Indigenous people worry hard-won gains may be lostAchievements made since 1990 are at risk as secularism and federalism are yet to be institutionalised and recent court ruling is another challenge, activists say.
Eutai raja, eutai desh, eutai bhasa, eutai bhes. Or, ‘One country, one king, one language, one culture’ was the mantra with which the Panchayat regime ruled for 30 years until 1990.
It was the democratic constitution of 1990 that first recognised Nepal as a multiethnic and multilingual country.
The achievements of indigenous communities in the last 30 years for their rights have been notable as the census, since 1991, started listing the different languages spoken by the different communities in the country and their populations, reservations have been instituted in bureaucracy, political representation has been guaranteed, a federal dispensation, although flawed from their point of view, is in place and a Hindu kingdom has become a secular republic.
“The indigenous movement started before the 1990 constitution was promulgated,” said Suresh Ale Magar, the founding general secretary of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities. “Thousands of indigenous people had taken to the streets demanding language rights and secularism in the new constitution but their demands were ignored.”
The 2015 constitution made Nepal a secular federal republic, the rights of indigenous communities were recognised and the charter continued the guarantees of reservations for minority groups, first instituted in the interim constitution of 2007.
But in the brouhaha of a federal republican set-up, activists worry that indigenous rights are being ignored.
“State’s psychology now is to gradually snatch whatever limited rights were given to marginalised groups,” said Malla K Sundar, an indigenous nationalities leader. “This is the result of the political parties’ utter dishonesty towards them.”
The need for indigenous communities of the world to continue the fight for their rights is apparent in the slogan for this year’s International Day for Indigenous Peoples, celebrated every year on August 9: ‘Leaving No One Behind: Indigenous People and the Call for a New Social Contract’.
In Nepal, Janajatis, as the indigenous people are called, have taken the federalism, secularism and republican set-up as their achievements despite the form of the country’s federalism not being what they had demanded.
“Actually secularism was not a demand of the political parties but that was the result of our indigenous nationalities movements,” said Govinda Chhantyal, vice-chairman of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.
But their other demands were ignored like that of ethnicity-based federalism.
“Rivers and hills had not demanded federalism. What is the difference of this federalism compared to the previous centralised unitary system with different zones?” said Suresh Ale Magar, founding general secretary of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.
Like the Madhesi community, indigenous nationalities were also not satisfied with the 2015 constitution.
Indigenous people had wanted a federalism with as many as 14 provinces named after different ethnic groups like Newa, Tamsaling, Tamuwan, Limbuwan, Magarat and Tharuwan and with autonomy to take all their decisions. The 2015 constitution gave the provincial assemblies to decide on the names of the seven provinces and their capitals.
When they named the different provinces after the 2017 elections, none of the seven provinces was named after any ethnic group. Instead, the names of the 14 zones named during the Panchayat days—Bagmati, Gandaki, Lumbini and Karnali—were used. Sudurpaschim, the fifth province to be named so far, is after a development region of the 1980s.
When the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched a ‘people’s war’ in 1996, it had incorporated the demands of indigenous people for ethnicity-based federalism with autonomy and the right to self-determination.
The interim constitution of 2007 included many of the issues regarding the rights of the indigenous people. The first Constituent Assembly between 2008 and 2013 too had agreed on ethnicity-based federalism with either 14 provinces or 10+1 provinces.
But the second Constituent Assembly formed in 2013 endorsed only seven provinces.
Despite the deal amongst the major political parties to address the rights of indigenous communities, which make up 36 percent of the population, they have been gradually trying to revert to the status quo.
“The group which was enjoying all the resources has now started to feel that the marginalised groups were given more than they needed,” said Bhaskar Gautam, a researcher and civil society activist.
One example of this is although the constitution guarantees 45 percent reservation in government jobs and government scholarships for the people from different cluster groups based on caste and ethnicity, when the Public Service Commission advertised 9,061 government positions two years ago, only 2,262 were allocated for the minority groups rather than 4,022, equivalent to 45 percent.
Another example is the call Nepali Congress General Secretary Shashank Koirala has been making for referendums on secularism, federalism and republicanism at different times.
After KP Sharma Oli became prime minister following the 2017 general elections, he time and again suppressed the aspirations of minority ethnic groups, made efforts to derail the federal system refusing to empower the local level and provinces, and overtly promoted Hinduism to appease those following the faith.
Janajati leaders fear that the hard-won achievements may be lost.
“Time has come to fight for safeguarding our achievements instead of fighting for more rights,” said Om Gurung, former general secretary of Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.
“Our movement was in peril but now it is getting more and more complicated with a continuous threat to federalism, secularism and proportional representation which are the major achievements till date.”
As per the constitution, under the proportional representation system in the federal parliament and provincial assemblies, minority groups including janajatis must be represented.
One reason that the movement of the indigenous peoples has not been able to move forward is that notable leaders from indigenous nationalities are affiliated to different political parties and therefore their issues have been co-opted, Janajati leaders say.
“Indigenous nationalities are limited to protesting against the government’s move to cut public holidays during their festivals now instead of the real issues of representation,” said Bal Krishna Mabuhang, former general secretary of Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.
As a result, the indigenous nationalities movement has failed to gain momentum of the past.
The fragmentation of the movement is also blamed for this loss of momentum.
Political analyst CK Lal, a columnist for the Post on contemporary issues, said there is a need for unified movements of all the marginalized and disadvantaged groups but that is difficult as the rulers employ the divide and rule policy.
“It's a failure of Janajati leadership despite having so many scholars,” said Lal. “They only theorise the problem but that alone won’t bring change in the ground. We are gradually losing the achievements made.”
The onus of safeguarding their rights and facing new challenges in the way forward falls on the leadership of indigenous groups, according to researcher Gautam.
“Newer challenges have emerged to the indigenous communities and therefore there should be a review of previous movements and go for newer forms of movement,” Gautam said.
The kind of challenges ahead was apparent with last week’s Supreme Court ruling on reservations for marginalised groups including indigenous nationalities.
The verdict of a division bench of Justices Bishowambhar Prasad Shrestha and Ananda Mohan Bhattarai says as some well-to-do groups in the target communities have been taking advantage of the reservation provision this needs to be revisited.
“As our constitution has broadened the scope saying who all should get reservations, including the Khas-Arya people if they come from a poor class, we also need to make the reservation provision equitable and focused towards its goal,” reads the verdict.
It further said class and caste shouldn’t be taken as criteria for reservation.
Not a single political party spoke against the Supreme Court’s verdict which was against the international philosophy of inclusion and in favour of marginalised communities, said Malla.
“Political parties’ silence is an indication of a nation heading towards regression and this is very dangerous,” said Malla. “It’s now a challenge to the indigenous people to preserve whatever rights they have got.”
According to Lal it is also telling that nobody—indigenous people, Madhesi, Dalits or Muslim— took to the streets to protest the court’s decision to snatch their reservation rights.
“The state has been taking away the rights of the marginalized people in instalments one after another so that those who suffer fall into confusion,” Lal said.
The need for a new approach to safeguard the rights of indigenous groups is not lost on Janajati leaders.
“Time has come to revisit our past movements and prepare for the movement to cater the new challenges as well,” said Chhantyal, vice-chairman of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.