Are ‘indigenous people’ those who were previously known as ‘tribals’, ‘natives’, ‘aborigines’ or ‘ethnic minorities’? What is the use of yet another term, and is it applicable to most of Nepal’s communities?
One of the most sensitive exercises in multicultural study and discourse is the use of language and terms to describe communities that are yet to join the ‘modem’ world. Terms such as `tribal’, ‘aborigine’, or `native’ have received reviews both good and bad, depending on who uses them, when and where. They started out as descriptive terms used by the colonialists, white hunters, cowboys and anthropologists to describe more neutrally those otherwise known as `savages’.
These three terms fell into disrepute as guilt and concern swept the Western-educated classes. To avoid being judged old-fashioned, conservative, totalitarian, or prejudiced, they have settled for the term ‘indigenous’, even though it is a bit fuzzy and it is not clear who is and is not indigenous. The new term was given respectability and international seal of approval by none other than the United Nations General Assembly, which declared 1993 the International Year of the Indigenous People and has just declared the entire decade ahead as also being that of the Indigenous People.
The politically correct term in currency, thus, is ‘indigenousness’, and leaders of non-Western native populations all over the world are rallying around it. In the indigenous tide that is sweeping the arena of discourse, the subtleties which define native populations around the world are being lost.
In Nepal, too, representatives of the non-dominant hill and plain (in the case of groups such as the Tharu) communities have adopted the new terminology. To hear the ethnic leaders say it, groups such as, the Gurungs, Magars and Tamangs are no longer matwali, or janjati but indigenous (adivasi). At first glance, this seems quite appropriate, particularly as a political response to the reluctance of the Bahun and Chhetri elites to share power within the new democratic structures.
However, there are pitfalls in the use of a term which gained usage in a context that is wholly different from what exists in the Nepali hills. Although its use is understandable, the Nepali ethnic leaders should resist the urge to become a part of a currently fashionable worldwide indigenous peoples’ movement. Why? Because that movement’s focus is quite different and will not serve the purpose of most Nepali communities. Nepali leaders should develop another term that will more appropriately convey the attributes of the non-dominant communities of Nepal, an the challenges they face vis-a-vis the dominant groups.
Continued use of an alien term that is not a reflection of reality might mean wasted opportunity in shaking up the political and social systems in Nepal and forcing them to recognize the need to share power among communities and to treat them as social equals. Nepal’s ethnic leaders must develop their own intellectual response to the question of Nepali multi-ethnicity, cultural pluralism and socio-economic development instead of blindly aping foreign ideas. The atavistic way the term ‘indigenous’ is being used in Nepal, reflecting the `bhumiputra’ (son of the soil) programs of many South and South East Asian nations, is hardly useful or healthy.
It is therefore important to discuss the issue of indigenousness critically, even at the cost of offending those who call themselves indigenous’. At the outset, we need to be clear who the ‘indigenous peoples’ are and whether the term is appropriate and relevant in all regions and all contexts. For a term that is inappropriate or irrelevant can weaken the very agenda that it proposes to define.
Indigenous and Marginal
In the minds of those who developed the term, the liberals in the West, ‘indigenous’ are those inhabitants of the rainforests, deserts and swamps, people who live in close communion with nature and far removed from the world of trade, commerce and machines.
In the Himalaya, those who come closest to the Western understanding of ‘indigenous people’ are probably the forest dwellers of the eastern Himalaya, the Mizos, Nagas, Monpas and others. The more numerous populations of the Himalayan region, from the Lepchas and Gurungs to Ladakhis and Baltis, can hardly be served by the term ‘indigenous’, as it does not denote their more ‘advanced’ conditions in terms of civilisational culture, sophisticated trading links, and long-standing interaction with the outside world.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines ‘indigenous peoples’ thus:
“Peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from populations which inhabited the country or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions. Self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of the convention apply.”
According to this definition, the key criterion for identifying indigenous peoples are that a people be descendants of first-corners to a land, that they are differentiated from other communities, and that they identify themselves as indigenous. A fourth criteria is added by some other sources, that the subject population is marginalised in the country it inhabits.
The London-based organisation Panos says that there are 250 million indigenous peoples living in about 70 countries. These are known variously as “First Peoples, Indians, Natives, Aborigines, Nomads, Tribals, First Nations, Minority Nationalities (China) and Small Peoples (Russia)”. According to Panos, the term is usually used more broadly, to also include “other marginalised groups such as the nomadic peoples of Africa.”
In this definition, indigenous peoples include not only ttiba is’ but also ethnic groups, (for example, the Minority Nationalities of China and the Small Peoples of Russia), so long as they are marginalised, i.e. at the periphery of society. At the ‘acne time, it is clear that Westerners and people of other “Higher Civilizations” (for example, the Chinese and Japanese, or the Hindus and Muslims of South Asia) are excluded.
Tribals and Adivasi
The term indigenous’ was first used to denote the Native Americans of the Americas and the aborigines of Australia and New Zealand. In those countries, the autochthonous populations were conquered by Europeans, people of a different race, religion, language and culture. The natives were systematically decimated by the conquerors, either by outright killing and murder, or by depriving them of their traditional lands, natural resources, and lifestyles.
Indigenous movements began in these countries, where the white establishment rules over the descendants of the original inhabitants. Native and Aborigine groups have risen to claim compensation from governments for ancestral lands and natural resources they contain. In a different context, the natives of Latin America organised themselves as indigenous peoples, to survive and to save their cultures from the power of autocrats, elite classes, developers and big business.
Indeed one of the major themes of the indigenous peoples movement everywhere has been the preservation of their cultures – an attempt to maintain social diversity not unlike the movement to preserve biological diversity. Thus, it is not coincidental that there is a simultaneous effort to preserve the rainforests as well as the cultures of the peoples living in these forests.
The differences between the so-called indigenous peoples and the colonisers or conquerors are much sharper in the Americas and Australasia than they are in South Asia, where, as a noted Indian sociologist Andre Beteille has pointed out, “It is generally very difficult to draw a sharp line of distinction between tribal and non-tribal communities on the basis of either race or religion or language.”
Connotations and Confusion
To my mind, in the Himalayan region, `indigenous peoples’ do not exist. Or rather, they either exist everywhere or they exist nowhere. Indigenous peoples are a creation, an invention, of Westerners in search of a new term to replace the outmoded and derogatory terms ‘native’, ‘tribal’, or ‘aborigine’ —terms which the Westerners had invented to categorize peoples who were different from themselves, and which ended up being derogatory for that very reason. Therefore, requiring another value-free term, they came up with ‘indigenous’; rather, they co-opted a term that was used in a specific context and applied to rainforest dwellers, and began to apply it loosely to refer to larger and larger groups.
Despite the current fashion, the term `indigenous peoples’ is as derogatory as the terms ‘natives’, ‘tribals’ or ‘aborigines’, because all these terms are not applied to Westerners or others claiming to be members of ” Higher Civilizations”_ One can hardly imagine the English, the French or the Greeks calling themselves indigenous, or the Welsh or Scots. Or, nearer home, the Rajputs and Brahmins of India or the Thakuris of Nepal, even though during the bad old days they might have been `natives’ to the colonisers.
Then why should the Magars, Gurungs and the Tharus of Nepal identify themselves as ‘indigenous’? One possible explanation is that once a terminology has gained international usage, it is almost impossible for local groups to make themselves beard other than by using it. In practical terms, it probably provides the best slogan to come along, one which could be used with effect against the dominant elites and that comes with the seal of international approval. So, rather than go through the trouble of propounding another word or concept, the Nepali ethnic groups prefer to use the term ‘indigenous’ (`adivasi’ in Nepali) which has negative connotations, …that of being primitive, and uncivilized.
What’s in a name, one might ask. It was the Bard, after all, who said that arose by any other name does smell as sweet. But names carry meanings and connotations which are often subtle but significant and failure to understand them often leads to confusion.
In a seminar organized by the Nepal Janajati Mahasangh, the Minister of Housing and Physical Planning, B al Bahadur Rai, “stressed the need to identify the `adivasis’ (indigenous people) and carry out research works on them”, reported the Rising• Nepal English daily in October 1993. He spoke of the need to “uplift the languages and cultures” on the verge of extinction. However, Minister Rai was careful not to categorically identify the indigenous peoples, lest some groups be left out and other groups which do not belong included.
The participants at an ethnicity conference held in Dharan in East Nepal a few months earlier, and attended by representatives of minority groups, expressed bewilderment as to the nomenclature they should use to describe themselves: tribal, janajati (roughly corresponding to ‘ethnic groups’), adivasi, Mangoloid, Mongols, and indigenous. Further, which minority groups should be included and which excluded? For example, are the Newars an indigenous group? There is confusion about terminologies and behind the confused use of terms, a confusion about identities.
First Come, First Claim
Some of the groups claiming to be `indigenous’ today previously used to call themselves janjati. But that was when ‘ethnicity’ was the term in vogue. In a letter published in Himal’s Sep/Oct 1993 issue, Gopal Gurung, the President of Mongol National Organisation, writes that the use of the term ‘janjati’ to refer to the original inhabitants of Nepal, such as the Magars and Gurungs, is not accurate because the janjatis are not indigenous to Nepal (but rather nomads who fled India after the Mughal invasion of Chitor).
Gurung goes on to claim that the Mangols constitute 80 percent of the population of Nepal, all of them non-Hindus, and that they are the real indigenous peoples of Nepal. (That could be the subject of another discussion: are all non-Hindus Mongols? Are Tharus Mongols? And who are Mongols, anyway?) Given that ‘Mongols’ themselves are migrants to what is today Nepal, is indigenousness a matter of first come, first claim?
Many scholars believe that the Kirats were among the first migrants who came in from the north and east, while the Indo-Aryan Khas and Parbate came later from north-west and the south. The Mongoloid Kirats, speakers of a Tibeto-Burman language, intermingled with other groups, including the Indo-Aryan Khas. The descendants of the Kirats probably include all the Mongolian people speaking various Tibeto-Burman languages, such as the Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Magar, Gurung, Thakali, Chepang, Dhimal, etc. The Ranas and the Shahas concocted their genealogy to claim Rajput origin whereas they were probably Khas and Magars who later intermarried with Indo-Aryan migrants.
The question, then, is who came first and from which direction and to which race they belong, or claim to belong. Tshewang Lama (Himal, Sep/Oct 1993) discusses pre- and post-Padmasambhava migrants into Nepal — the former, groups such as the Rai, Limbu and Magar and the latter, groups such as the Sherpas and Manangbas. Obviously, there are also different waves of migrants from the South. So where do we draw the line?
If claims are to be made on the basis of first come, then recent migrants will be discriminated against, as the examples of the bhumiputra movements in Maharastra, Malaysia and Indonesia have shown. And in Nepal, the Mongoloid groups will seek to exclude the Chhetri and the Bahun, and the Pahadis will claim that the Madhesis are non-indigen ous and non-Nepalis, and so on.
The need to have a criteria to identify the indigenous peoples ‘ will gain sudden urgency when the State takes the initiative to help these groups financially or otherwise, for example by reserving jobs in the government offices or seats in educational institutions. This step may not be far off, especially if development aid is tied to positive discrimination (affirmative action) in favour of the indigenous people.
The government-owned Rising Nepal has come out in favour of such a move. It states in an editorial: “Where necessary, the indigenous population ought to be provided with all possible support as is found that they are usually lacking in inputs essential for progress and prosperity… Backward in many cases, they suffer from many disadvantages, in part due to ignorance… On certain occasion, there might be need for outright welfare for the indigenous people… Special facilities ought to be opened for their education, health care and other basic necessities… The indigenous people should be protected when necessary from undesirable outside influences until they are capable of doing so by themselves.” (emphasis added).
The language is patronising. All in one breath, it calls ‘indigenous people’ backward, ignorant, incapable of taking care of themselves, and needing protection. While preferring not to identify who they mean by indigenous, the editors probably refer to communities such as the Chep arigs, Danuw ars, Tharus and other so-called tribals for it is rather difficult to think of the Gurungs, Thakalis, Sherpas, and Newars as backward, ignorant, or helpless, although it is generally true that these groups, whether they are called matwalis or janjatis or adivasis or tribals, are often marginalised. (They are underrepresented in the centres of power and at the central level — parliament, bureaucracy and higher education; groups such as Rais, Limbus and Tharus have been deprived of their land by the State. And the Nepali language and Bahun-Chhetri culture is so dominant that some of the other languages and cultures are on the verge of extinction.)
In any case, many poor Nepalis, whatever their origin, do need ‘special facilities’. One might then ask why the ‘indigenous people’ should be singled out for special treatment, particularly if indigenousness encompasses 80 percent of the population as Gopal Gurung claims? And why do the leaders of these groups insist on being classified as indigenous when the term is derogatory? We need to be careful in implementing positive discrimination and learn from mistakes made elsewhere. For example, in India, hundreds of castes and tribes struggle to be classified as `backward’, even though it is a derogatory term, so that they become eligible for positive discrimination from the state, although it is usually the more wealthy and powerful of the marginalized groups that benefit from positive discrimination.
Further, the claims made by the different groups calling themselves indigenous are bound to come into conflict.
For example, the Tharus can claim the right to all the forests and land in the Tarai; the Newars can claim the right to all the land of Kathmandu Valley and the income generated from Valley-based tourism and demand that Newari be made the official language in the Valley. Following this logic, the Gurungs, Magars, Sherpas and other ‘indigenous people’, as well as the dominant Bahun-Chhetri group should confine themselves to their traditional lands.
The logical extension of what the ‘indigenous’ leaders are demanding seems a reverting back to the pre-unification situation, a reversal of historical processes that led to the nation state of Nepal. The result would be what is today known as Balkanization, the dismemberment of a nation-state.
Perhaps this situation should be welcomed because in heterogenous societies, one group (or a few groups) will always be dominant over others, politically, economically and culturally. As independent countries, Magrat, Khasan, Kirat, etc., can negotiate directly with the donor countries, for aid. As small and homogenous countries, the chances of direct peoples’ participation in government and development may be greater.
Do we really want this? Do we want to deny the history and tradition of a Nepal where all communities are descended from migrants from outside during different periods of history? Specially when these different waves of migrants have either intermingled or broken up to form the numerous ethnic/linguistic communities which today constitute the peoples of Nepal?
Perhaps we could learn from the history of the Newars, the `original’ inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. As is well known, different waves of migrants settled in the valley, some as elites others as commoners. They assimilated with the original inhabitants, contributing to the rich cultural heritage. It could be said of these different waves of migrants that they came, they saw and they were conquered. That is, until Prithvi Narayan Shah arrived with his troops which included not a few of these ‘indigenous peoples’.
In other words, this whole question of indigenous peoples is a false problem because indigenous people do not exist in Nepal; or if they do, the majority of the Nepalis are indigenous, including many of the Bahuns and Chhetris. The more important problem is that of ethnicity and language and of poverty of the vast majority of Nepalis. It is to these problems rather than that of ‘indigenous peoples’ that we should direct our attention.
Pradhan is a freelance consulting anthropologist based in Kathmandu.