Ills of the Guthi BillThe biggest blunder is disqualifying indigenous people from their rightful ownership of community structures.
On the world heritage map, Nepal’s holding one of the top ranks is hugely owed to the ancient settlement of the Kathmandu Valley. Here, a classical culture flourished across centuries assimilating art, music and literature within a unique backdrop of religious tolerance and political security. Much of this was made possible through a robust human organisation in the form of dedicated cooperatives called Guthi, that carried out specific social, religious and community functions in the Valley’s cosmopolitan community.
Guthis were active from as early as the fifth century in the Valley which was inhabited from around 300 BCE. Then they were known as Goshthi, a Sanskrit term more popular in the Lichchhavi period. Claimed by historian Dilli Raman Regmi as a unique system not borrowed from anywhere else in the world, Guthis can be solely credited with administering and managing annual Newar festivals, feasts and carnivals, community infrastructures and rituals for the last two millennia.
While Prof David Gellner has identified six major types of Guthis—economic, public, caste council, lineage deity, worship and funeral—its outstanding achievement as a philanthropic institution has been brought to light by the late Prof Kamal Prakash Malla.
The history of government intervention in the Guthi system can be traced back to Sri Paanch ko Sarkar Guthi Bandobasta Addaa which was later conceived as Guthi Sansthan in 1964. With 2,082 Guthis under its direct supervision, the corporation soon earned a bad reputation for itself. According to anthropologist Dr Bal Gopal Shrestha, Guthi Sansthan's suppressing many feasts and festivals of Kathmandu resulted in the disappearance of numerous such cultures throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As the Newars migrated outside Kathmandu after the takeover by Shah kings, Guthis were formed along the length and breadth of modern-day Nepal. The latest attack on this unique and now widespread cultural heritage is the recent Guthi Bill proposed by the Ministry of Land Management for unification and amendment of laws related to Guthi.
Within six weeks of the submission of the Guthi Bill 2075, protests against the potential risk to an age-old heritage started taking shape. By June 9, people of Kathmandu had taken to the streets with peaceful demonstrations. The government suppressed them, with the Nepal Police using batons and water cannons—resulting in a number of casualties and the imprisonment of some. By that evening, 75 community organisations had shown their solidarity with the protest, while the bill was opposed and police brutality condemned by the worldwide network of Nepalis. The first press release was issued by the World Newah Organisation’s UK Chapter on June 11 when Prime Minister Oli ironically discussed democracy and rights at his Oxford Union speech.
The ills of the bill are beyond comprehension. Clause 22 deprives the citizens of their basic human right to freely create socio-cultural groups, Clause 23 has an illegal notion of confiscating public properties by the government which even lists historical art and artefacts, and Clause 24 makes the biggest blunder of disqualifying indigenous people from their rightful ownership of community structures and traditional settings, thereby endangering their overall identity. The so-called legal amendment grossly undermines the basic character of the ethnic community, which was noted 115 years ago by French traveller Sylvain Levi, in whose own words, ‘The outstanding trait of a Newar is his liking for society: Newars live in compact, multi-storey houses even if this means their living space is cramped. This attention to society is reflected in communal gatherings.’
Except for Si Guthi for funerals, which is run by volunteers, almost all other Guthis by nature come with some land endowment. This very association with the land has now emerged as one of the biggest factors putting Guthis at risk. Heritage documentarian Alok Siddhi Tuladhar rightly asks, ‘Why is the Land Management Ministry handling the Guthis? Guthi is not just land, it is the living cultural heritage of Nepal. It should be taken care of by the Culture Ministry instead.’
Definitely not the first time that the indigenous community had faced such a sweeping blow in its own land of origin, the traditional settlement of the Newars in core Kathmandu had already been sacrificed for the much-debated road expansion last year. Compared to the protests then, the attack on the Guthi system has had a more rapid response. This time, perhaps, the victims were less direct but it affected almost everyone in the community. The bill proposes the replacement of those who had been entrusted with carrying out all festivities in recorded history, that the country showcases as major attractions for tourism till date, with direct government appointments.
So, following the Guthi Bill protests, what does this increasing turnout in the streets mean for the bigger picture of the Newah movement? Indigenous rights have taken a toss right from the promulgation of Republic Nepal’s first constitution, and despite the consolation of amendments in this so-called living document, progress hasn’t taken the preferred direction, of which the Guthi Bill is a worthy testament. The Newah movement, which started as a language revolution, has not upgraded beyond tireless local campaigning by the 5.6 percent of the national population for nearly half a century. It desperately needs reaching out to seek answers to bigger questions of inclusiveness and ethnic identity, from which the focus is helplessly being diverted with every new issue piling up on the victims of marginalisation.
Concern in London
While the recent turn of events has made many people stop for once and think, the ripples have reached far and wide. Even in London where I lead the community of Newars—Pasa Puchah Guthi UK—the last one week has been hectic. General members of the public have been asking for explanations and have been suggesting actions; this was not just new to my team, but this also brought some hope. That people are concerned about their culture is no ordinary news. However, will this ever add up to any bigger goal, and how, is the question we should be asking.
‘I feel like if the Guthi Bill is stopped in time, everyone will be happy again and this will be forgotten. In effect, the awareness that such interference is not an acceptable thing to do will be lost. Invalidating the entire bill is the only option because if we accept corrections, we are legitimising the way in which the bill was proposed and tabled in the first place. They need to do meetings with Guthis and do this from scratch,’ says art educator Supriya Manandhar. As long as the youth can analyse the cause with such clarity, the effects can always remain in favour of our cultural heritage.
Shrestha is a researcher of Nepali history based out of London, UK.