Written by Roman Meier
In 2018, I visited Nepal for my research on indigenous peoples in Kathmandu. Although my study revealed a number of interesting insights, one issue turned out to be especially fascinating: the political emphasis on identity by indigenous activists. Whether I was enjoying a tea with some activists or attending some meetings of local NGO’s, issues around cultural identity dominated most conversations. For most of them, political engagement means to fight for a world in which everybody has the right for cultural self-determination. But while claims for recognition are surely relevant, they tend to sideline the role of economic inequalities. This became especially clear whenever I was having conversations about the (past) plight of the Kamaiyas.
Kamaiyas were indigenous victims of a bonded labor system which was systematically institutionalized during the 20th century and formally abandoned in 2006 . As cities started to grow, the fertile land of the southern plains, called the Terai, became the target for modern agricultural production. As the local population had little experience and interest in economizing their outputs, much land was appropriated by the ruling class while many locals, mostly Tharus, were turned into modern slaves. They were forced to take loans from the new landowners in order to sustain a minimum livelihood while working without secured rights or income. My interviewees usually argued that ethnicity was the driving force for the migration of hill people into the Terai and the submission of Tharus by high caste Hindus. Or as one activist puts it:
“The Kamaiya system was the product of the state, and the state was only Brahmin people at that time. [...] They snatched their land, they turned them into Kamaiyas each time, they made them bonded labor. It was Brahmin people who suppressed Tharus with the Kamaiya system.”
For him, the plight of the Kamaiyas is not a conflict between rich people who appropriate the land for economic gains and poor people who are forced to work for them, but a conflict between ethnic communities. Such a perspective makes, indeed, much sense since it was mainly high caste Hindus who took over the land and exploited Tharus. But what tends to get forgotten is that the malaria eradication program and the subsequent migration of hill people in the 1950s were informed by the need to industrialize the agricultural sector in Nepal . As Kathmandu started to grow, it was necessary to shift from an agricultural model that simply sustains small communities to large-scale agriculture that can cope with urbanization. Given the development goals of that time, the marginalization of Kamaiyas can be best understood as the consequence of modernization. It resulted less from the interest of the government to suppress indigenous cultures in the Terai but from the goal to progress economically. Or to put it more simply, Tharus did not become enslaved because of their indigenous identity but because their ancestral territory was highly fertile and therefore economically interesting to the ruling class.
Such stories are not unique to Nepal but typical for the history of many developing countries. Since the second half of the 20th century, international organizations, such as the World Bank, have pushed poorer countries to industrialize the agricultural sector and foster urbanization . These policies promised prosperity for everybody. But what looked good on the policy papers written in Geneva and Washington turned out to be devastating for many rural regions in the developing world. By nature, modernization often disturbs local practices and enables a small number of people to benefit while a majority of people become trapped in long-lasting poverty. Whereas it is clearly important to acknowledge the cultural diversity in Nepal when we want to empower indigenous peoples, we should not forget that the historical marginalization is substantially informed by economic processes that have little to do with the ethnic identities of indigenous peoples in Nepal.
If we want to ensure that indigenous peoples are not further marginalized but are given the same chances like everybody else, then we need to make sure that our political engagement is not limited to the cultural distinctiveness of indigenous communities. Marginalization is always the result of both ethnic discrimination and economic exploitation . Based on my experiences in Nepal, I am confident that activists hold power to advance their cultural rights. They are conscious of their heritage and eager to defend it against the dominance of the Hindu culture. At the same time, however, most of them seem to forget that the quality of life does not simply depend on cultural recognition but also on the way we regulate the economic system. The political arena is not merely divided between indigenous peoples and high-caste Hindus but also between different economic classes.
Nepal is a complex country where diverse forms of ethnic discrimination overlap with economic disadvantages. But even though there is a clear connection, our political action should always be informed by the underlying causes of marginalization. As the example of the Kamaiyas illustrates, the traditional practice of engaging landless community members could be turned into a driver of structural inequality by the capitalist mode of production. The idea of private property rights and contract-based debts was imposed by the economic elite of Nepal and its international partners, like the World Bank. Marginalized and poor people all over Nepal are, despite their cultural differences, still all affected by the same economic system. A better emphasis on this economic system would allow indigenous activism to become more comprehensive and break up the narrowed approach that is given by identity politics.