May 26, 2012


[The IPs- indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajati) of Nepal officially comprise 8.4 million people, or 37.19% of the total population, although indigenous peoples’ organizations claim a larger figure of more than 50%. Even though they constitute a significant proportion of the population, throughout the history of Nepal indigenous peoples have been marginalized in terms of language, culture, and political and economic opportunities.

The 2001 census listed the population as belonging to 50 Hindu castes, 43 indigenous peoples, 2 Muslim groups, 4 religious groups and 3 unidentified groups. The census, however, failed to provide data on 16 indigenous nationalities as the Nepal government has legally recognized 59 indigenous nationalities under the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act of 2002. Controversial recommendations for a revision of the list have recently been made.

The 2007 Interim Constitution of Nepal focuses on promoting cultural diversity and talks about enhancing the skills, knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples. The indigenous peoples of Nepal are waiting to see how these intentions will be made concrete in the new constitution, which is in the process of being promulgated. In 2007, the Government of Nepal also ratified ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The implementation of ILO Convention 169 is still wanting, however, and it is yet to be seen how the new constitution will bring national laws into line with the provisions of the ILO Convention and the UNDRIP.]

By Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan PhD

Uphill battle to establish identity-based federalism

Young Magar  girls of  Gorkha Heramtari, Nepal,  line up
to welcome guests for  a local programme. Image Ekantipur
In 2010, the Committee on Restructuring of the State and Sharing of the State Powers (CRSSSP), one of ten thematic committees of the Constituent Assembly (CA) mandated to draft the constitution, recommended the formation of 14 provinces, 23 autonomous regions, and unspecified numbers of special and protective areas based on the primary criterion of identity and secondary criterion of ability, as agreed unanimously by all political parties represented in the CA (see The Indigenous World 2011). However, since then, political parties, including the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), have been trying to undo these recommendations by giving primacy to ability, not identity.

The top leaders of all the three main political parties (NC, CPN-UML and Communist Party of Nepal (CPN)-Maoist) are hatching conspiracies that involve many different highly coordinated actions with many twists and turns. Last year, the dominant caste groups, i.e. Bahun and Chhetris, were visible on a political front (in the CA, Legislature-Parliament and political parties), agreeing to devalue identity-based federalism, and on an intellectual front, organizing international seminars and (mis)using the media to deconstruct identity-based federalism.

On 1 November 2011, the three dominant political parties and the Madhesi political parties struck a seven-point agreement to the effect that the government would present a bill seeking an 11th amendment to the Article 138 (2) of the Interim Constitution.2 The bill would provide for the formation of an experts’ committee from within the CA by scrapping the existing provision for a state restructuring commission, which had become outdated and irrelevant as it was supposed to have been formed before the birth of the CA. The government registered the bill on 4 November. The top leaders of the three major political parties, namely the CPN-Maoist, CPN-UML and NC, all led by the dominant Bahun caste, decided to endorse the proposed bill in the Legislature-Parliament but the House failed to pass the bill due to very strong objections from the indigenous caucus and Mohan Baidhya, who leads one of the three factions of CPN-Maoist lawmakers/CA members and who stood firm for securing the rights of indigenous peoples and other excluded groups.

The government’s second attempt to pass the bill was also thwarted by the Indigenous Caucus and the Baidhya faction.3 They opposed the proposed amendment bill and demanded that the committee’s Terms of Reference be determined prior to the proposed amendment so as to work further on, and not dismantle, the recommendations made by the CRSSSP. At the same time, the indigenous peoples’ movement staged a protest against the bill outside the Legislature-Parliament building. As a result, the government withdrew the constitutional amendment bill on 18 November.

The main political parties and the government subsequently, belatedly, formed the State Restructuring Commission with a limited mandate to provide further suggestions based on the reports and recommendations made by the CRSSSP  to the CA. 2011 will thus go down in history as a watershed in the struggle of Nepal’s indigenous peoples for enforcement of their human rights in accordance with the international standards laid out in the UNDRIP and ILO Convention No. 169.

Defining moment postponed once more

The drafting of the new constitution was supposed to be finalized by 28 May 2011 but, as the work was incomplete, the CA’s term was extended three times and finalization postponed until first 30 August, then November 2011 and, finally, 28 May 2012. The Supreme Court ruled on 25 November 2011 that the CA could not further extend its term and that if the work of drafting the constitution were still incomplete, there would either have to be fresh elections or another alternative found. The Nepal government tried to file a writ petition to review the decision but the Court refused to register the petition and, on 27 December 2011, the Supreme Court rejected the parliament’s and government’s pleas to review its decision.

The continuing hatching of conspiracies against the rights of indigenous peoples, Madhesi and other oppressed and excluded groups/communities, as well as intra-party and inter-party political wrangling for power, appears to be making the CA unable to produce the new constitution within the extended timeframe. The constitution would be drafted in time if indigenous peoples and Madhesis agreed to restructure the state by giving primacy to ability, but this is next to impossible.

It means the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML will try to dillydally in order to buy time to hatch more conspiracies aimed at dividing indigenous peoples and Madhesis. To do this, they are using the cards of integrating the Peoples’ Liberation Army into the Nepal Army and returning confiscated lands to their owners as pre-conditions for writing the constitution.

With a deal reached between the political parties on 1 November 2011 on the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist fighters – a major stumbling block to the constitution-drafting process – the work is now speeding up. However, with previous attempts by the NC and CPN-UML to divide indigenous peoples and Madhesis in order to do away with ethnic-based federalism, there are no guarantees that the constitution will address the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples.

Claim to indigenous identity by dominant groups

As part of the efforts to curtail indigenous peoples’ rights, Brahman Samaj (“Society”), Chhetri Samaj and Khas Chhetri Samaj (all very recent organizational offshoots of the dominant caste groups) are demanding recognition of Bahun and Chhetris as indigenous peoples and are against the restructuring of the state or federalism based on identity and/or ethnicity. They are making such demands by rallying in the streets, staging sit-ins in front of the CA, submitting memoranda to the main political parties and expressing their views in both the print and electronic media. Although Brahman and Chhetris are not indigenous in Nepal, on 18 November, the government formed a nine-member taskforce to enlist Chhetris as indigenous peoples. The coordinator of the task force, Prof. Chhetri, claims:
“Chhetris have been residents of Nepal for thousands of years, yet they were not recognized as an indigenous people. Therefore, the taskforce will come with credible evidence to prove that Chhetris are aboriginal inhabitants”.4 The formation of Brahman and Chhetri organizations demanding their recognition as indigenous peoples and rejecting indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, autonomy and self-rule is a malicious attempt to continue their centuries-long domination. Hence, it appears likely that violent communal and/or armed confrontations between Bahun-Chhetris and indigenous peoples could break out in the near future.

DFID against indigenous peoples

The Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella organization of 59 indigenous peoples recognized by the government, called a nationwide strike on 27 April. The previous week, the British Department for International Development (DFID)-Nepal had publicly announced that it would no longer continue its financial support of NEFIN’s Janajati Empowerment Project II (JEP II) project due to NEFIN’s continued involvement in national strikes and bandhs.5 NEFIN uses bandhs to protest for the constitutional rights of Janajati and people from marginalised communities. In its strong response to DFID-Nepal’s decision to stop funding the JEP II, NEFIN accused DFID of practising “double standards” in the name of providing assistance for transparency and good governance and blamed it of “‘interfering’ in the internal matters of a sovereign country.”

 Mega Front demands FPIC mechanism

During 2011, the CA and the Nepal government did not establish the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) mechanism as recommended by the ICERD Committee on 13 March 2009 and the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on 20 July 2009 and 15 September 2010 (see The Indigenous World 2011), despite the fact that, on 11 March 2010, the Nepal government had responded to the Special Rapporteur’s letter by saying that: “Constituent Assembly regulations provide that the Constituent Assembly Chairman may form additional committees as needed” and that: “In addition to existing means of representation in the Constituent Assembly, special mechanisms should be developed for consultations with the Adivasi Janajati, through their own representative institutions, in relation to proposals for new constitutional provisions that affect them.” On 16 January 2011, the Indigenous Peoples’ Mega Front thus submitted a memorandum to the Chairperson of the CA calling on him to establish the mechanism. However, he merely stated that he would inform all the political parties represented in the CA about it, implying that he had no power to establish such a mechanism.

Indigenous women submit historic CEDAW Shadow Report

The National Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF) and the Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), with support from the Forest Peoples’ Programme and International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, submitted a Shadow Report entitled The Rights of Indigenous Women in Nepal for the combined 4th and 5th Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Periodic Reports of Nepal.8 On 18 July 2011, Yasso Kanti Bhattachan, one of the founders of and current advisor to NIWF, made a three-minute presentation to the CEDAW Committee during the informal meeting between NGOs and CEDAW committee members in New York. The Committee responded well to the discussions that the delegation had with them over the course of the session, and recommendations were made to the Nepal state in response to three key demands in the shadow report, namely equitable political participation through quotas for indigenous women, the need to address access to education for indigenous girls and the need to more effectively respond to the ongoing challenges of bonded labour among the Tharu people.


Under the first-ever pilot Forest Carbon Trust Fund in Nepal, representatives from three watersheds in Dolakha, Gorkha and Chitwan districts received a total of USD 95,000 on behalf of community forest user groups at a ceremony organized at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on 15 June 2011.11 This initiative is being implemented by ICIMOD and its partners, the Federation of Community Forestry Users, Nepal (FECOFUN) and the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB). Both FECOFUN and ANSAB are non-indigenous organizations, and most of the beneficiaries were non-indigenous peoples. This indicates that, in general, there is still a long way to go to ensure full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in community forestry and REDD in Nepal.

Notes and References

1 Madhesis (referring to the Hindu caste groups of the Terai region) are regionally excluded groups but, since the Madhesi movement of 2007, they have emerged as the fourth most powerful political force. Their issues, such as regional autonomy, are, however, yet to be fulfilled.

2 The Madhesi political parties, like indigenous peoples, are excluded by the dominant Hill Hindu caste groups but, in this case, they aligned themselves with the dominant political parties with the aim of not allowing indigenous peoples of the Terai region to have their own autonomy and self-rule.

3 “House fails to pass bill again - Baidhya faction‚ indigenous caucus stand inopposition”. The Himalayan Times. 17 November 2011. Accessed on 1 January 2012 from: 

4 “Chhetri taskforce starts work”. 18 November 2011. Accessed on 1 January 2012 

5 Bandh is a form of strike used mainly in Nepal, Bangladesh and India. It can be local, regional or national. In most of the Bandhs, no vehicle is allowed to run and no shop is allowed to open. It paralyzes the normal life and the Bandh organizers succeed in drawing public attention to their

6 “DFID promoting corruption: NEFIN”. Himalayan Times, 17/5- 2011.  1 January 2012

7 “Vow to ensure indigenous people’s rights”., 29 January 2012 


10 “Indigenous women raise their voices at CEDAW”. Posted on Forest Peoples Programme’s website on 7 October 2011. Accessed on 29 January, 2012 from:  Accessed on 29 January 2012.

Krishna B. Bhattachan belongs to the Thakali indigenous peoples. He is one of the founder faculty members and former Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tribhuvn University in Nepal and has published several books and articles on indigenous issues. He is currently Secretary of the Indigenous Peoples’ Mega Front, Nepal.