The progressive weakening of the Janajati movement in Nepal

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

The progressive weakening of the Janajati movement in Nepal

Members of the indigenous Newar community protest against the bill that seeks to nationalize all trusts regulating religious sites [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

Locals of Khokana, a small ancient village on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu Valley, are protesting the government’s plans to build the Kathmandu-Nijgadh expressway through the village. They say the massive construction project will destroy their rich Newari heritage. Various Janajati groups and organizations are supporting their cause, as they feel it is a violation of Janajati people’s land rights.

But even with this support, the government has chosen to ignore them. According to some, this indicates a weakening of the Janajati movement in Nepal. (As per the 2011 national census, Janajatis comprise 35.4 percent of the total population of 26.4 million.) The various Janajati groups that appeared stronger than even some of the big political parties six or seven years ago are now struggling for survival. Their involvement in lobbying and creating awareness on Janajati issues has also waned considerably.

Golden era

Janajati and adivasi agendas started coming to the fore of national politics in an organized way after the 1990 political change. Before that, the Janajati political agendas like the right to self-determination, secularism, and federalism were largely ignored. It was only after the 1990 constitution guaranteed fundamental rights of all citizens that Janajati activists started organizing themselves. After that, the Maoist movement played a key role in establishing Janajati issues. The Maoist party had federated the country into 14 states and named them after various ethnicities, which in turn earned the party the support of various Janajati groups. The second Jana Andolan in 2006 was another turning point in the growth of the Janajati movement. It was then that political parties brought Janajatis on board by supporting their agenda of regional autonomy and right to self-determination.

In the first Constituent Assembly, there was a sizable presence of Janajati lawmakers from across the political spectrum. The Maoist party, which emerged the largest in 2008 CA elections, backed the demands of the Janajati constituency. Altogether, 198 lawmakers formed a cross-party caucus to jointly fight for Janajati rights. Due to the pro-Janajati position of the Maoist party and cross-party consensus, the first CA took several monumental decisions. For instance, its State Restructuring and Distribution of State Power Committee submitted a report proposing 14 provincial units based on ethnic/community identity.

Hence, 2005-2012 is considered the golden period of the Janajati movement. The Janajati groups had put up a strong fight to save the first CA, to no avail, and the assembly was dissolved in May 2012 without promulgating a constitution. Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, which opposed identity-based federal structures, emerged as the dominant parties in the second Constituent Assembly. The second CA refused to accept the reports of its first avatar. “The Janajati movement started on a downward spiral after the second Constituent Assembly came into being in 2014, from which the movement has yet to recover,” says Om Gurung, an academic and a Janajati campaigner. Even the Maoist party, which had strongly advocated ethnicity-based federalism, has now abandoned that agenda.

2015 constitution

Arguing that identity-based federalism would lead to conflict, NC and UML opted for crafting provinces based on their financial viability rather than their ethnic make-up. Janajati leaders thus believe their key demands remain unfulfilled. For instance, some Janajati lawmakers from Province 3 had proposed that their province be named Newa-Tamsaling, in lieu of the two ethnic communities in the region, but the majority ruling party lawmakers named it Bagmati, after a river. 

Gurung says one of the core Janajati demands on the establishment of a secular state was achieved in the new constitution, “and yet the caveat that secularism is tantamount to protecting the Sanatan Hindu religion hollowed it out.” On language, all languages spoken in the country were accepted as national languages, even as the official language remained Nepali.

Some indigenous rights are protected under the fundamental rights of the new constitution. Article 42 guarantees social justice rights for Janajatis and ensures their participation in state bodies based on their population estimates. Similarly, Article 18 ensures right to equality, as it states that the state shall not discriminate citizens on grounds of origin, religion, race, caste, tribe, sex, economic condition, language, region, ideology, or similar grounds. Janajati leaders, however, say laws are yet to be formulated to implement these fundamental constitutional rights.

Likewise, according to Article 261, there shall be an Indigenous Nationalities Commission. The government has already formed Madhesi, Tharu and Muslim commissions but not the indigenous commission. “This shows the ruling Nepal Communist Party and the government it leads are not in favor of the walfare of Janajatis,” says Dev Kumar Sunuwar, Editor of, an online portal dedicated to Janajati issues.

Ruling party and the movement

With the formation of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP)-led government two and a half years ago, there has been a systematic effort to suppress the movement, say Janajati leaders. According to them, the ongoing protest in Khokana is a case in point. NEFIN and other Janajati groups accuse the government of trying to finish off the culture and identity of the local community in Khokana. They complain of similar efforts to keep Janajati communities away from natural resources and displace them from their traditional places in the name of development.

“Neither have their constitutional rights been granted nor are the Janajatis in a position to amend the constitution,” rues Gurung. The ruling NCP was formed after the 2018 unification of CPN-UML and CPN (Maoist Center). The UML leadership has always been against all kinds of identity movements. The Maoist party was more sympathetic to their cause—and many leaders in the ruling party from the Maoist background still are.

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, however, thinks the 2015 constitution has already addressed most demands of Janajatis. With a strong NCP-controlled government at the center, as well as in six of the seven provinces, Janajati agendas have weakened. It does not help that leaders form the community who are in positions of power have abandoned their traditional agenda. For instance, of the seven chief ministers, two—Province 1 Chief Minister Sher Dhan Rai and Gandaki province Chief Minister Prithvi Subba Gurung—are from the Janajati community. So is the country's vice-president, Nanda Bahadur Pun. Yet seldom do they raise the agendas identified with the Janajati movement. 

Janajati movement Nepal

Photo Source: Indigenous Voice

Likewise, there are several Janajati ministers in the federal and provincial cabinets. Repeating after Oli, they say there is no need for another Janajati movement as the constitution has already secured most of their rights.

Government and foreign support

In recent years, the government has reduced the budget for the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN), the autonomous organization for the welfare of indigenous nationalities that was established following the restoration of democracy in 1990. Its current vice-chair Gokul Gharti says some budget cuts are understandable as more resources are going to provincial and local governments. However, he says the cuts have been so deep that the organization is now struggling to function effectively.

Similarly, the international community has stopped supporting awareness and livelihood projects of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN). Just like NFDIN, NEFIN was established in 1991 as an autonomous group and the only representative umbrella organization of 59 indigenous nationalities or peoples of Nepal. During the second Jana Andolan, the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) had supported the NEFIN. “These days, the leadership of NEFIN is not active in approaching donor agencies, nor do donor agencies seem interested. The government has also been calling on donor agencies to stop funding NEFIN projects, often by giving them wrong information on Janajatis,” says Gurung.

Dev Kumar Sunuwar agrees that the international support for Janajatis has dried up due to “close monitoring of international assistance that comes to Janajati organizations”.

Role of NEFIN

NEFIN currently has under its umbrella 56 distinct indigenous member organizations across Nepal. During the second Jana Anadolan, NEFIN had played a key role in rallying the Janajati constituency in the movement against the monarchy. At the same time, espying the power of Janajati leaders to earn them vital votes, political parties started courting them. As a result, NEFIN was thoroughly politicized. Janajati leaders close to ruling NCP are no longer interested in taking up any movement. “This is why NEFIN has become incapable of launching a decisive movement by taking all sections on board,” says Gurung.

Furthermore, there is competition among top political leaders to induct the Janajati leaders close to them into the federation. Vice-chair Magar dismisses the charge that his organization has become dysfunctional, arguing that it is still busy. “Hitting the street is only one form of agitation. We are preparing for another movement, but in a different way. We are educating our constituency and are in constant touch with members of other marginalized groups to develop a common front,” says Magar. He explains that the organization is now working on forming a clear vision and actively courting the international community. But says journalist Sunuwar, absence of strong leadership further weakens      the NEFIN.

With Madhes-based parties

Madhes-based parties and Janajati groups have been trying to launch a joint movement for constitution amendment. The newly formed Janata Samajbadi Party is holding talks with various Janajati groups for the same.

NEFIN’s Magar states, “We should not reject the constitution but continue our struggle to secure the rights of Madhesis and Janajatis. For that we need to review the past movement and prepare for the next one.”      

In the past, Madhesi and Janajati forces were on the same page on multiple issues. But after the promulgation of the constitution, journalist Sunuwar observes, the government has taken a ‘divide and rule’ approach. “With a purpose of dividing indigenous communities, the government formed separate commissions for Thaus, Madhesis, and Dalits,” says Sunuwar.

However, according to Keshav Jha, a Janata Samajbadi leader, discussions to create a Madhesi-Janajati alliance are still underfoot. But Janajati experts are not hopeful. There are top Madhesi leaders in parliament to take up Madhesi issues, but there are no such Janajati leaders to do the same for      Janajati issues. Most Janajati leaders espousing the community’s traditional agendas lost the 2017 elections.

But senior lawyer Shankar Limbu, a long-time advocate of Janajati rights, has a different take on the Janajati movement. He says the movement is not dying, only changing its shape. The real Janajati movement has only just begun, he argues, and it is entirely different from the previous center-based street protests. “The Janajati movement has reached the community level, as in Khokana. There are other examples where Janajati people have protested against various hydropower projects for violating their land rights, for instance in Lamjung, Tanahu, Rasuwa and Palpa districts,” he says.

“There continues to be strong Janajati resistance movements in various parts of the country,” adds Limbu, and that it is difficult to suppress such community-level movements. These days, Janajati groups are also engaged in rigorous research, while new Janajati associations are being formed in education and other sectors. All this, says Limbu, will give the movement a new shape and strength. That, alas, is a minority view among Janajati activists.