About 9.5 million Nepalis or 36% of the country’s population fall into the old British category ‘tribal’. Today, they are called adivasi or indigenous people.
In the mountains live adivasi groups like the Magar, Gurung, Sherpa, Rai, or Limbu. In the plains are the Tharu, who alone form over 6% of Nepal’s population. Many other smaller ‘tribal’ groups live in both areas.
I taught for three years in an eastern hill district dominated by Rai and Tamang villages. For over a decade I have been researching state-sponsored development programs in the Tarai, and how the Tharu have resisted and adjusted to them.
The story of the Rai, Tamang, and Tharu have counterparts in Nepal, across South Asia and the globe. There is no better place to start understanding this history than with Ramachandra Guha’s book Democrats and Dissenters. The chapter ‘Tribal Tragedies’ by the well-known historian offers a useful point of departure for understanding Nepal as well.
In India, over 105 million people in over 500 different communities are officially classified as ‘Scheduled Tribes’. Eight percent may seem small, but 8% of the country’s population is a lot of people.
Guha’s main point is that democracy and development in independent India after 1947 has not only overlooked tribals, but often undermined their political freedom, cultural integrity, and economic status.
Modern India has impoverished them. Guha writes that ‘indigenous groups are the unacknowledged victims of seven decades of democratic development. In this period, they have continued to be exploited and dispossessed by the wider economy and polity’. The ‘continued to be’ wording is important.
Guha notes that politically, tribals have fared even worse than Dalits and Muslims: ‘While Dalits and Muslims have had some (admittedly modest) impact in shaping the national discourse on democracy and governance, the tribals remain not just marginal but invisible.’
Not just marginal but invisible. Government development programs in India often undermined the welfare of tribal groups. They were sometimes pushed aside for commercial forestry, dams, and mines. Sometimes, it was national parks and other conservations programs. They were displaced by both development and anti-development.
Outsiders often wrongly assume that tribal groups have always been poor, probably even poorer in earlier times. Actually, it is the opposite: sometimes it is modern life that has worsened conditions.
A governmental study group in India noted that tribal poverty often owed to non-tribal Indians, the so-called ‘civilised’ people. ‘We have driven [the tribals] into the hills because we wanted their land and now we blame them for cultivating it in the only way we left to them,’ the report says.
Indeed, state policy and an emphasis on fast, big infrastructure development in India since 1947 has taken the homes and land of millions of Indian adivasi. Guha says the estimates range from a few million to an astounding 20 million. That is two thirds of Nepal’s own population.
According to the sociologist Walter Fernandes, roughly 40% of all those displaced by government projects are of tribal origin and are many times more likely to be displaced than non-tribal Indians.
Compensation programs have often failed because adivasi have not been provided with the language, cultural, and financial knowledge and skills for the modern age. Thrown into the deep end of the economy’s pool without the skills necessary, they often toil for low wages as landless labourers.
National parks and other conservation efforts have squeezed adivasi groups from the other side. ‘Apart from large dams and industrial townships,’ Guha writes, ‘tribals have also been rendered homeless by the setting aside of forest areas as national parks and sanctuaries.’
Adivasi often live on or near lands that were once marginal. They shaped the land, of course, but did so lightly, so the ecosystems are healthier than most others.
As displacement by conservation grew worse in the 1960s, the Dhebar Committee noted the problems: ‘The tribal who formerly regarded himself as the lord of the forest, was through a deliberate process turned into a subject and placed under the Forest Department.’
After conserving nature better than other societies for generations, adivasi found themselves blamed for its destruction. ‘There is constant propaganda that the tribal people are destroying the forest,’ the Dhebar Committee noted.
One study blamed official ignorance of and arrogance toward adivasi cultures, fueled by the assumption that tribal traditions were backwards. Government officials, it found, regarded themselves ‘as superior, as heaven-born missionaries of a higher culture … lacking in any intimate knowledge’ of adivasi traditions.
Government officials felt free to ‘boss the people about … in order to “get things done” they do not hesitate to threaten and bully’.
In his book, Guha notes: ‘Officials and their urban conservationist supporters claimed that in order to protect the forests, the Adivasis had to be kept out.’
Guha argues that adivasi are politically invisible, and he notes that unlike Muslims and Dalits a tribal person has never served as a cabinet member. In addition, Dalits and Muslims have served in other high constitutional offices, but not adivasi.
Adivasi marginalisation is part of a global pattern that, surprisingly, has worsened in recent decades, not improved. In other parts of the world, indigenous communities faced deep challenges centuries ago, when European societies first moved into their areas. But they have also faced profound and worsening problems in recent decades. Their marginalisation is an old story but also a recent, modern one.
‘For sheer intensity, sweep, and impact,’ historian Kenneth Coates has written, ‘few generations in history [of indigenous people] have witnessed the dramatic transformations of the period between 1940 and 1970.’
During those years, several factors made things much worse: World War II and the Cold War, national consolidation within newly independent nations, and the postwar boom in road, dam, and other infrastructure development.
Similar dynamics played out in 1960s Nepal, including rushed Cold War development projects and King Mahendra’s ‘one language, one culture, one nation’ policies. Nepal’s 59 adivasi groups have faced many challenges.
In Nepal and elsewhere, this was a story of marginalisation and exploitation, but not just that. The adivasi have resisted, shaped history, created pockets of freer action, applied their own meanings, and found creative ways to persevere.
Writing about Lavkant Chaudhary’s probing artistic inquiries into Tharu history, Priyankar Chand observes, ‘The art presented is a glimpse into nearly three centuries of violence inflicted upon the Tharus by the various apparatus of the Nepali state. Yet the narrative explored is not only about suffering, it is more importantly about resilience and resistance.’
Tom Robertson, Ph D is a historian who has been researching malaria and Tharu history since 2007. He is an adviser to the Chitwan Tharu Culture Museum.