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Minority Groups in Nepal

 

 

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Minority Groups in Nepal

 

Introduction

Women

Dalits

Madheshi

Religious minorities

Linguistic minorities


Introduction

 

Nepal has experienced a series of remarkable changes over the past few years as it has evolved from being a Hindu Kingdom with a Maoist insurgency to a secular Republic with a Maoist-led government.

 

The people’s movement of April 2006, the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end the armed conflict, and the April 2008 Constituent Assembly election all marked critical steps towards the establishment of a peaceful and democratic Nepal. Yet, significant challenges remain ahead including addressing the exclusion of Minority and Indigenous Peoples (MIP).

 

The country is a mosaic of communities: there are 22 Dalits groups, more than 59 Madheshi groups, around 60 Indigenous nationalities, 102 caste and ethnic groups, 11 religious groups and more than 92 linguistic groups in Nepal. Exclusion, marginalization and exploitation of many of these communities had initially fuelled the 10 years armed conflict that affected the country.

 

There are genuine issues of indigenous nationalities, sexual minorities such as lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in Nepal. SUPPORT's work, however, has attempted to focus on five minority groups which, somehow, touch the issues of all minority and indigenous people in Nepal. SUPPORT Nepal mainly works with Madheshi, Dalits, women, religious and linguistic minorities.

 

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1. Women

 

Nepal is a multiethnic and multicultural country with more than 50 spoken languages and cultural
traditions. For analytical purposes they have often been classified into two broad groups, the Tibeto-
Burman, populating mostly the mid-hills and mountains, and the Indo-Aryan, living in the Terai Genetic plains and the midhills. Women from the Tibeto-Burman communities are socially less constrained than their Indo-Aryan sisters in terms of mobility, marriage/remarriage options, and, most importantly, income earning opportunities. In the Indo-Aryan groups, traditionally, women have fewer social and economic options. Social discrimination against women is felt to be more severe in the Terai communities and in the Mid- and Far-Western Development regions in general.

 

Nevertheless, in both these groups land and property inheritance has been patrilineal, the residence pattern patrifocal, and early marriage the rule rather than an exception. Culturally, marriage is seen as the best socially acceptable option for women for gaining access to property and land. Therefore, once women are out of marriage, such as divorce or widowhood, they become more vulnerable to poverty.


However, once women marry, legal provisions deny them inheritance rights to parental property. Women in both cultural groups lag far behind men in access to property, credit, and modern avenues of education, skills development, technology, and knowledge.

 

Discrimination against women by way of religious principles was historically supported through provisions in the law of the country. The 1854 Civil Code did not provide any protection for women concerning their property rights. Furthermore, it required purity of their body and endorsed a lower ritual status for the upper-caste widows, if they remarried. Prior to the Rana regime being overthrown in 1950, no other laws were formulated to amend those provisions. However, the government of post-Rana period replaced the 1864 Civil Code with a new one in place, in 1963.


The patriarchal values established by the prevailing ideologies of society have received legal support through the above mentioned discriminatory provisions. As a result, the legal system of Nepal has relegated women to such a position that they are unable to fight for their rightful claim of equality to rights. The impact of these forms of discrimination resonates in all spheres of their social, political, and economic life, including access to resources such as ownership of land, educational attainment, employment status, and participation in decision making activities in both public and domestic sectors of their life.

 

Though women comprise 50.05% (CBS 2001) percent of the total population, gender discrimination prevails in the society from the family to the national level. Status of women in Nepal with regards to their access to knowledge, economic resources, political power, and personal autonomy in decision making is generally desolate. Owing to gender based discriminations that have restricted their access to the state’s resources (such as markets, productive services, education facilities and health care) and decision making structures, they face multiple discrimination and human rights violations.

 

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2. Dalits

 

Caste-based discrimination derives its legitimacy from the ancient scriptures of the Hindu religion. These scriptures believed that the God produced people from four separate parts of its body and attributed them with different types of character assigning four different roles and responsibilities. The four different social groups were identified as Brahmans, Chhetris, Vaishyas and Sudras respectively, otherwise known as ‘Four Varnas’ in Hindu social structure. These legendary ideas about differences in the origin, differences in roles and responsibilities of people are the basis for institutionalization of Varna, a model of social organization as well as caste-based division and discrimination in the society. In the last 14th century, caste-based discrimination was a direct consequence of the prevailing traditions.

 

The formation of Muslim hegemony in Mogul India and the expansion of Christian faith in this region, after it came to be a part of the British Empire, motivated the then Hindu rulers of Nepal to provide state level protection for this religion and the practices based on the religious definition. During that process, Jayasthiti Malla (1382-1395) divided the Newars of Kathmandu valley into 64 castes. Later, Ram Shah of Gorkha implemented some strict regulations, prescribing different qualities of garments for different castes, prohibiting low caste people from living in Pakka (concrete) houses, and requiring them to settle in areas close to riverbanks or in rural areas. During the Malla period and, consequently the Sen rulers of Palpa provided their support to the caste-based organization of the society. The Nepali state attempted to universalize these regulations for all categories of people living in all parts of the nation through the introduction of the Muluki Ain (Civil Code) in 1954.

 

The Civil Code redefined the Varna model in order to comply with Nepal’s social environment. It classified the caste groups into ‘pure’ and ‘impure’. The fourth and fifth categories were considered as containing ‘impure’ population. People were divided into two groups; touchable and untouchable. The Civil Code also approved some differences in the privileges provided by the law to people belonging to these different caste categories. The code governed the pattern of social relation until its provisions were amended and replaced by the New Civil Code (Naya Muluki Ain) in 1963.

National Dalit Commission (NDC) defines Dalit community and cast based untouchability as “community who have been left behind in social, economic, educational, political and religious
sphere and deprived of human dignity and social justice due to the cast based discrimination and untouchability.” “Cast based untouchability’ refers to those community, who have been discriminated against as water polluting or touching whom requires purification, untouchables or any community that was identified as untouchable before the promulgation of the new Civic Code, 1963.” Based on these definitions, NDC tentatively identified 22 Dalit castes, including 5 from the Hill and 17 from the Terai.

 

Dalit communities have scattered all over Nepal. However, the Central and the Western Development Regions, which comprise 27% and 24% of the total Dalit population, have more Dalit population than other development regions. Likewise, Dalit population is denser in the Terai region than the hill and mountain regions. The population density of Brahmin and Chhetri, who are spread in the mountain and hill regions in all the development regions, is more pronounced in the mid and far western development regions. They comprise more than 27.8 percent and 39.2% of the population in Mid Western and Far Western Development regions respectively.

 

Dalit communities have scattered all over Nepal. However, the Central and the Western Development Regions, which comprise 27% and 24% of the total Dalit population, have more Dalit population than other development regions. Likewise, Dalit population is denser in the Terai region than the hill and mountain regions. The population density of Brahmin and Chhetri, who are spread in the mountain and hill regions in all the development regions, is more pronounced in the mid and far western development regions. They comprise more than 27.8 percent and 39.2% of the population in Mid Western and Far Western Development regions respectively.

 

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3. Madheshi

 

There are two geographical definitions in Nepal; one that extends to a trans-national region, the other specifically limited to Nepal. The first and more general definition includes the long and narrow strip of plains abutting the Himalayan foothills at the way from Uttar Pradesh through Nepal. The second definition includes only the plains region adjacent to the foothills within Nepal’s national boundaries. This foothill is called the Siwalik or sometimes Churia range.

 

In 1963, the government established 75 districts in the country and the previously 17 districts in Terai were restructured into 20 districts which also included part of Siwalik/ Churia range and hills. All the Terai districts have varying proportion of Siwalik and mid-mountain areas, the highest being 77.5% in Nawalparasi district, 51.5% in Chitwan district, 50.8% in Banke district and 41% in Kailali district to the lowest 8.9% in Sunsari district and about 7% in Jhapa district; the average being 32.4% for the 20 Terai districts.

 

Madheshi experts claim that the word Terai has been a symbol of colonial mindset of some dominant groups in Nepal resulting from what Dr. Fredrick Gaige referred as a process of “Nepalization” of Madhesh. From the time of formation of New Nepal there have been literally uncountable usages of word “Madhesh”, both authoritative and general. Prithvi Narayan Shah’s letter to Bhagavanta Nath mentioned, “..boundaries have been extended to the Kankai river in the Madhesh and..” or the administrative establishments such as “Madhesh Bandebast Adda” or “Madhesh Report Niksari” or “Kumarichok Madhesh Pahila Phant”, or “Bhot, Parbat and Madhesh” in Birta Confiscation Act. In pre-1950 era, word Madhesh was always preferred in authoritative and legal documents.

 

The Madheshis are the indigenous “non-hill origin” inhabitants of the Tarai. Madheshi includes indigenous ethnic nationalities as the Tharus, Rajbanshis, Meches, Koches, Dhimals and other tribes as well as peoples of different Hindu caste groups whose religious traditions, languages, social lifestyle and customs, food and clothes are similar to those of the people living in the Indo-Gangetic plains of India. Madheshis are residents of Madhesh sharing the correlated regional, cultural and lingual space of Madhesh.

 

The Madheshi community is composed of the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy such as Brahmin,
Kshatriya, Baisya and Dalits, and indigenous Janjati ethnic groups, other native tribes and Muslims. Gaige (1975) used the terms ‘hill people’ and ‘plains people’ living in Tarai districts, and defined a) “plains people are those who speak plains languages as their mother tongues or first language, whether they were born or live in the plains or hills”; the plains languages being Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali, and dialects of these languages used by Janjati groups, and b) “hill people whose mother tongue or first language is one that predominates in the hill region of Nepal such as Nepali, Newari, Magar, Gurung, Rai and others.

 

The Madheshi community is composed of the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy such as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Baisya and Dalits, indigenous Janjati ethnic groups, and other native tribes and Muslims. According to the National Census of 2001, 59 castes and ethnic groups are identified in Madhesh. Baisya, Yadav and other Hindu caste group share 44.3% of the total Madheshi population followed by Indigenous (27.5%), Muslims (13.2%) and Dalits (11.9%).

 

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4. Religious minorities

 

Nepal is a country cradled in the southern slopes of the Himalayas with an enchanting variety of topographical features which are responsible for its unique culture and religious environments.

 

The Terai region of Nepal is a strip which merges into the plains of the India. The Terai is bounded on the north by the gentle ridges of the Siwaliks or Churia ranges followed by the higher Mahabharat hills.

 

All along the north side of the Kathmandu valley the vast panorama of snow-covered Himalayan ranges stands in full view. Nepal is thus nestled in the lap of the Himalayas between India on the south and China on the north. This geographical and geo-physical environment resulted in turning Nepal into a variety of reservoir of cultural currents that flowing from both groups of people who migrated from India and China. Nepal, however, assimilated the cultural crosscurrents and transformed them into something original which getting blended with its own cultural tradition and heritage became distinctly indigenous to Nepal. Thus, a cultural synthesis took place which is evident in all spheres of Nepalese life including religion.

 

Religion occupies an integral position in Nepalese life and society. In the early 1990s, Nepal was the only constitutionally declared Hindu state in the world; there was, however, a great deal of intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Many of the people regarded as Hindus in the 1981 census could, with as much justification, be called Buddhists. The fact that Hindus worshipped at Buddhist temples and Buddhists worshipped at Hindu temples has been one of the principal reasons
adherents of the two dominant groups in Nepal have never engaged in any overt religious conflicts.

Because of such dual faith practices (or mutual respect), the differences between Hindus and Buddhists have been in general very subtle and academic in nature. However, in 2001, approximately 80.62 percent of the Nepalese people identified themselves as Hindus. Buddhists and Muslims comprised only 10.74 and 4.20 percent, respectively.


The geographical distribution of religious groups revealed a preponderance of Hindus, accounting for
at least 87 percent of the population in every region. The largest concentrations of Buddhists were
found in the eastern hills, the Kathmandu Valley, and the central Tarai; in each area about 10 percent of the people were Buddhist. Buddhism was relatively more common among the Newar and Tibeto-Nepalese groups.

 

Among the Tibeto-Nepalese, those most influenced by Hinduism were the Magar, Sunwar, and Rai peoples. Hindu influence was less prominent among the Gurung, Limbu, Bhote, and Thakali groups, who continued to employ Buddhist monks for their religious ceremonies.

 

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5. Linguistic minorities

 

Nepal is home to four language families (Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian), although the latter two families are spoken by numerically insignificant populations. It is a popular and widespread misconception that a one-to-one parity between ethnicity and  language exists. Reliable nation-wide linguistic data does not exist, but published surveys focusing on specific regions give scholars reason to trust the higher estimates.

 

The National Census of 2001 reports 92 known languages and a handful unidentified ones, while the experts offers a total figure of 120 languages in Nepal. Aside from Nepali, the ‘language of the nation’ and the only ‘official language’, which is reportedly spoken as a mother tongue by 48.61% of the total population (CBS 2001), and Maithili (another Indo-Aryan language) spoken as a mother tongue by 12.3% of Nepal’s citizens, Nepal’s ‘national languages’ all have speakers numbering under 10% of the total population. The most numerous mother tongue languages spoken by indigenous peoples are Tamang (5.19%), Newar (3.63%) and Magar (3.39%), as reported in the 2001 census.


According to census data collected in 2001, Nepal’s 92 languages belong to four language families; Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian. Kusunda is a language isolate and its
genetic affiliation is yet to be determined. The Indo-Aryan group of the Indo-European language family is the largest group in terms of speaker numbers in Nepal, at around 80%. The genetic affiliation of some Indo-Aryan languages such as Tharu, Bote, Majhi, Kumal, Darai, and Danuwar are yet to be identified. The Tibeto-Burman group within the Sino-Tibetan family of languages is represented by more than 57 languages in Nepal, the largest number of distinct mother tongues of any linguistic grouping, but with noticeably less speakers than the Indo-Aryan group. Two other language families are also found in Nepal: the Austric branch of the Austro-Asiatic family and the Dravidian family, each represented by a small number of languages in the southern belt of the country. The Austric languages comprise Santhali of the northern Munda group and Khariya of the southern Munda group.


Of the languages possessing literate traditions, only Maithili, Newar and Tibetan (the latter largely for
refugees resident in Nepal) have been in vogue as a subject of study at various educational levels. These three languages also have rich literary traditions, poetry and written folk tales.

 

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