Monday, December 14, 2015

Geographic, Ethnic and Caste-based Conflicts in Nepal: A Snippet

I have just prepared a snippet to facilitate basic understanding on inequality and conflicts in Nepal. This is just a nascent idea, and may require further development and debates. However, I think it helps beginners, especially non-Nepalis, as an entry point to work further in the areas.

Let's begin straightforward, the first type is highlander–lowlander conflict.

The white part is himalayan region, green is hill region and grey is Terai-Madhes region. About half of Nepal's population resides in the grey lowland. The complexion and culture of about 33% of the total Nepali population, who live in this lowland, resembles with Indians living in the Indian side of the border. They complain of being excluded from the mainstream. Though there are remarkable political changes that includes them in the political mainstream after 2006, they have been still culturally discriminated. Some people claim it as a form of racism.


Within this grey-area (lowland), there is a huge inequality between the haves and the haves-not. Especially the form of land ownership is skewed and it creates two classes: landlords and landless. Most politicians from this lowland, who claim injustice from central governments, are lords in their areas. So another school of thought claims that, though the lowland benefitted from some political changes, the elites there funnelled the benefit, and empowerment of the real downtrodden people there has not been realised. {You may want to read Ignored or Ill-represented? The Grievance of Terai-Madhes Conflict in Nepal, Adroit Publishers.}

The second is the ethnic conflict.
Nepal is considered a melting-pot between Indo-Aryans (who climbed uphill from the Indus lowland, long-long before the creation of India) and Tibeto-Burmans (who climbed downhill from Tibetan region hundreds of year ago). Thus the country is a home for about 125 ethnic and caste groups. Tibeto-Burmans (also called Mongolians) reside mostly in the upper parts and Indo-Aryans live in hill (middle) parts, yet many cities are mixed pots. There are some indigenous Tharus in the lower part. In whole Nepal, Chhetris are in majority (17%), followed by Brahmins (12%), Magar (7%), Tharu (6%) and so many others. Though there are debates on who benefitted the most in economic terms, Chhetris and Brahmins had long been influential in politics and state administration. The scenario is changing after 2006, yet criticisms exists on the prevalent inequality that may be because of the legacy of the old system.

The third is the regional disparity.

There are complains, and some local-led movements, that development and budget allocation is discriminatory against the people living in the far-west region. Because of rugged mountains and hills, and also because of unwillingness or misplaced priorities of policy-influencers, providing infrastructure and basic services to the remote areas of the Far West region and upper hills of all regions have been difficult. Hence, alarming differences can be seen between development indices in this region. Disparity is such that some people in the hinterland have not ever seen a motor car. A journalist had once explained about the people who feared and ran away when they saw a motor car coming to their village for the first time. They thought that was a monster coming to kill them, really!! And in Kathmandu, the capital city, traffic jam is contrastingly the worst problem that locals suffer from.

The fourth is the caste problem.
Dalits, the so-called untouchables, are the most disadvantaged group in Nepal because they suffer from a double-edged sword: cultural discrimination and politico-economic exclusion. The dominance of the so-called upper-caste people in the political space and the scattered demography of Dalits throughout Nepal (as can be seen in the image) makes it difficult for the Dalits to be included in the mainstream political economy. They have been downtrodden since long, thus making educational and political awareness in this community difficult. Though lowlanders and ethnic groups seem to benefit from the recent political changes, there have been little progress noticed on areas of Dalit empowerment. However, new constitution and many rules/regulations strictly restrict caste-based discrimination, but implementing this to very remote areas is still a challenge.

The fifth, and the most important, is economic disparity.

The most difficult debate today is whether one's identity associated with a certain caste, class, ethnic or geographic group makes her/him disadvantaged or not. For example, the Human Development Index of high-caste in the lowland (Terai-Madhes, the so-called downtrodden) is higher than that of high-caste highlanders (Brahmin-Chhetris, the so-called discriminators). Some are culturally discriminated, but economically very affluent. Some are culturally non-discriminated (hill Brahmin-Chhetris in the western highland), but economically backward. At some places, some Dalits are economically richer than the Brahmins. So, rather than a blanket generalisation, understanding inequality and conflict in Nepal requires a very subtle socio-economic analysis. Nonetheless, it is true that certain people in the so-called high caste from the hill had benefited more than the others thus far.

PS: I've not yet included the universal discrimination such as against women, youth, minority religious groups and many others.

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