Nepali Times Asian Paints
Janjatis want to stand up,and be counted


how to correctly fill out questionnaires in the 2001 Census next month on mother tongue, second language, religion and ethnicity. The result may give us a more realistic (and different) picture of Nepal's true diversity.

Prithvi Narayan Shah famously described Nepal as a garden of many flowers, referring to the multicultural, multi-linguistic and multi-religious nature of the Nepali nation he had just unified. Two and half centuries later, ethnic communities across Nepal who had been bypassed by development, by the mainstream economy and politics are asserting themselves. And they find the upcoming census in June as an opportunity to finally stand up and be counted.

The census is officially called the "Nepal Census on Population and Housing 2001", therefore at the centre of attention of the Nepal Federation of Nationalities (NFN), an umbrella organisation representing various indigenous peoples' groups across Nepal. Dissatisfied janjatis say they were under-counted in previous censuses and they are determined to correct that. Janjatis started intensifying their demands after the restoration of democracy in 1990 and have been demanding a greater role in national issues likely to affect their cultural, linguistic and religious status. In the run up to the census next month, 39 janjati organisations affiliated to the NFN have begun an awareness programme in their communities.

In 1996, a government taskforce led by Shanta Bahadur Gurung defined "janjati" as an indigenous community with its "own mother tongue and traditional culture, but not belonging to the Hindu caste system" and identified 61 different janjatis across the country, 21 in the mountains, 23 in the hills and 17 in the tarai. In July 1997, the Gazette endorsed this list, but put forth a slightly different definition of the term. Much to the dissatisfaction of janjati activists and anthropologists, it applies an economic yardstick to determine if a group is truly janjati: it defines janjatis as groups having "original and distinct language and culture" that are "socially backward in comparison to other caste groups".

The guidelines prepared for the forthcoming census follows the definition provided by the 1996 taskforce somewhat, although it chooses not to elaborate on the term. Enumerators without detailed anthropological knowledge-and they will be many of those-will find the annex listing the sub-clans of various janjatis insufficient in the field. For instance, more than 32 sub-clans have been recorded among the western hills Rai community, but the census guidelines list only 20. Similarly, there are some mistakes in categorising sub-clans-Hirachan is wrongly identified as a Thakali sub-clan.

The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) claims the questionnaire designed for the next census is far more scientific than those of the nine previous censuses. It also says that all the necessary revisions and modifications have been made to accommodate statistics related to diversity in language, culture and religion. But janjati groups remain sceptical. "Since janjatis are under-represented in policy making levels, their right to be impartially counted in a national census has been breached so far, and the establishment is resistant to amend its mistakes," says Bal Krishna Mabuhang, general secretary of the NFN. Mabuhang is the first professional demographer to analyse data collection in the 1991 census relating to caste, ethnicity and religion.

The first time a section on ethnicity was included was in the second national census in 1920, and this was used till the 1950 census. The findings of these surveys were not made public, and the issue of ethnicity was dropped for the next three censuses in 1961, 1971 and 1981, only to resurface in the last count in 1991. That was the first time the data was in the public domain. Armed with this new government-authorised information, janjati organisations could finally analyse how they were being represented, and the CBS came in for a good deal of criticism for under-enumeration and biased interpretation of the social reality of janjatis. Of all the listed janjati groups, the census only counted 23.

Despite efforts, it looks like this year's census will not be free of gaps that may result in under-counting and mis-counting of janjatis. The popularisation of Sanskritised names of some communities may cause enumerators to undercount janjati respondents, about which the guidelines do not give any clues. For instance, there is no guideline that Tamu and Gurung are the name of the same community, while Praja and Udhau are the Sanskritised titles of the Chepang and Jhagad communities respectively.

If this sounds like sloppy homework and misdirection, consider this: a directive of the 1920 census guidelines instructed enumerators to rely on their "own discretion" to slot respondents into a caste group if they could not identify themselves clearly in such terms. Similarly, guidelines till recently said that in case a respondent failed to provide a "straightforward" answer related to the question of religious faith, enumerators were to determine religion on the basis of the gods the person worshipped. Since Buddhists and other non-Hindu communities also worship some Hindu gods, janjati religions were also inaccurately counted. The clause, first set out in the 1920 census and in place until the last one, has been amended this year-enumerators are now allowed to determine respondents' religion on the basis of the priest employed for worship. But, as with gods, many communities are flexible about which priests they go to if their immediate religious leaders are unavailable-a Limbu from Panchthar might quite easily consult a Hindu Brahmin or a Buddhist Lama if his traditional Phedangma cannot be reached.

In order to avoid under-enumeration, janjati organisations have been running campaigns in their communities to create a consensus about responses to queries about mother tongue, second language, religion and ethnicity. If these efforts pan out, we will get a more realistic and fairly different picture of Nepali society than previously. Ten years ago, 49 percent of Limbus, 65 percent of Rais and 96.5 percent of Sunuwars said they were Hindu. Similarly 57 percent of Thakalis said they were Hindus, while going by the religion clause, a leftover of the 1950 CBS guidelines. Magars and Gurungs were all counted as Hindu. As a result, the 1991 census reported that 50 to 75 percent of janjatis were Hindu. This time, Thakalis, Gurungs, Tamangs and Magars will register as Buddhist, Dhimals as "natural religion", and a consortium of Rais, Limbus, Sunuwars and Yakhas have collectively decided to call themselves Kirati. Doubtless, the number of recorded Buddhists and Kiratis (just 1.7 percent of the population as last counted) will rise.

The questionnaire also requires every individual to respond to queries relating to language. The guidelines say that different members of one family might have a different mother tongue and second language, pointing out that some might have stopped using their ethnic language because of migration, their educational background or profession. Janjati activists say that by stressing the possibility of different mother tongue within the same family, the government is encouraging the hegemony of Nepali over other languages. In the last census, for example, 36 different mother tongues were counted, while a 1995 report by the Rastriya Bhasha Niti Sujhav Ayog (the national commission to make recommendations on language policy) says that in Nepal 69 languages are in use, 21 with their own script. The report also says that 62 of these languages are spoken by janjatis.

And measuring all of this will be complicated by the very nature of a census, according to Tribhuvan University sociology professor, Krishna Bhattachan: "The census questionnaire is individual centred, that might affect janjati communities, for whom collective living is the social norm."

The CBS is feeling the heat on many fronts-from those who want to emphasise the diversity and changes in Nepali society, and from those who'd rather believe that janjatis should assimilate. After the first draft of the census questionnaire was released three years ago, janjatis submitted memoranda demanding that the Kirat religion be added, and also recommended other amendments and elaboration. The World Hindu Federation and 51 affiliated organisations, on the other hand, demanded that queries related to caste/ethnicity, religion and language be scratched. The CBS is trying to be balanced, but acknowledges that it is difficult. "There might have been some under-reporting in the previous census, but we have taken the janjati campaigning positively and tried to accommodate their valid demands in the questionnaire. But we have our reservations-their telling individuals to report as a group might distort the fast-changing reality of our society," said Radha Krishna GC, deputy director of the CBS.

Janjati organisations are convinced that they are right in campaigning in their communities. Their movement to make themselves count and count right is gaining strength, though how much of an impact this will have on the policy level is unclear. And for this reason, even inaccuracy and vagueness in the National Census 2001 will be an indicator of
the status of the janjati struggle in Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)