Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

NEPAL: Indigenous People Seek More, Get Less

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Jul 21 2005 (IPS) - The glass bangles on their arms are shattered, they are forbidden to put saffron-coloured powder in their hair and to wear red – reserved for those "blessed" with a husband – for the rest of their lives. Widows in Hindu societies are traditionally treated in ways that today have become striking symbols of paternalism.

These rituals are still widely practised in the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal, but journalist Khim Ghale says the now frequent reports about widows’ lives "do not touch me". Ghale is among the 41 percent of the Himalayan country’s 26 million people who come from indigenous nationalities (‘janajati adivasi’), many of which do not practise Hinduism.

A reporter for the past six years at ‘Kantipur’ daily newspaper, Ghale says many of his fellow journalists, Hindus, have become obsessed with reporting the ‘widow’, story but when he tries to explain to them how his Gurung culture treats such women "they laugh". They also dismiss his arguments that Nepal’s janajatis have the right to study at higher levels in their mother tongues, instead of in the country’s only official language, Nepali, and perhaps English.

Worse, says Ghale, issues like language rarely get raised here publicly. "We have so many problems, we have so many issues, why can’t the media report these?" asks Ghale, vice-president of the Association of Nepalese Indigenous Nationalities Journalists (ANIJ) in an interview.

ANIJ was formed in 1999, both to find some room in the nation’s newspapers and airwaves for discussion of the issues that matter most to the 59 officially recognised indigenous groups in Nepal, and to push the nation’s media managers to make space for janajati journalists.

Indirectly, the organisation was a product of the 1990 democratic "spring", when activists forced the then king to accept multi- party democracy in one of Asia’s poorest nations.

Another child of the decade that followed was the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella group that speaks for 49 janajati groups in Nepal. After 1990, "in terms of material benefit we didn’t get anything, but at least we got this institution … we have been able to establish our identity (and) janajatis are now aware of their rights," says NEFIN General Secretary Om Gurung.

Today NEFIN is known as an outspoken organisation with strong support from the international community – but it is still pushing Nepali society to recognise that the country’s indigenous people are different.

That struggle was set back this week when the government of King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah cut spaces reserved for janajatis (along with women and dalits, or "untouchables") in the civil service, replacing a 10 percent allotment with the possibility for "positive discrimination" in individual cases.

At a time when members of Nepal’s indigenous movement are demanding janajatis should be represented in the civil service and higher education according to their population, the new rules are unacceptable, says Gurung. "If they don’t revise this policy, we’ll take any steps (necessary) against the government … we’ll have to be radical if the government does not show concern."

Such words sound an ominous echo in today’s Nepal. For nearly a decade security forces have been waging a bloody fight against Maoists who now control most of the countryside, and who pointedly woo the janajatis and dalits who compose most of their ranks by stressing their oppression by the "higher" castes.

"Janajatis are suffering (at the hands of) both sides," says Santa Bahadur Gurung, head of an independent office created by a former government to deal with janajati issues. "Maoists say to them, ‘we are doing these things, we are fighting, for you’. So the government should take very seriously at this point the janajatis’ and dalits’ demands (and ask) ‘what can be done as soon as possible’?" he adds in an interview.

Established in 2002 but given office space only after a year of prodding, Santa Gurung’s National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) is fiercely independent but its chief knows his limits. "I cannot protest to the government; I cannot demand from the government. What I can do is request from the government."

An academic by training, Santa Gurung is methodically building NFDIN’s capacity to assists janajatis. Working with NEFIN, the office classified Nepal’s indigenous groups into five categories, from "endangered" to "advanced". Its strategy is to assist the more developed groups to deal with cultural concerns, like language and education, and to provide more basic economic support to the groups at the opposite end of the scale.

But NEFIN’s Om Gurung says the indigenous movement as a whole has taken a further step, realizing, "without political rights we cannot achieve our socio-economic rights".

Nepal’s indigenous people are amazingly diverse. One group, the Newars – known as the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley – has the highest per capita income of any caste or ethnic group in Nepal, while overall, janajatis rank lowest on the human development index (0.299). Two dominant Hindu castes, Brahmin and Chhetri, rate 0.441 and 0.348 on the index, according to NFDIN figures.

Janajati groups account for the vast majority of the 106 languages counted in the 2001 census. Significantly, says expert Harka Gurung, "social demographic data of the last decade clearly evidence a strong tendency towards identity assertion based on ethnicity, language and religion".

For example, only four of 19 indigenous groups for which data were available lost mother tongue speakers from 1991 to 2001. Also, there was huge growth during the decade in the number of individuals from janajati groups that traditionally practise Buddhism or traditional (‘Kiranti’) religion who identified themselves as doing so. At the same time, individuals practising Hinduism declined in relation to population growth.

Despite their diversity, leaders of Nepal’s janajatis agree on a core set of demands, says Om Gurung: freedom of religion; reservation systems in government and schools; proportional representation in decision-making positions; and, in the long term, regional autonomy based on the right to self-determination.

Pramila Rai and GS Rampyari say just making indigenous women aware is a huge challenge for their group, the National Indigenous Women Federation – – Nepal. "We are happy to have (sustained) this organisation for seven years … especially because as women we have our homes, our children, our work (outside the house) also. All these things we have to manage," says Rai.

The women argue that Brahmins and other "upper-caste" people who control the government do not make their task easier. For example, when officials previously set aside spaces for janajati women to enter the civil service, 90 percent of the slots went to Newari women.

Authorities "come up with all these stupid things … to make us fight among ourselves," says Rampyari.

Helping indigenous people access their rights is the goal of the Janajati Empowerment Project (JEP) a three-year, 2.6-million-U.S. dollar endeavour just launched by NEFIN and the Enabling State Programme (ESP) of the UK Department for International Development.

The JEP aims to: strengthen indigenous organisations, increase awareness among janajatis, make authorities more responsive to those rights, and strengthen the role of indigenous people in policy-making, says ESP’s Bimal Tandukar.

"What we are trying to do is mainstream the issues … people who are at the policy level never tried to listen." Successive governments since 1990 promised in their five-year plans to focus on janajati people, but "in practice it was never implemented," he adds in an interview.

Tandukar recognizes that the JEP is controversial, although he says the government, which has a seat on the project steering committee, has not objected to it. "Some people think (such a programme) is very necessary because of the conflict" but "conservatives think this sort of programme will further divide the (Nepali) people".

Om Gurung says he hears the latter argument more and more since the king fired the government and took power on Feb. 1. Members of the monarch’s handpicked Council of Ministers "talk about one nation, one culture, one language. They are a monolithic type of government. They don’t accept plurality or cultural diversity."

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