident that Bahuns, Chhetris and Dalits will not be included.

The second key question—providing one can get agreement on who is indigenous—is whether the recognised group should have preferential rights, and if so, which ones. Giving the name Tamuwan to the federal province where Gurungs are the largest group is one thing. Institutionalising preferential rights for them over other groups is quite another. It would surely be detrimental to communal harmony at the village level if only Gurungs were allowed access to forest products, for example. In this context, one should bear in mind that ILO 169 states in Article 34 that “the Convention shall be interpreted in a flexible manner, having regard to the conditions characteristic of each country”. The CA Committee of Fundamental Rights seems to have taken this on board when it proposes that primary access to natural resources will be vested both in Janajatis and in the local community.

Some ethnic activists would like the ‘home’ group to have a permanent in-built 51 percent majority within ‘their’ federal state. This would surely create enormous resentment on the part of other groups and would effectively implement two kinds of citizen within the said territory.

In the end, since the aim was to offer practical solutions to Nepal’s hard-pressed and much-criticised politicians, the conference organisers might have done an even better job if they had brought anthropologists together with political scientists specialising in the design of constitutions in culturally divided societies. They could also have thrown into the mix Nepali political scientists, such as Krishna Khanal and Krishna Hachhethu, who have been working on the issue of ethnicity and the constitution for some years now. The anthropologists’ expertise in the subtleties of cultural developments over the last 50 years of Nepal’s history would then have been brought to bear on the actual plans of the political scientists. Kathmandu has no shortage of workshops and conferences; perhaps that should be the next one.

Gellner is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford; he has been carrying out research in Nepal since 1982

Comments by Dr. Kamal P. Malla*

* Dr. Malla is Professor of English,(Emeritus), Tribhuvan University, Nepal.