June 2008 
Year 14    No.132
Global Minorities

Centuries of tolerance

Issues confronting the ethnic and religious minorities in Nepal



1. International human rights of minorities.

2. The founders of the United Nations have pledged their commitment not only to sovereign equality of nations. They have directly addressed, through the Charter of the United Nations, individuals and their fundamental human rights, the dignity and worth of human persons. They have also expressed their support for the equal rights of men and women around the world. Various international covenants and treaties have tried to assure the protection and enhancement of the basic human rights of every individual irrespective of race, nationality, sex, region, language, caste, class or religion.

Vital international instruments

1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.

2. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966.

3. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966.

4. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965.

5. Convention against Torture and Other Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1984.

6. European Convention on Human Rights 1978.

7. African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Nairobi, 1981.

8. American Convention on Human Rights 1969.

9. International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid 1973.

10. ILO Conventions concerning Discrimination in Employment and Equal Remuneration.

There are many more regional conventions and global as well as national compilation mechanisms to implement the fundamental human rights of the people. My concern is however to tell you something about Nepal right now.

Nepal in transition

Nepal has emerged, a couple of years before, from a mass people’s uprising as well as from a 10 year long armed struggle. The whole nation and its management are now in transition. An interim Constitution has been in force for the last year, which succeeded the Constitution of 1991, which itself was a product of a mass people’s uprising against a 30 year king’s rule. A peace process which was agreed on two years earlier is still going on. A United Nations mission is monitoring the process. Election of a new constituent assembly [took place in April 2008], which will assume the role of the legislature and form a new government to stabilise the volatile political and social conditions in the country as a whole. The elected constituent assembly will, in the next two years, write a Constitution for Nepal.

Country and the people

Nepal has emerged, after a mainly peaceful people’s revolution in 1990, from a long-time monotonous and secluded Himalayan kingdom into a multicultural and multi-religious nation state. People of every major religion and belief have formed the Nepalese population which is ready to touch the 30 million mark in a couple of years to come. Besides various subsidiary languages and local dialects, six major languages are spoken in Nepal. Interestingly, Nepali in the hills and high Himalayan region and Hindi-Urdu in the vast plain areas are commonly spoken and understood. Out of regional divisions and a multilinguistic and multi-religious cultural population, many ethnic, racial, linguistic and religious divisions of the people have been created.

Main minority groups in Nepal

1. Religious minorities – Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs.

2. Regional minorities – Madhesis, tribal peoples, lamas residing in the high hills and Lepchas, Rautes and others.

3. Linguistic minorities – People speaking Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu, Urdu, Hindi, Tibetan and Kirat-Rai.

Legal and constitutional rights

Nepal has since a 1951 constitutional order adhered, at least in letter, to the international standards of equal rights of citizens irrespective of sex, caste, religion or place of birth. As a result, equal rights for the majority as well as for the minority were conferred upon them by the Constitutions of 1959, 1963 and 1991 and by the respective enactments. The rights include right to equality, freedom, right to religion, right to property, right against exploitation and right against exile. However, the present interim Constitution has addressed the real and long-time untouched specific minority issues and has prescribed constitutional measures to materialise letter into reality.

Declaration of a secular state

It was an important step forward to dissociate the state from individuals’ religious beliefs. It has encouraged different minorities to protect and profess their faith like others. The new Constitution has also expressed state commitment to resolve existing problems of discrimination on the ground of class, caste, religion or sex. Commitment to resolve existing problems of fundamental human rights and restructuring the state itself on the ground of socio-economic enhancement of the people. Rights against untouchability and discrimination, right to education and culture, employment and social security, right to social justice and right to inclusive proportionate representation in the state have been incorporated.

Prospective federal state

Nepal has been a unitary, monarchical and constitutionally declared Hindu state throughout the ages. But a firm commitment has now been expressed to make it a federal state according to the wishes of the different ethic and regional communities. It was necessary to undertake balanced and sustainable development with the participation of majority as well as minority communities of the country.

Policy of positive discrimination

The Constitution has provided that the state shall adhere to the policy of positive discrimination for the upliftment of women, the downtrodden, tribal peoples, Madhesis, Muslims, other minorities, landless and other backward people and communities so as to make them capable of enjoying their constitutional rights.

Socio-economic status of the minorities

The socio-economic statuses of different minority groups are at different levels. Major disadvantaged groups are Madhesis in general and the lower caste and landless people in particular. Some isolated hill communities are also far from access to major national resources and opportunities. However, some tribal peoples are more in number than others in the tourism business or in private security works or in tea plantations and some more specific businesses and industries. Therefore the economic status of Madhesis, Muslims and the tribal people living in the plains region is far from satisfactory and comparatively lower than the hill peoples.

Representation of minorities in public services and law enforcement agencies

Here also is a changed scenario. While tribal people who claim to be a religious and cultural minority in the hill region have found a place in the police, army and other law enforcement agencies, other communities have been secluded so far. For example, the ethnic minorities of the Terai, Madhes, Tharu, Rajbanshi, lower caste Hindus and Muslims, Christians, can rarely be seen in these services. Their representation in other public services too is far from proportionate. The reasons are many in number. First, it has been the undeclared policy of the state to seclude and isolate these communities from state affairs. Secondly, they are so backward in education and resources that they cannot compete in even the open competitive examinations for these services.

Ethnic conflict and security concerns

Nepal has traditionally been a peaceful country. Its people are peace-loving. They have shown tolerance for centuries, even in the face of social and economic injustices. With certain exceptions, social peace and security for everyone, irrespective of caste, tribe or religion, has been maintained. No serious threat from one community against another on ethnic lines has ever been felt on a large scale. However, with the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1991, the influence of globalisation in general and communal activities in India in particular, this is growing in Nepal.

A senior lecturer in anthropology at the Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Mr Krishna B. Bhattachan has written, "Nepalese high caste rulers have forced the indigenous people to speak Nepali language and follow Hindu religion. Indigenous ethnic groups are federating themselves to challenge monopoly of the ruling class in national, political, social, cultural and economic resources. Similarly, Madhesis are raising their voice against continuing social discrimination by high caste groups. Also, the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups in India has fuelled Hindu-Muslim conflict in the Terai and Hindu-Buddhist and Hindu-Christian conflicts are slowly brewing" (‘Globalisation and its impact on Nepalese society and culture’ in Impact of Globalisation in Nepal, ed. M. Dahal, Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies, Kathmandu, 1999).

Challenges and prospects

Nepal has been historically not only a unitary state but was also ruled by a group of people belonging to a select caste and class. It was for this reason that internal colonisation has been high in many parts of the country. This has created various economic, social, cultural and religious challenges for the ethnic minorities. This has also generated a sense of alienation among the minorities from the national mainstream. A new era is however preparing to begin, with new hopes and prospects. An era of a real democratic political system where the dignity and aspirations of the members of every community, irrespective of race, religion, caste and class, are respected equally.

When we talk about democracy it is often seen in its majority rule; the fact that the rights of the minorities are guaranteed is really much more important for the validity of the system. A majority government cannot ignore the voices of the people simply because they belong to the minority or opposition or because they have not voted for those who run the government. A "concept of adjustment" needs to be implemented for a lasting peace and democracy. We have enough reason to believe that the days to come will bring betterment for the new generations. Almost all political forces in Nepal have realised that mistakes have been made in the past and need to be corrected. Certainly, a lasting peace cannot be imposed but is to be created from within society by fulfilling every valid expectation and aspiration of individuals from each and every community in a country.

This minority meeting may be a small attempt but it is conspicuous. We together may succeed by our words and deeds to convince others that the prosperity of a nation depends upon its common people, not upon the ones who rule it. And common people mean individual persons belonging to the majority as well as every minority community. A society, a nation, a system, cannot endure for long unless all of its constituents make their contributions and unless everyone is given his or her due. That justice, economic, social and political, is to be done in a real sense.

(Justice TA Ansari is a judge of the Supreme Court of Nepal. Paper presented to the Global Minorities Meet, New Delhi, March 6-9, 2008.)

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