Historically discriminated because of their proximity to Kathmandu Valley, Tamangs demand alternative development models and a political structure that provides hope.
What do you say of a community that is everywhere, yet nowhere? Every one who arrives or leaves Kathmandu Valley by road or on foot has to pass through Tamang territory. This largest of ethnic groups among the Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples of the Himalayan region is especially concentrated around the Valley. The Bagtmati Zone, made up of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and Lalitpur districts, has more than 51 per cent Tamang speakers.
More than half of the mountain areas of Nepal is covered by the Tamang nation, which has inhabited these hills for longer than any other group. Tamangs have their own language, their unique lifestyle and religious beliefs. Though Tamang history has been largely ignored and therefore lost, it must have been significant According to one Tibetan inscription, the fort at Lo Manthang (Mustang) was built back in the 13th century AD as protection against the “Se Mon Tamang” of the south.
Yet, it was not until late in the present century that the world outside Nepal had even heard of the existence of the Tamang nation. Western visitors, guests of Rana Prime Ministers, who walked up the foot-trail from Bhimphedi had Tamangs carry their baggage without ever knowing it. To some, it would seem that Tamangs gained an identity only in 1932 after King Tribhuvan and Prime Minister Bhim Shumshere allowed them to write “Tamang” after their name in civil service and military rolls.
The low profile of the Tamangs and the poverty that marks their villages are the result of concerted exploitation over the centuries. Two hundred years ago, English traveller Francis B. Hamilton had occasion to remark that “Muimis” (Tamangs, as they were also known) were prohibited from entering the Valley. Because Tamangs ate carrion, they were known to the Newars of the Valley as Siyena Bhotya. Wrote Hamilton, “They never seem to have had any share in the government, nor to have been addicted to arms, but always followed the profession of agriculture, or carried bads for the Newars, being a people uncommonly robust.” Portering was a function of vital economic importance to the three principalities of the Valley, which relied on the trade links through the rugged terrain of the north and south. The Tamangs, residing in the periphery, provided just the required brawn.
According to Hamilton, the Lama Buddhism of the Tamangs was not acceptable to the Gorkhali conquerers of the Valley. A list of groups that may not be recruited as soldiers, prepared in 1896 by another Englishman E.Varsittart, reads as follows: “Chyame,Domai, Drat, Gainey, Kamara, Kami (Lokar), Kasaii Kumal Majhi, Pipa, Poday and Sarki.” Among these “Pipa”, unlike the others, is not the name of a tribe or ethnic group. It was the term for “porter”, which was the occupation reserved by the Ranas for Tamangs. The pipas were used to carry loads, pitch tents, and provide other menial physical labour for the military, but were excluded from the military hierarchy. They were administered through the depot known as the ´ Tipa Goswara”, which still exists near the outside gate of the Singha Durbar Secretariat in Kathmandu. Tamangs were forbidden to join other occupations.
The attitude towards the Tamangs was quite in accordance with the upper-caste Hindu blueprint for governance rule according to the Manusmritt and Hindu texts. The main aim of the Miluki Ain 1854 was, of course, to induct the hill ethnic people of Nepal under the four-tier Hindu hierarchy. The non-Hindu communities were pegged as “pant ckalney” Sudras, as differentiated from the “pani na-chalney” Sudras. This division was carried6ne step further. Based on loyalty and need for labour, particular groups were declared either masiney matwali (who could be enslaved) and na-masiney matwali (those who could not be enslaved). The more the masiney matwali accepted the Hindu ethos, the more easily they were assigned higher status.
While the Tamangs were thus not categorised as pani na-chalney Sudras, their position was lowest among the hill ethnics who were pani chalney. There was some attraction therefore to jettison one´s traditions andreligion, and Tamangs who did so were declared Gurungs. In Gorkha District, even today, there are many Bahra Saley Gurungs-Tamangs who became “Gurung” in the year 2012 (Vikram Era).
Following the Gorkhali conquest, the Kip at community land of the Tamangs was wrested and distributed among the Bahun and Chhetri courtier-class in the form of birta, jagir and guthi property. Tamangs were retained as bonded labour (kamaiya) and near-slaves to work these very lands. Even as bonded labourers, however, they had to pay jhara (a corvee like system).
During the Rana years, Tamangs were used as menial labour by the rulers and the courtier class — as construction labour for the durbars, for cutting trails, portering, carrying palanquins (doki bokneyji, running mail, delivering forest-based products such as duna and tapari (containers made from sal leaves), weaving doko baskets and nangh trays, keeping palaces clean (leep-pot garney), maintaining the indoors (baitkakey), doing gardening, providing agricultural labour, keeping herds, making lokta paper, holding umbrellas (chaiey), maintaining hookahs, carrying goods (dolay), and serving as dhai-ama, or surrogate mothers for high-born offspring. The system of keti basne (or nani susarey) imported women from the Tarn ang hills for all kinds of chores in Rana palaces. The maintenance of scores of female retainers, some of whom served as concubines, is said to have started the trend towards prostitution among poverty-stricken Tamang communities.
Tamangs provided a ready labour reserve pool for the rulers of Kathmandu. And it was in order to maintain this pool, that they prohibited the Tamangs from joining the British regiments in India, even though the Gurung and Magar west of the Trisuli river and the Rai and Limbu east of the Dudh Kosi were permitted. Tamangs were prevented from joining even Nepal´s own government administration and the military.
It was written in a handbook on Gurkha soldiers that “…the Tamang make an excellent soldier”, but because he will eat beef, “the more orthodox Gurkha officer is prejudiced against the enlistment of Tamangs.´´ However, the treatment of Tamangs was based on something more than the mere eating of beef. More significant was that historically the Tarnang nation came to occupy the strategically important region surrounding Kathmandu Valley. Feeling threatened by- this “encirclement”, Kathmandu*s rulers thought best to bring them forcibly under central rule and exploit them enough that the community could never rise — as it has not been able to until this day.
The Mallas were overtaken by the Gorkhalis. The Ranas ousted the Shahs. Then democracy arrived, briefly. The Shah rule returned under the Panchayat. And now here is democracy again. But the Tamangs of Nepal have remained where they always were. According to a survey done east of the Valley in the Ramechhap/Sindhuli region, more than 50 per cent of the porters (bhariyas) are Tamang .Generations of Tamangs have worked as porters in Kathmandu town, in recent decades as thela gada cart-pushers. Practically all rickshaw pullers and the majority of three-wheeler tempo drivers today are Tamang.
The lowest rungs of the trekking trade are manned by Tamangs. They have proven themselves to be adept climbers, but mountaineering expeditions merely allow Tamangs above base camp. Tamangs make up more than 90 per cent of thangka labourers, as contract artists hired by Tibetan and Newar businessmen, who reap the real profits. Above´ 75 percent of the carpet weaving labour js Tamang — mostly women and children prized for their deft fingers. The restaurant kanchas of Kathmandu are overwhelmingly Tamang, and Tamangs more than any other hill community are engaged in (he flesh trade in Indian metropolis. and Nepali towns;-The women have their origin in the economically deprived areas in the northern neighbourhood of the Valley. The tragic distinction of being the first recorded Nepali to die of AIDS has fallen on a Tamang woman.
Late into the 1970s, many Tamangs of the Valley´s periphery ensured economic survival by providing Firewood and charcoal to the urban dwellers. It was hard work, but provided cadi income for these subsistence farmers. These Tamang peasants have been targeted by some environmental experts-as responsible for the de-greening of the Valley rim, quite forgetting that it is the urban demand that drives the trade. As woodcutters, meanwhile, the peasants have to face corrupt forest guards and constrained access even for their own needs. The increasing demand ´ has led to depleting woodlands and drastically reduced income for the peasants. Meanwhile, the closing off of large tracts of woodlands, in particular the Shivapuri watershed area, has hit the surrounding villages very hard. The economic deprivation has merely increased the influx of indigent peasants to the job markets of polluted, expensive, uncaring Kathmandu.
Tamangs also have the distinction of providing the)´ foot.-soldiers for the “Hong kong trade”, regularly riding Royal Nepal´s Boeings as carriers of contraband. While the enormous profits of smuggling are made by others, it is the Tamang arid other “bhariyas” that are caught, and sometimes paraded in front of Nepal Television cameras. Prison surveys have shown, that a disproportionate number of Tamangs ace behind bars for criminal offenses. The psychological impact of economic depression is severe, although Nepali social scientists´ have not had occasion to study this problem so far.
Poonam Thapa, a Nepali geographer, speaking at a 1990 SAARC symposium oil the girl child, informed participants of the large number of women and girls from among the toiitwati groups who were in the flesh trade: “A family whose daughter is a prostitute in Bombay will have a corrugated” roof over its head. A family whose daughter is a madam will have a spacious bungalow.” But Thapa chose not to delve into the historical reasons which force Tamang women to enter this most despised of professions in the remote cities of clridia.
A young Tamang woman who weaves carpets in Kathmandu had this to say, “This country is ours, but we are only labourers. The Tibetan refugees have no country, but look at them…”
Perhaps Tamangs are inherently witless and uncreative, and deserving of their lowly position in Nepali society? It is most unlikely. Their position has nothing to do with heredity and everything to do with focused historical discrimination. One need only glance across the border to the achievements of Tamangs in India to see how they have flowered when presented with fairness and opportunity. In Darjeeling, for example, descendants of Tamang migrants are today at the forefront of culture, the arts, education, government and politics. The few Tamangs who have achieved fame and recognition in Nepal in these fields, too, mostly have their origins in the Darjeeling hills.
The founding fathers of the Indian Republic made arrangements to provide constitutional security for the development of “backward” tribes and castes. Many tribes and Harijans took advantage of the facilities extended to “Scheduled Tribes” and “Scheduled Castes”, but the Tamangs of India did not. So self-confident were they of their abilities — and this was as early as the 1950s—that they preferred not to take the offer. They did not consider themselves “backward” or weak in any Sway.
Today, a Gorkha Hill Council runs the affairs of the hills of Darjeeling. It is the only government agency in which there is adequate representation of Tamangs in policy-making roles. Subhas Ghisingh, the leader of the Gorkh a Nation at Liberation From is Tamang.
The names Ghisingh, Yonzon, Waiba and Pakhrin are only some of the clan names that Tamangs use as their surnames in India, As there is adequate recognition of tribal and-caste rights in India, Tamangs there have felt free to use the clan surnames. In Nepal, however, Tamangs still feel a need to assert their group identity and solidarity by retaining “Tamang” as their surname.
Psychological subjugation is the worst form of defeat, and the Tamangs carry this load like perh aps no other Nepali community. Not content to merely ignore the Tamangs, the rulers of Kathmandu tried, consciously and unconsciously, to quash their self-image. While Tamangs were prevented from eating beef, for example, nothing Was done to discourage alcoholism among Tamangs — after all they´re matwaiis.it. was said. And so today the Tamang community as a whole has been severely weakened by generations of liberal drinking. Many men and women of the deprived hinterland drown themselves in jaand and rakshi from dawn to dusk. Even children are not spared.
When a few sons and daughters of the Kathmandu elites take to drugs, there is hue and cry. It is declared a national problem and crash programmes are started to counter the “drug menace”. But there is little concern for entire communities that are facing relentless decline through drugs and drink?
The psychology of the Tamang thus took a beating over centuries of economic deprivation, political discrimination, and social marginalisation. As a result, they have developed a culture of silence, accepting their lot as defined without challenge. So much so that many thought nothing of jettisoning their Tamang identity and joining foreign armies as Gurung, Ghalcy, Magars, Rai or Limbu. Even today, quite a few “Gurungs” in the British and Indian Gurkhas, and even in Nepal´s own army, are actually Tamangs. These Tamangs and their families are having great difficulty making citizen ship papers due to service and pension records which have them as Gurungs or some other ethnicity.
Today, the consumerism that has conquered the Valley towns is spreading its tentacles into the Taman g heartland. The draw of Kathmandu´ s cash economy and the bright city lights has emptied the Tamang hamlets of all but the infants, the aged and the infirm. Strength, intelligence skill and initiative have seeped out of Tamang hillsides. The migrants arrive in Kathmandu to serve as the underclass, as domestics, and as carpet weavers living in dilapidated shanties, unhygienic rooming houses, and working rickshaws and push-carts.
In the Tamang areas of southern Lalitpur today, there are schools but no Tamang pupils. Little boys and girls who should be at school and at play are hunched over carpet laans in Patan ´s inner city, in Jorpati and Baudha, concentrating on complicated “hand-made” knots so much in demand among European consumers.
There is no Tamang in the present cabinet. Why? In Parliament they make up a bare 1.8 per cent of the membership. Why? There is not a single Tamang in a leadership position in any political party. The proportion of Tamangs is minuscule in the Government and Tribhuvan University services, the court system, the professions, education, and in non-governmental organisations. In the military and police, Tamangs man the barricades but have little role in the upper hierarchy.
In other words, while they make up perhaps 18 to 20 per cent of Nepal´s 19 million population^ Tamangs as a nation are practically un¬represented in the country´s national affairs. The proportion of Tamang is the proportion _of the three elite communities — Bahunk, Chheiri and Newar — combined. Yet these three groups make up the following percentages: 92.8 per cent of the civil service´s Deputy Secretary posts and above, 93.9 per cent in the court system, 93.7 per cent in the national administration, 83.4 per cent in senior technical posts like doctors and engineers, 87per cent of all army officers, 62 per cent of the members of the Lower House of Parliament, and 70 per cent of the Upper House.
The process of development has been co-opted by the Kathmandu´s elites, made up mostly of Bahuns, Chhetris and Newars. The “develop-ment agencies” are investing huge amounts, but most of it is diverted to the elite classes and rarely get down to communities such as the Tamang. Because the development mechanism as determined by the state is quite inadequate, development funds do not get to the intended beneficiaries and instead benefit Kathmandu-based contractors, bureaucrats and professionals. If under the new-found democracy, political commitment remains lukewarm and the structures of delivery remain the same, there is going to be no develop¬ment of the hill communities. The result will be no better than during the Panchayat years. A new model of “alternative development” is required, and the political system under the present constitution must be adjusted to reflect the country´s reality.
Local political units must be structured according to communities. “Local development” would then mean the development and implementation of work programmes by autonomous community-based institutions. There is, certainly, a need for central planning and programming which has to be overseen by a national-level unit. For this, the existing House of Representatives is appropriate, but the Upper House as it exists is superfluous.
Most members of the Upper House are chosen by political parties in proportion to their victory in the general elections. This merely duplicates the political representation which already exists in the Lower House and has no function. What should be done is this: the Upper House must be called the House of Nationalities, in which all nations that make up Nepal should be represented on the basis of equality, irrespective of numbers. Such a significant improvement of the existing political system can be done without changing its basic structure.
Only a system which allows representation “of all communities large and small, weak and powerful, will work in the Nepal of the future. Only then will there be genuine self-determination, which will bring all communities into the mainstream and ultimately strengthen the unity and sovereignty of Nepal as a multi¬national state. To be multi-national is not a danger, and ruliong elites must recognise this. The Tamangs, meanwhile, wait for the day.