Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

The janajati and the Nepali state: aspects of identity and integration

Paper presented at the First Annual Workshop of the Himalayan Studies Network, Meudon, C.N.R.S., 25-26 September 1998


In this circle of Nepal experts I don't have to dwell too much on the historical facts and developments that have led to Nepal's current socio-political situation. Right from the beginning of its unification the modern state of Nepal has been an affair of elites belonging to some high caste Hindu groups. At the same time, the numerous ethnic groups and the lower Hindu castes became marginalized and were prevented from every kind of participation. This status was codified by the muluki ain of 1854 and it was further intensified in recent times by the unitarian politics of King Mahendra's panchayat system.

It was only in the late seventies and early eighties that the growing self-consciousness of ethnic elites led to the formation of ethnic organizations. As turning point one can identify the students riots of 1979 and the national referendum of 1980 which led to constitutional changes undermining the conservative basis of the royal system. The people saw that political and social changes were possible by mobilising the masses. Because of Nepal's ethnic diversity the ethnic organizations only represented very small sections of society, even though their matters of concern were very similar in nature. So the organizations started informal talks which, in 1986, led to the formation of the Sarvajati Adhikar Manc (Forum for the Rights of All Nationalities).

A further step was the active participation of ethnic organizations in the people's movement of 1990, now under the name of Vividh Dharma, Bhasha, Jati tatha Janajati Sandharsha Samiti (Various Religions, Languages and Nationalities Action Committee). The ethnic elites not only wanted a change of the political system but also socio-political modifications and economic participation.

Beyond doubt, the political changes of 1990 have opened up broader scopes for Nepal's numerous ethnic groups. Many of them have formed organizations to preserve their cultural identity and to fight for equal rights and participation in the Nepali state. Starting with criteria like race, language, religion and territory they have detected the importance of history as a prerequisite for all their demands. They have started to write down the history of their respective groups, not all of which have been historically formed entities, and, thus, prove that they are part of the modern Nepali nation.

On the other side, we have a Nepali state which until 1990 totally disregarded the multiethnicity of its society. It was during the elaboration phase of the new constitution that ethnic demands were presented in public. But there was no participation of ethnic groups in the decision-making bodies, neither in the political parties nor in the Constitution Drafting Commission. So, the result was half-hearted. The Nepali state recognized the multiethnicity of society but it refused to introduce institutions and regulations for a broader participation of the disadvantaged sections of society.

Ethnic arguments

The ethnic elites are trying to reconcile their groups with their cultural values but, at the same time, look for new ways of interpretation of tradition. Their first argument is that of race. Most of Nepal's ethnic groups belong to the Tibeto-Mongolian stock. There are only a few Tarai groups having relations to Indian Mundas or Southeast Asian groups. By laying stress on their common Tibeto-Mongolian race the ethnic elites – they usually speak of Mongols or Mongoloids – not only point out their differentness from the high Hindu castes dominating in politics, society and economy, but at the same time they also provide a common racial bond for Nepal's divergent ethnic groups.

The elites' second argument is that of religion. It is claimed that all ethnic groups of the country are Buddhists or, at least, are influenced by Buddhist thought. This again brings them in contrast to the relative minority of high Hindu castes who have declared Nepal to be a Hindu state. Different from race, the religion is one of the fundamental pillars of ethnic culture. Thus it would be an ideal starting point for ethnic reconciliation and for separation from the country's ruling elite. But the problem again is that it is not clear, as well. The mixture of religious thoughts and practices across ethnic boundaries has even been stronger than that of racial phenomena. The religious base of most ethnic cultures is not Buddhism but some kind of animism or shamanism which, within many ethnic cultures of the pahad region, has been overlapped by Buddhist influences with different intensity. Other ethnic groups, because of their long running contacts to neighbouring Hindu castes, have adopted a number of Hindu values and practices.

This historical overlapping and reciprocal influencing of religions has been intensified in modern times by the Nepali state through some form of guided Hinduization of society. This process already started in some of the principalities of western Nepal in pre-unification times, and it got its legal basis by the promulgation of the muluki ain in 1854. The ethnic elites regard this legalisation of the Hindu social order as principal cause for all inequalities in politics, economy and society. To be non-Hindu becomes an important means of ethnic politics. Not animist practices but Buddhism can provide an important counterbalance when entering into discussions with the state Hinduism of the ruling elite.

Another argument of the ethnic elites is language. All Tibeto-Mongolian groups speak Tibeto-Burman languages. This distinguishes them from the Indo-Aryan Hindu population speaking Nepali, an Indo-European language, as mother tongue. The language has been used by the Nepali state as one of the most important tools to enforce its Hindu politics. The government's statistics showed a steady decline of the number of people speaking ethnic languages while, at the same time, the share of Nepali as mother tongue went up to more than 58% in the census of 1981. The current endeavour of the ethnic elites to revive their mother tongues and, if necessary, equip them with script and literature is based on the constitution's definition of the state as a multiethnic and multilingual one. This is often an arduous task in face of the lingual heterogeneity of many ethnic groups.

The ethnic elites demand an equal treatment of all languages in education, administration, judiciary and the media, since Nepali is a foreign or only secondary language for almost 50% of the population. They don't object the use of Nepali as lingua franca but the special promotion of Nepali and Sanskrit to the detriment of ethnic languages. Language may be a cultural element but, by using it as a fundamental argument in their dialogue with the state, the ethnic organizations make it a political one. This politization of the ethnic organizations is also forced by the Nepali state which has made language a political issue since the time of military unification and especially since the 1950s.

Ethnic organizations, having realised this, soon enter the next stage of argumentation which definitely is a political one. If they talk about history, it is first of all not the history of their own groups but it is the history of the Nepali state, that they criticize and want to have re-written. According to their argumentation, the integration of the different peoples of the country is only possible if all ethnic groups are treated equally. There can be no talk of equality of all Nepali citizens as long as the official version of Nepali history, as it can be read in a steadily growing number of history books, is only a history of the ruling elite, in which the ethnic groups are non-existent. The written history of the country is a mirror of the social order.

The history of the country, so the argumentation of the ethnic organizations, must bear witness to the great injustice inflicted upon the numerous peoples by the ruling elite in the past. Especially mentioned in this context are

  • deprivation of ethnic territories by the Nepali state,
  • allocation of ethnic territories in favour of members of high Hindu castes,
  • enslavement, subjugation and indebtedness of once autonomous and self-sufficient ethnic peasants,
  • systematic decomposition and dissolution of ethnic areas by settlement of members of high Hindu castes,
  • deliberate cutting of ethnic areas by arbitrary drawing up of administrative borders,
  • social and judicial incapacitation of ethnic groups by the discriminating law code of the muluki ain,
  • introduction of caste values and prejudices into ethnic communities, which – with the sole exception of the Newars – had casteless societies before,
  • withholding of every kind of education,
  • exclusion from all government offices,
  • non-participation in the politics and administration of the country,
  • destruction of ethnic cultures by perpetual state politics of Hinduization.

According to representatives of the ethnic organizations, all this has to be mentioned by name without extenuation or reservation. In this way, history becomes the strongest and most important argument for the formation of consciousness and identity among Nepal's ethnic groups. Their leaders argue that their situation can only be changed by a fundamental revision of Nepali history.

But in order to re-write the national history of Nepal, ethnic historiography is a precondition, if the ethnic leaders want to enter into discussions with the Nepali state about the abolition of inequalities. By setting the classical ethnic arguments – like race, language and religion – into the historical framework they loose their exclusively cultural aspects and become a political issue. It is in the historical context, that ethnic groups change from cultural entities to nationalities, janajati, as they are called by the current ethnic leaders.

Constitutional regulations

The introduction of the new constitution in 1990 offered a chance to reconsider the state's politics of nationalism. How did the ruling elites use this opportunity? Article 2 of the constitution defines that all "Nepali people irrespective of religion, race, caste or tribe collectively constitute the nation (rastra)." This sounds positive since no section of population is excluded. But this positive aspect is revoked by article 4 (1) which, on the one hand, concedes that Nepal is a multiethnic and multilingual state but, at the same time, defines the country as a Hindu kingdom (hindu adhirajya). This definition as Hindu state is underlined by a number of symbols mentioned in the constitution like the flag and the coat of arms representing different aspects of Hindu myths and society.

Another important aspect of the constitution is the definition of Nepali as the language of the nation (rastra bhasa) (article 6). Of course, the country is in need of a common language, and there is no other language as widespread as Nepali. But it is the mother tongue of only 53% of the population according to the census of 1991. For the rest of the population, Nepali is some kind of foreign language. Having only rudimentary knowledge of colloquial Nepali these people feel deprived of their fundamental rights guaranteed elsewhere by the constitution, especially in face of the ever growing Sanskritization of the high standard language to the detriment of indigenous terms.

Thus the ethnic elites regard the national language Nepali as another symbol of high Hindu caste domination. Against the background of Nepal being a multilingual country social tensions are to be preprogrammed the faster the political and social consciousness of the ethnic groups is growing. The constitution has named the other languages as national languages (rastriya bhasa) without providing further specification. That they are not meant for official use has quite recently been declared by the Supreme Court, when the District Development Committees (DDC) of Kathmandu, Dhanusha and Rajbiraj were prohibited to use Newari respectively Maithili during their meetings. Even Village Development Committees (VDC) comprising members of one single ethnic group only are not allowed to use their mother tongue. Among the few positive reactions of the state must be mentioned that Radio Nepal is sending short news programmes in ethnic languages, spoken by more than 1% of the population, and that the Royal Nepal Academy has started to publish books on ethnic languages.

During the drafting phase of the constitution in 1990 the transformation of Nepal into a secular state had been demanded by ethnic and women organizations as well as by representatives of the Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and the so-called untouchable Hindu castes. But there had been a vehement opposition against this idea from Hindu traditional organizations which had strong propagators within the then interim government, the greater political parties and sections of the press.

The chairman of the Constitution Drafting Commission and later Chief Justice, Vishwanath Upadhyaya, called all demands concerning religion, language, caste and ethnicity, which comprised about 90% of the public recommendations, as being of minor importance for a democratic Nepal, comparing them to communalism:

Statements which foster communalism and sow the seeds of religious intolerance cannot be justified. Such improper tendencies, if not checked in time, will create obstacle in our efforts to establish a democratic constitutional system.

That only a non-Hindu alignment is regarded as communal can be seen from Article 112 (3) which denies the recognition of any political party or organization formed on the basis of religion, community, caste, tribe or region. Must not the state itself be called communal because of its Hindu affiliation? This is further verified by the fact that after 1990 regional parties were recognized as long as they did not oppose the Hindu state, e.g. the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, but they were rejected whenever they opposed the Hindu state and supported the cause of ethnic groups like the Mongol National Organization.

Attitudes of government and political parties

Right from the beginning the Nepali political parties have been dominated by members of the upper Hindu castes, especially by Bahuns. This fact, too, has its reason in the historical development of unified Nepal, which now is so strongly criticised by the ethnic elites. Prithvinarayan Shah and his successors founded their power on the support of a number of Bahun and Chetri families who, in return, got a share in political and economic respects. Later when a new aristocracy arose with the ascent of the Ranas, those better off families settled in the Tarai or in India, where they had the chance to send their children to Indian schools. They not only became educated but, actively participating in the Indian independence movement, they also got political consciousness. It was this younger generation of expatriate Nepalis that in the late forties founded parties like the Nepali Congress and the Nepal Communist Party in India.

Since then not much has changed in the rank and file of the parties. The 1950s, sometimes called a phase of democratic experiments, has been more a time of restoration of royal power, especially under King Mahendra, doing little to participate greater sections of society in the political process. Following a period of 30 years in underground the political parties of the 1990s are only just starting to become mass organizations. They are still dominated by a handful of now elder politicians of the foundation years. But the problem is that the inevitable regeneration of the parties is not taken as a chance to participate different sections of society within the party rank and file. In 1991 37% of the Nepali Congress candidates and 48% of those of the CPM-UML were Bahuns and another 22% respectively 16% were Chetris, even though these groups have only a share of 13% respectively 16% in the population of the country according to the census of 1991. Or to mention another figure, among the ministers of the two Girija Prasad Koirala cabinets 50% were/are Bahuns.

Another constitutional institution criticized by the ethnic organizations is the National Assembly (rastriya sabha). In its current form it is some kind of reduplication of the House of Representatives (pratinidhi sabha), the latter nominating 35 of the 60 members of the National assembly according to the party strength in the lower house. The ethnic elites, instead, want the National Assembly to be a house of parliament were all population groups of Nepal are represented. In 1991, when the rastriya sabha was constituted for the first time, 40% of its members were Bahuns, which is similar to the figures of the pratinidhi sabha.

This ethnic number game could be continued endlessly. It proves that people of ethnic groups don’t have equal chances of participation even in democratic Nepal. This was confirmed to me by Rai and Limbu MPs of eastern Nepal, who said that they only have a chance on the local level but not in the central hierarchy of their parties. Most of the persons involved in ethnic activities are closer to left parties than to the Nepali Congress. The reason may be that the latter party is identifying more and more with the traditional forces of the country. The ethnic organizations want fundamental changes of state and society, and these don’t seem to be possible with the Nepali Congress. In a society characterized by poverty and socio-religious inequalities the people are looking for a kind of political representation that opens up perspectives and hopes changing their fate.

The continuation of the Hindu state has been the highest maxim of both the conservative forces and the leading party politicians of democratic Nepal, because this alone guarantees their elite privileges. Secularism has always been identified with the lifting of the ban of missionary practices. There are talks of the decline of Hinduism, its eradication by Christian missionaries and finally the expulsion of Hindus from Nepal. Taking the mean practices of some of the numerous Christian aid organizations working in the country for common, there are never ending talks of thousands of conversions to Christianity day by day.

But the discussion of dangerous Christian missionary distracts from the negative attitudes of the Hindu state for the many indigenous cultures. In support of the Hindu state-religion the king and the politicians are courting Hindu dignitaries and sponsoring Hindu organizations and events. One never hears any word about the danger of Christian missionary for the ethnic cultures, the Buddhists and the Muslims, not to talk about the danger of state Hinduism for these religions and cultures.


Nepal’s ethnic groups are still lacking integration and participation in the modern democratic state. But their situation has, nevertheless, improved compared to panchayat times. The guarantee of fundamental rights is much safer today. Especially the right of freedom of opinion and expression and the freedom to form organizations (article 12) have helped the ethnic elites to make their arguments heard among their own groups and in the general public.

The greatest problem is still the attitude of the Nepali state. There is hardly any organization outside the ethnic camp that is really understanding the ethnic argumentation. An outstanding example are the human rights organizations which have come into existence in greater number. They may be talking about indigenous groups, but like the political parties they, too, are dominated by members of high Hindu castes, especially Bahuns. These people cannot understand the arguments of the ethnic leaders, since they have never learnt to view the Nepali state and society from the ethnic perspective because of the one-sidedness of the national education system.

Nepal must make the diversity of her ethnic groups, religions and cultures an essential feature of her nationalism. The unity of the nation can only be preserved, if the uniforming politics of the Hindu state are brought to an end, and if the constitutional declaration in the multiethnicity of the country is implemented by politics of integration and equal treatment of all groups of the Nepali society.

Copyright © 1998, Karl-Heinz Krämer