The dictionary definition of a "janjati" is a "jungle tribe living on wild fruits and plant roots," one that is "totally cutoff from the development process".
A parliamentary bill on nationalities that proposes to remove Newars from the list of Nepal's 60-plus nationalities has once again stirred emotions on what makes a janjati and what does not. Some Newars are happy to have "graduated" into the mainstream. Others suspect a sinister design to erase and assimilate a distinct community into a Hindu-dominated amorphous mass.
The Janjati Utthan Pratisthan Bidheyak (National Foundation for the Uplift of Janajatis bill) also proposes re-naming some janjatis, for example, changing Bhote which some found was disparaging to a location-specific nomenclature such as Manange. This may not be much different than calling a Bahun that travelled west into Nepal from Kumaon, a Kumai, but there are those who say location-specific names may also be confusing if Rais from Bhojpur are to be called Bhojpure, or the Limbus from Panchthar Panchthare. The list of examples could go on and on, as will the debate once the parliament reconvenes for its lawmaking winter session.
The contradictory definitions of what makes a group a janjati has contributed to the division among the Newars. A 1996 taskforce formed for the formation of the proposed foundation for the uplift of the nationalities, defined "janjati" as a community having its "own mother tongue and traditional culture but not belonging to the Hindu caste system".
This team, led by Shanta Bahadur Gurung, described janjatis as groups having distinct cultural identities, language, religion, customs and culture, traditional social structures, belonging to distinct geographical areas, groups with written or oral history and "we" feeling, indigenous settlers, groups excluded from the mainstream of state affairs and politics and communities that claim to belong to a janjati group. In other words, the definition confuses more than clearly demarcate the boundaries-which is not easy in the first place.
Then there is another definition published in the Gazette in July 1997, which uses the economic status of a community to decide if it qualifies as a janjati. It defines "janjatis" as communities having their "original and distinct language and culture" that are "socially backward in comparison to other caste groups". Although this definition is quite different from that prescribed by the taskforce headed by Gurung, it adopted the janjati list prepared by the earlier team and listed Newar as a hill group along with 61 others. There's an economic argument for the de-listing of Newars. The Nepal Human Development Report 1998 shows that Newars are economically better off than any other Nepali community. But some argue that their economic status goes against the most basic definition, the one in the lexicon that is accepted as standard for Nepali meanings, the Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh published by the Royal Nepal Academy. The dictionary definition of a "janjati" is a "jungle tribe living on wild fruits and plant roots," one that is "totally cutoff from the development process".
"Newars with their proud cultural history and economic status were never janjatis and will never claim that status," wrote Pradip Shrestha, a Newar, in the weekly Nepal Jagaran. Accepting Shrestha's views would mean giving up the "special arrangements for education, health and employment" that the Nepali Constitution promises for "economically and socially" disadvantaged janjatis.
Advocates of the janjati movement challenge both the dictionary and constitutional terminology, arguing that the definitions could have been different had a janjati been represented in the team that came up with them. "A janjati status is more about a community's social status than economics," says sociologist and janjati activist Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan. (See page 3 also)
A Bahun sociologist, who did not want to be named, adds another twist. The issue has more to do with fear of other janjatis of being co-opted by the larger, richer Newars who they fear may hijack issues related to the collective concerns of janjatis, the sociologist who teaches at Tribhuvan University told us. Developing their language and its use for official purposes in areas like Kathmandu Valley is high on the Newar agenda, while communities such as the Kirats from the Eastern hills or the jungle tribes are more concerned over the control and rights over local natural resources.
The newly elected General Secretary of the Nepal Federation of Nationalities, Bal Krishna Mabuhang, says the term "janjati" was adopted to describe the collective "spirit" of communities battling for restoration of their cultural, linguistic, religious and land ownership rights. He adds that, in the name of building a single national identity, the rulers have usurped these rights.
"Though economically well-off, and better represented in the administration, the Newars are deprived of their linguistic rights," says Dr Chaitanya Subba, Executive Director of the National Committee for Development of Nationalities (NCDN). He added that the NCDN has no doubt that the Newars are a janjati group, if nine distinguishing points listed by the 1996 taskforce were to be applied.
The multi-religious characteristic of Newars is another reason for the confusion over the community's status. The 1996-taskforce definition requires communities to belong outside the Hindu caste system to claim janjati status. But many Newars are Hindus and follow un-janjati practices such as observing an occupational caste system and "untouchability". This again could have been caused by centuries of Hindu domination over the Newar cultural space, argue some activists. "Some Newars might have attained high posts and earned much wealth but as a community we have no say in national affairs, we're a group left out in the cold," says Malla K. Sundar, a prominent Newar pro-janjati leader.