Nepalis IPs movement: Still a long way to go
(आदिवासी दिवासको दिन प्रकाशित रिपब्लिका राष्ट्रिय दैनिकबाट साभार ।)
DEV KUMAR SUNUWAR
Looking back at the last 18 years in the history of Nepali Indigenous People (IP), also known as Adivasi Janajati, from the very first International Day of World Indigenous People on August 9 in 1995 to 2013, there are stories of both glory and despair.
Known as ‘nationalities,’ the government for the first time recognized the concept of ‘Indigenous Nationalities’ in 1997 by promulgating an ordinance thereby creating a National Committee for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities led by Prof. Sant Bahadur Gurung.
In 1999, the Committee identified 61 caste/ethnic groups as ‘nationalities.’ In 2002, the government finally approved and enlisted 59 caste/ethnic groups as ‘Indigenous Nationalities’ by enacting the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities Act.
IPs define themselves as Adivasi-Janajati who have distinct cultural identities, languages, traditional religions, customs and cultures, traditional territories, and those who have a history of their own.
According to the 2011 Census, IP comprise 35.81% of the total population of 26,494,504. Even though IP make for a significant proportion of the population, throughout the history of Nepal indigenous people have been marginalized by the dominant groups in terms of land, territories, resources, language, culture, customary laws, and political and economic opportunities.
The IPs’ tireless efforts for many years to assert their rights and identity ultimately forced the government to recognize them as ‘Indigenous Nationalities.’
In 1926, the Newars in Kathmandu formed an organization called Nepal Bhasa Bikas Mandal, and in 1949, Chwasapasa was founded. The Tharu community formed Tharu Kalyankari Sabha in 1941.
After the restoration of democracy in 1950, there was an alliance of Pichadieka Barga Sangathan (Backward Class Organization in 1956) comprising Tharu Kalyankari Sabha, Gurung Kalyan Sangha, Kirat League, and the Dalit Sangha. But the then King Mahendra-led partyless Panchayat system intensified its autocracy with the slogan of ‘one race (Nepali-jati), one language (Khas-Nepali), one dress (Daura-Surwal for men and Sari for women), one culture (Hindu), and one religion (Hinduism)’ which didn’t help indigenous people.
The restoration of democracy in 1990 saw the spurt of non-governmental organizations of IPs and greater successes in the surge of their movement.
In 1991, the Nepal Federation of Nationalities (NEFEN), the forerunner of Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella organization of the country’s indigenous nationalities, was founded comprising merely nine different Indigenous Nationalities Organizations – Gurung, Magar, Newar, Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Sherpa, Thakali, and Sunuwar. NEFIN now unites 56 different IP organizations widely distributed throughout the Tarai, Hills and Himalaya under one umbrella, has its branches in 71 districts and nearly 3,000 villages. “Initially, NEFIN centered its movement on establishing their identity as Indigeneity and voicing in support of the ‘first settlers’ of the country,” says Nagendra Kumal, Central Chairman of NEFIN. NEFIN then had initiated the drive to raise awareness on distinct languages, cultures, religions, lifestyles and indigenous knowledge. But today, NEFIN has taken its movement from cultural, social and religious planes to political.”
Following the establishment of NEFIN, there seemed a spurt of organizations of IPs, along with joint organizations, combining various indigenous nationalities. Some of them with federal structure are the National Indigenous Women’s Federation (where as many as 31 IP women’s organizations are aligned, with branches across 50 districts and 1,500 villages), NGO Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Nationalities (NGO-FONIN), Association of Nepalese Indigenous Nationalities Journalists (ANIJ), the forerunner of Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Journalists (FONIJ), and so forth.
This expanded not merely the networks but also helped acquire recognition from the state, political parties, civil society and internationally and equally increased greater awareness among Indigenous Nationalities relating to their identities, own languages, cultures, and ways of life.
Genesis of the International Day of IPs
On December 18, 1990, in accordance with the recommendations of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, through its decision No. 45/164, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) declared 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People.
With its slogan of ‘Indigenous People: A New Partnership,’ the IPs year aimed at establishing a relationship among the international community, the state, and the IPs and to encourage international support for indigenous peoples in regards to their issues, including the infringement on their fundamental human rights, in the areas of environment, development, education, and health and so on.
The International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples took place but many IPs around the world did not even know about it. And therefore, at the end of year, on December 17, 1993, the UN, during its General Assembly and through a decision (No. 48/163) declared August 9— marking the day of the first formal meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations—as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. Similarly, 1995-2004 was declared as the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with the slogan ‘Indigenous People: Partnership in Action’.
Following the completion of the first Indigenous People’s Decade, the UN through its decision No. 60/142 again declared the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2005-2015, with the slogan ‘Partnership for Action and Dignity.’
Every year, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed with different themes. This year’s theme is ‘Indigenous Peoples building alliances: Honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’.
IPs movement at the international level
The history of world’s IPs movement to bring their issues at the international level relating to the marginalization and discrimination dates back to the 1920s, during the existence of League of Nation.
In 1923, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh, the representative from North America, had traveled to the League of Nations to present the claims of his tribal communities, but was not recognized and given a chance to make a claim. The following year, the Maori religious leader W.T. Ratana had traveled to League of Nations to protest against the breach of Treaty made between the British Crown and the Maori chiefs in New Zealand.
However, the engagement with UN in real sense began only after the 1970s.
In 1971, the UN, especially its Economic and Social Council, passed a landmark decision which authorized the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to carry out the study on the problem of discrimination against Indigenous Populations. The study was conducted by the team led by special Rapporteur Jose Martinez Cobo, which was published in different volumes on different dates from 1981 to 1983 as a series of reports.
Based on the recommendations of the report in 1982, the UN formed the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations as an organ of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, a body under the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Working Group produced the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – the only an international declaration specifically guaranteeing the various rights of the world’s IPs, including that of IPs’ right to self-determination, land and resource rights, and rights of political autonomy and so forth. Similarly, in 2000, the UN also established the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Similarly, in 2001, the UN also created the post of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedom of indigenous peoples, under the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The first special rapporteur was Prof. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, and currently Prof. James Anaya is holding the position. After his appointment in 2008, he visited Nepal from November 24 to December 2, 2008, following the invitation from the government for the purpose of examining the human rights situation of Nepali IPs in the light of international standards and also to analyze the ongoing process of Constitution writing and political transition, as it relates to them.
Presenting his report entitled “On the Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Nepal” at the 12th session of the Human Rights Council held in September 2009, he noted that although the government of Nepal planned a number of positive measures for the socio-economic benefits of indigenous communities, IPs have been forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands, denied access to justice, excluded from political representation and decision-making, inter alia economic and educational opportunities and their distinct cultures and languages have been continuously threatened and so forth, and recommended the government to focus its actions on securing their survival within a genuine multicultural political and social order.
International Day and IPs of Nepal
Right after the UN declared 1993 the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the government formed the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples-1993 National Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. But sadly the government committee did not organize even a single program to mark the Indigenous People’s Year. Similarly, after the declaration of the Indigenous People’s Decade, the government formed yet another Committee chaired by the minister for education and culture. Like its predecessor, this committee also ended without undertaking any activity.
But, on the other hand, Indigenous Nationalities themselves also had formed a separate committee, and carried out various programs across the country during the Indigenous People’s Year and later during Indigenous People’s Decade (1994-2004). Furthermore, they have also been observing Indigenous People’s Day on 9 August every year by organizing programs, rallies, and processions in Kathmandu and in various parts of the country.
The umbrella organization of Nepal’s indigenous nationalities, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), has been playing a prominent role in organizing these activities.
In the two-decade-long journey of IPs movements in Nepal, there have been some policy and program reforms affecting the lives of IPs rights and development. This is also perhaps due to the change in political systems and equally due to the increasing strength of IPs movements which also succeeded to push in including to some international multilateral and bilateral agencies for policy reforms and program support. Similarly, indigenous representatives and activists have got the opportunity to participate in various UN-sponsored meetings and trainings.
IPs Activist Dr. Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan says that although their rights have not yet been guaranteed by recognition, the government has enlisted 59 IPs, established the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN), a semi-autonomous government body, which to some extend have formulated and implemented programs related to the social, educational, economic and cultural development, language preservation, awareness-raising and the protection of the endangered indigenous communities of Nepal.
There also have been revisions in Civil Service Act of 2007 which include the provision to reserve 45% of vacant posts to IPs (27%), women (33%), Madhesis (22%), Dalits (9%), disabled people (5%) and those from ‘backward’ regions (4%). It is regarded to be a remarkable step to making state-employment opportunities open to historically excluded groups, including IPs and making governance more inclusive. Likewise, in line with the provision of 1990 Constitution and to the later Interim Constitution 2007, the National Planning Commission, especially from its ninth five-year plan initiated the socio-economic development program targeting IPs.
Nepal is one of the 22 countries – and the only one in Asia – to have ratified the only legally binding international treaty relating to IPs – the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labor Organization (ILO C. No. 169) in 2007. Nepal also voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) at the UN General Assembly the same year. However, the provisions laid down in the Convention and Declaration are yet to be internalized into Nepal’s national laws, plans and polices with regards to asserting the IPs’ rights.
In the latest, April 2008, CA elections, 218, out of the total 601 members (36.3%) were elected from among the indigenous communities.
Despite these remarkable achievements, however, Dr. Bhattachan says that the main things in regards to IPs in Nepal are yet to guaranteed autonomy with right to self-determination, ensure federalism based on ethnicity, languages and regions, self-rule, Free Prior and Informed Consent, the right to land, and natural resources, and their collective rights.
Advocate and Secretary of Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), Shankar Limbu, says, 75% of the total laws and regulations in Nepal concerning with IPs are discriminatory in regards to the provisions of ILO C. No. 169 and UNDRIP. Similarly, the government has to honor the treaties, agreements and other covenants made between indigenous peoples’ organizations, IPs, and IPs’ political parties on different dates, which includes the treaties made between King Prithvi Narayan Shah and IPs of Limbuwan made in 1831 AD.
As per the treaty, full-fledged autonomy would be provided to them and let them maintain their rights to their ancestral lands. They had practiced autonomy over their land as Kipat system –a communal form of land tenure, up until the formulation of Land Reform Act in 1994. Similarly, a-20-point agreement made between NEFIN that includes guarantee of at least one seat to a person of each IPs community, autonomy with right to self-determination as a principle in the federal design.
Nepal is presently shifting from one paradigm to another. The unitary centralized structure is in a process of giving way to a more inclusive federal structure. The International Day and Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and the UN initiatives related to IPs, like the ILO C. No. 169 and the UNDRIP are important and crucial instruments for resolving the conflict, at the same time advancing the issues and rights of Nepali IPs and equally for peace, development and human rights. Because these prescribed norms and standards for states include IPs, and therefore, the government and international actors in Nepal have to bring forth their plans, policies, programs accordingly. Dr. Bhattachan further says, the government and international donors have started to allocate resources for the development of IPs, but these are not yet adequate, and thus they should forge new partnerships with IPs and implement them.
Sunuwar is a freelance feature writer. He was an Indigenous Fellow at United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2010.
(आदिवासी दिवासको दिन प्रकाशित रिपब्लिका राष्ट्रिय दैनिकबाट साभार ।)