Anda di halaman 1dari 36

BEING NEPALI: THE CONSTRUCTION OF A NATIONAL IDENTITY IN SOUTH ASIA

John Whelpton

Words with a fine, generous ring about them are generally difficult to capture with a neat definition. Whilst not quite in
the same league as `love' or `freedom', the concept of `nation' certainly suffers from this problem. The word itself has
a long history. The root meaning of the original Latin natio is birth', but it came to be used to mean `a people' (in the
ethnic not the class sense), and, at least in the writings of Cicero (1st.cent.B.C.), had the same implication of
primitiveness as the English `tribe'.1 In English, as in other European languages the word was sometimes used simply to
mean the natives of a particular area, without any political implication, but the earliest citation in the Oxford English
Dictionary, from a 14th.century Northumbrian poem, already has the implication of solidarity: `Of Ingland the nacion
es Inglisman thar in commun.' The use of the word today normally implies that the group in question is large in size,
has a sense of collective identity, is (or was) associated with a particular territory, is marked off from other groups by
common cultural characteristics, and either functioning as a political unit or regarded by themselves and others as
capable of so doing. These criteria allow us to count as possible `nations' the many `peoples' for whom Anthony Smith
sets up the category of ethnie, while he restricts `nation' to groups with the additional features of common citizenship
and a high degree of economic integration.2 Retaining the broader definition not only reflects normal usage but also
avoids prejudging the question of just how different the modern form of the nation is from its predecessors.
Nationalist ideology very often takes territory and culture as fundamental, and as sufficient to establish a group as a
`natural' unit and thus tends to see the sense of political identity as recognition of an objective reality. Arguably
`natural nations' can indeed be found, but only at a very early stage of human development. Consider a tribe with
religion and language lacking internal sect or dialect variation and totally distinct from those of its neighbours, with
whom it has little contact. Under this situation, the group's objective characteristics could be seen as uniquely
determining the sense of identity. However, today, as throughout most of recorded history, migration, conquest and
cultural borrowing means that most human beings are caught in a web of potential group identities. In attempting to
discover `natural' national groupings we would obtain different results depending on which criteria were considered
most relevant: Serbs and Croats, for example, speak the same language (Serbo-Croat) but are divided by religion
*(Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) and their separate histories as subjects respectively of the Ottoman and
Hapsburg empires. Even applying a single criterion will not necessarily yield an unambiguous result because we have
to decide on the degree of similarity required: spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are aabout as different from one
another as French from Italian, but the former two are regarded as `dialects' of Chinese and the latter as independent
languages, basically because the political unity of the Chinese empire has been preserved down the centuries, whilst
that of the Roman empire has not.

Homogeneity can thus be determined by the nation rather than the other way round, and this process can involve not
only defining which feature of the population are politically significant but also the active reduction of internal
1
2

Lewis & Short, Latin Dictionary, s.v. natio.


Anthony D. Smith, Theories of Nationalism, London: Harper & Row, 1971.

differences. While language is arguably not quite so central to national identity as sometimes thought, it provides the
clearest examples. At the time of the French revolution standard French was spoken by only about 12% of the French
population ,3 but its use was subsequently expanded by the twin engines of mass education and military conscription. A
Cantonese-speaking schoolboy in Guangzhou today is required to study at school in Mandarin, the dialect adopted as
China's national language. The ironing out of diversity within the national unit goes together with the development of
myths and symbols which encourage a sense of corporate identity. The nation states and would-be nation states as we
find them now are thus the product of a process of construction, the ideal, but in practice unrealisable culmination of
which would be the recovery of tribal solidarity: to adapt the phrase of Benedict Anderson, modern nations can perhaps
be best seen as imagined tribes'.4 2
Recent scholarship on nationalism has tended to see this integrating and homogenising process as very much a recent
phenomenon: `nationalism,' according to Kedourie's famous formulation, `is a doctrine invented in Europe at the
beginning of the 19th. century.'52Ernest Gellner actually sees a functional connection between nationalism and
modernisation, arguing essentially that industrialisation demands a workforce literate in a standard national language. 6
The modern nation-state is then contrasted with an earlier form of polity in which, while the administrative elite may
share a language of `high culture', the mass of the population are monoglot speakers of mutually incomprehensible
dialects. There is little or no sense of corporate identity linking the two, the political structure being held together by
the military power of the centre and/or by ties of personal allegiance or alliance between local leaders. Anthony Smith,
whilst rejecting Gellner's account of the linking mechanism, also sees nationalism as a reaction to modernisation and, in
his 1971 book, accepts Gellner's picture of the pre-modern polity.
There is some truth in these approaches: nationalism as an explicit doctrine (not nationalism in the sense of national
sentiment) dates only from the 18th. century, while the struggles over the medium of education and administration
which have played such a crucial part in many nationalist movements only become possible when mass literacy is
either realised or regarded as realisable. However here, as in many other fields, it is dangerous to draw too firm a line
between the `tradition' and `modernity'. Whilst the pre-modern state, and pre-modern elites, did not possess as
powerful means of assimilation and homogenisation as those at the disposal of their later counterparts, cultural
amalgamation and the growth of a sense of identity between hitherto disparate elements within the state's territory
certainly took place. Such developments within the medieval Christian and Islamic worlds have been analysed by John
Armstrong, and also highlighted in Antony Smith's more recent work. 7Language shift amongst the mass of the
population under the Roman empire is an obvious example. Whilst the Latin of alien rulers may have remained
incomprehensible to the bulk of the indigenous population in the remoter province such as Britain, 8but it nevertheless
supplanted Celtic in the lands bordering the Mediterranean. When a 5th. century Gallic nobleman enthused that `what

E.J.Hobbesbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.60
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso/New Left Books, 1983.
5
E.Kedourie, Nationalism, London: Hutchinson, 3rd. ed., 1966, p.9.
6
Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Blackwell: London, 1983.
7
John Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism, Chapel Hill, 1982. Smith's The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986) retains the
ethnie/nation distinction but stresses the continuities between the two.
8
Kenneth Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, Edinburgh, 1983.
4

was before the world Rome has turned into one city'9 , he spoke as a member of the imperial elite, but his own mastery
of literary Latin was paralleled by the adoption off the colloquial (`Vulgar') variety by the humblest inhabitants of what
was to become France.
After the breakup of the Roman empire, the consolidation of European kingdoms slowly welded diverse populations
into what we can recognise as nations. A vivid illustration is provided by the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, an
appeal to the Pope by Scottish bishops and barons for recognition of Robert the Bruce as king of an independent
Scotland:
`...We know and gather from ancient acts and records, that in every famous nation this of Scotland hath been
celebrated with many praises ..... To (Robert Bruce) we are obliged to resolved to adhere in all things ... as
being the person who has restored the people's safety in efence of their liberties. But ...if this prince shall leave
these principles and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king and people of England ... we will
make another king who will defend our liberties. For so long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive
we will never give consent to submit ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches,
neither is it honours, but it is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with
his life.'10
In the Latin text of the declaration the name Scotti and the word natio referred back to the tribal society of Q-Celticspeaking peoples who had reached Scotland from Ireland six centuries previously. The signatories themselves,
however, were largely of Norman French descent whilst the majority of the inhabitant's of Robert Bruce's kingdom
were the product of the `union of the four peoples' - the eponymous Scotti, the earlier-established Picts, the
Celtic Britons of the old kingdom of Strathclyde, and the Germanic settlers of S.E.Scotland. In presenting this
amalgam as the continuation of a single ancient race, with a fanciful pedigree stretching back to ancient Scythia as
extra adornment, the authors of the declaration was manufacturing a useful past in much the same way as 19th. and
20th.century nationalists were to do. There were, of course, important differences. The Latin text was drafted by
members of the elite to enlist the aid of the papacy, the nearest t thing to an overall authority which medieval Europe
possessed. While it could thus be regarded as `elite proto-nationalism', the sentiments expressed spread out into the
general population, the struggle with England providing an important unifying factor. The Declaration was the work of
feudal magnates and of members of a pan-European clerical bureaucracy, but it looked back to the Celtic tribe (natio in
the original Latin sense) with its tradition of elective kingship and also forward to the imagined tribe - nation in the
modern sense.
The modernity of pre-modern Scotland lies not only in the assertion of unity between diverse elements but also in an
attempt to render them less diverse. Almost from the emergence of Scotland as a united kingdom there existed a strong
linguistic and cultural divide between the Gaelic-speaking highlands and islands and the lowlands, where `Scots', a
Germanic dialect closely related to English, was spoken and where social organisation was feudal (with the later
evelopment of independent towns) rather than tribal. The oolitically dominant lowlanders whilst proudly bearing the
ancient name of their neighbours generally regarded them as alien and uncivilised. Mistrust was deepened with the
9

Rutilius Numantianus, cited in E.Kedourie, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, London:Weidenfeld & Nicholas, 1971, p.79.
Declaration of Arbroath, translated in Gordon Donaldson (ed.), Scottish Historical Documents, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, pp.55-57.

10

Reformation, as Protestantism spread initially only in the Lowlands. Highland society was to retain its separate identity
until well after the end of Scottish independence, but the government in Edinburgh saw in that separateness a barrier to
its own authority and at the beginning of the sixteenth century was already legislating against `the Irish language' as
Scottish Gaelic was termed.11
The Scottish example thus clearly shows the emergence well before the French Revolution of the main features of the
European nation state: identification with a territorial unit rather than simply with the universalist order of medieval
Christendom, and a trend towards unity among the disparate human population of that territory both by unifying myth
and by cultural assimilation. This kind of development was particularly characteristic of Europe, but some similar
trends can be found in South Asia. An examination of the history of the kingdom of Nepal provides parallels with the
process of nation-building in pre-French Revolution Europe, just as more recent developments in Nepal mirror the selfconscious nationalism of 19th. and 20th. century Europe.
The foundation of the Nepalese state
The modern Nepalese state dates from 1769 when Prithvi Narayan Shah, king of the hill principality of Gorkha,
conquered the Kathmandu Valley. His successors extended their control along the Himalaya foothills, reaching the
River Satlej in the west and conquering most of Sikkim in the east, but the country was reduced to approximately its
present borders after the 1814-1816 war with the British. Nepal exhibits great ethnic and linguistic diversity (see
Tables 1 & 2, p.26-7) but four main groupings can be considered: Prithvi's own Parbatiyas, caste Hindus who were the
original speakers of the Indo-Aryan language now known as Nepali; the Newars, creators of the urban civilisation of
the Kathmandu Valley, whose social structure essentially reflected a medieval Indian pattern but whose language is
Tibeto-Burman; the Hindus of the tarai, the strip of the Gangetic plain at the foot of the hills, culturally
indistinguishable from the plains-dwellers on the Indian side of the border; and finally a number of `tribal' groups, at
varying stages of assimilation into the caste societies around them. Before 1769 Parbatiya rulers were already in real or
formal control of most areas, but there was a multiplicity of political units, notably the baisi (twenty-two) statelets of
the Karnali basin in the western hills and the chaubisi (twenty-four) of the Gandaki basin in the central region. The
name Nepal which is cognate with Newar, at this time denoted only the Kathmandu Valley.12
Prithvi Narayan's conquests occurred at the same time as other regional kingdoms were being established in India as
Mughal power declined and in some aspects his kingdom, like the Mughal successor-states, seems to fit a model of the
pre-colonial political process in South Asia implicit in much recent work and elaborated in a particularly sophisticated
form in Wink's study of the Maratha svarajya.13 . This model has no room for a concept of nation-state
as the source of legitimacy and a focus of loyalty. Kingdoms and empires are seen as temporary patterns in a

11

John Prebble, The Lion in the North, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1973, p.298.
Some Nepalese historians have used references in ancient and medieval texts to argue that the rulers of the Kathmandu Valley did at times before
Prithvi Narayan Shah control much of what is now Nepal. Kumar Pradhan (The Gorkha Conquests, Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1991, p.2067) provides a succinct summary of these arguments and their weakenesses.
13
A.Wink, Land and Sovereignity in India. Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-century Maratha Svarajya (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986).
12

constantly shifting mosaic of smaller units; alliances and rivalries springing up among the latter without respect for
boundaries. There does exist an ideal order but it is a universal one, transcending individual states. In the Muslim
tradition it is visualised as the undivided milat-i-islam (people of Islam) and in classical Hindu thought as the
establishment of varnashrama (the proper observance of caste and of the progression from student through householder
to ascetic) under a chakravartin (world-emperor). There is a clear parallel with the medieval concept of
Christendom, contrasted with the order of territorial states which later prevailed.
The motivation behind Prithvi Narayan and his successors' expansionary drive certainly fits this `Hindu universalist'
model rather than the fulfilment of a project of national union. The Gorkha conquerors were concerned with economic
gain, through increasing land revenue and also through the control of trade through the Himalayas. Conquest could
also be seen as an end in itself, enabling the warrior to fulfill his natural function. In the 1830s, some years after the
expansionary phase had ended and the Gorkha empire was hemmed in by British India, the rajguru of King Surendra
Bikram Shah sought the permission of the British Resident to attack Sikkim. When asked why the king wanted to do
so, the guru simply replied: `He is a kshatriya. Is he never to draw his sword?'14 If ideological concerns had any part,
they also were universalist: in the Dibya Upadesh, Prithvi Narayan's political testament, he described his kingdom as an
asil (real) hindustan, that is a land where Hindus ruled without the indignity of Muslim supremacy.15 Yet despite all,
this there did exist from early times in the hills some degree of common feeling which could serve as the basis for
developing a sense of solidarity. Although Prithvi Narayan and other high-caste Hindus claimed immigrants from India
as their ancestors, they were at the same time well aware of their separation from the Indian plains. An account of
Prithvi's life, probably written by a Nepalese Brahman in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, records how,
long before his conquest of the Kathmandu Valley, the king went on a pilgrimage to Benares and en route met a party
from Parbat, a neighbouring hill kingdom. When he asked if he could travel with
them, the official in charge replied: `Whilst we were in the hills it was Gorkha, Parbat, Palpa or Pyuthan, but when
we're in the plains (madhes) hillmen (pahari) are one. How could we go to Benares without you?' 16
Whilst all pahari, whatever their ethnicity, might feel a common sense of separation from the plains, the Parbatiyas,
who were and are the key group within the state, were also united by a number of cultural factors. The Parbatiya
language was the most obvious, but also important was their caste system, which, although it divided them from one
another, also marked them out as a group from other Hindu communities. The caste around which Parbatiya identity
was anchored was the Khas (nowadays generally styled `Chetris', i.e. kshatriyas). Their ancestors were probably a
branch of the Aryan migration into the Indian subcontinent distinct from the Vedic Aryans but subsequently
Hinduised.17 The two castes above them in the Parbatiya hierarchy both claimed plains origins: the Brahmans, who
14

Hodgson to Govt.of India, 5/10/37, For. Sec 20/10/1837, no.89; 12/10/1837, Nepal Residency Records R/5/48; 22/3/38, Foreign Secret
Proceedings 4/7/1838, no.11
15

Dibya Upadesh, in Bal Krishna (ed.), Panch Say Barsha, Lalitpur: Sajha Prakashan, 2043 V.S. (1986/7), p.159
Shri Panch Badamaharaj Prithvi Narayan Shahko Jivani, Kathmandu: Department of Antiquities (?Bir Library), 2020 V.S.(1963/4), p.4, cited in
Kumar Pradhan, Pahilo Pahar, Darjeeling: Shyam Prakashan, 1982, p.16. The authorship of the original manuscript is discussed by Baburam
Acharya, Shri Panch Badamaharajadhiraj Prithvi Narayan Shahko Samkshipta Jivani, Kathmandu: His Majesty's Press Secretariat, 2024-5 V.S.
(1967-9), vol.1, p.38-40. He dates the account `towards 1743', presumably a printing error for `1843'.
17
The most thorough discussion of the origins of the Khas is still Sir George Grierson's in Linguistic Survey of India, vol.9, pt.4, , Calcutta,
Superintendent of Government Printing, 1916, pp.2-8 and 14-17. See also John Whelpton (ed.), Jang Bahadur in Europe, Kathmandu: Sahayogi
Press, 1983, pp.68-69 and references.
16

traced their ancestry to Harsha's old capital of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj) on the Ganges, and the Thakuris, Prithvi
Narayan's own caste, claiming descent from Rajput refugees who fled into the hills from the Muslim invaders. 186
In Nepal proper the line between aboriginal and immigrant was, however, much less well-defined than his simple
schema suggests. Many Thakuri and Brahmans were really of Khas extraction, whilst those who retained the Khas
name had for the most part been granted the right to wear the sacred thread of the twice-born Hindu. A Khas family
which gained prominence invariably claimed Rajput origin, even though its pretensions were often not accepted by
others.19 Furthermore, the offspring of a Brahman male and a Khas female was accepted as a Khas, with the
result that many surnames (thar) were common to both Brahman and Chetri. This situation contrasts with that in
Kumaon and Garhwal, where a much more rigid division between Khas and newcomer was maintained, and intermarriage was rare. John Hitchcock has linked the stronger position of the Khas in Nepal with the legacy of the `Malla
empire', a Khas-dominated state which covered much of the Karnali basin in western Nepal and a large area of southwestern Tibet in the 13th. and 14th. centuries. The Khas in Nepal were also probably buttressed by the support of
Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups such as the Magars and Gurungs, who were integrated into the caste hierarchy
immediately below them; the offspring of unions between Khas or Brahman male and a Magar or Gurung female were
also accepted as Khas.20
Such irregularities ensured that the Parbatiyas were always treated with a certain amount of disdain by their
counterparts on the Indian plain. Hill Brahmans, in particular, were often looked down upon, in view of their laxer
attitude to dietary obligations and, possibly also their involvement with tantric practices.21 . Plains Brahmans sometimes
refused to refer to their Parbatiya caste-fellows by the Sansrit (and thus more honorific) term brahman,
allowing them only the vernacular Nepali title bahun. The Thakuris, or Parbatiya Rajputs, were also regarded with
some suspicion. According to one famous story, a seventeenth-century Gorkha king's pretensions to descent from a
prince of Mewar in Rajasthan was rejected by the Mewar court itself when a Gorkha envoy claiming kshatriya status
revealed he had a Brahman name.22 The anecdote may well be apocryphal, but it well illustrates plains attitudes in the
18th. and the first half of the 19th. century, before Nepal's status as the one remaining independent native state in the
sub-continent raised the prestige of her rulers amongst the Indian aristocracy. The effect of such prejudices in the
plains heightened the sense of community between high-caste Parbatiyas. The Gorkha royal family accepted the
Mishra family of Banaras as hereditary gurus in the 17th. century but never admitted them to commensality as they did
their purohits, the hill Aryals.23 In the same vein, when the 1854 Muluki Ain (National Code) gave legal sanction to a
single caste-hierarchy throughout Nepal, plains Brahmans were placed not only below the hill Brahmans but in a lower
18

The significance of these stories is discussed in John Whelpton, `The Ancestors of Jang Bahadur Rana: History, Propaganda and Legend',
Contributions to Nepalese Studies, vol.14, no.3 (August 1987), pp.161-191.
19
Brian Hodgson, `Ethnography and Geography of the Sub-Himalayas", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 18, no.1 (June 1948),
p.546, quoted in Michael Hutt, Nepali: a National Language and its Literature, New Delhi: Sterling, 1988, p.30.
20
John T .Hitchcock, `An Additional Perspective on the Nepali Caste System', in James T. Fisher (ed.), Himalayan Anthropology, The Hague and
Paris: Mouton, 1979, pp.111-119.
21
David Gellner, Monk, Householder and Tantric Priest, Cambridge: CUP, 1992, p.319, suggests that hill rulers often invited plains Brahmans to be
courts because they were less `tainted' with tantricism..
22
Brian Hodgson, `The Miltary Tribes of Nepal', in Essays in the Languages, Religion and Literature of Nepal and Tibet (New Delhi: Manjushri,
1972, reprint of 1974 edition), p.38
23
Baburam Acharya, Shri Panch Badamaharajadhiraj Prithvi Narayan Shahko Samkshipta Jivani, vol.1, Kathmandu: His Majesty's Press
Secretariat, 2024 V.S. (1967/8), p.50.

position than Thakuris and Chetris.


77777777777 7
Whilst the high-caste Parbatiyas can thus readily be seen as a `proto-nation', can the other ethnic groups brought under
their rule be seen as in any way belonging to it? In a recent study of the unification of Nepal, Kumar Pradhan has
argued strongly that they cannot:
7

[The Nepalese state] did not unite the segregated groups brought under it, on the contrary it divided them. This
was because their relationship was now based on usurpation and exploitation and not on a sense of equality - a
sine qua non in the process of nation-building.'24

The non-Parbatiyas, and also, of course, the untouchable, occupational castes amongst the Parbatiyas were indeed
subordinated to the upper Parbatiya castes Pradhan's approach is nevertheless open to question on two counts. At a
theoretical level, his exclusive focus on a paradigm of nationalism provided by Europe in the wake of the French
revolution leads him to ignore the fact that inequality is not incompatible with some degree of solidarity. Subordinate
groups may regard their position as part of the natural order, or, even if they resent it as unjust, they may still feel a
sense of solidarity with their overlords in certain situations because group identity is generally relational: in other
words, a Magar or Limbu could feel himself strongly s such when facing a Brahman or Chetri landlord or government
official, but as a hillman or Gorkha when confronting a plainsman.
Secondly, though showing some awareness of the complexities of the situation, Pradhan does not give sufficient weight
to the differing degrees of integration with the Parbatiya social and political order exhibited by the different nonParbatiya groups. This integration was high for the Magars, and, to a lesser degree, the Gurungs of the central hills,
who had long been losely associated with the Thakuri rulers of the hill statelets, but much less for the Rai and Limbu of
eastern Nepal, the area with which Pradhan is particular ly concerned. Although nominally subject to the Sen dynasty,
who also claimed Rajput ancestry, the Limbu chiefs were in a kind of partnership with the Sens which left their own
tribal institutions, and in particular their kipat system of communal land tenure intact.25 Gorkha rule was thus more
likely to be perceived as alien in the east and must have seemed less so in the heartland of the Gandaki basin and even
in the Kathmandu Valley itself, where Parbatiya and non-Parbatiya had long lived closely together 26. Prithvi Narayan
himself seems to have recognised this distinction when he advised his predecessors not to trust `the Khas and Brahmans
of the west and east' (Dibya Upadesh, op.cit, pg.160)
Talk of `integration' in the context of a caste-system may seem paradoxical, but in South Asia caste has indeed
performed an integrative function, albeit in a highly circumscribed manner. From Vedic times down through Indian
history tribal groups were successively brought into a single social order as castes and in Nepal this process is more
24

25

Kumar Pradhan, The Gorkha Conquests, op.cit., p.162.

Francis Buchanan Hamilton, An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal, New Delhi: Asian Educational Service, 1986 (reprint of 1819 edition), p.6.
Mahesh Chandra Regmi, Nepal's leading economic historian, has argued that Gorkha rule can be regarded as `colonial' in eastern Nepal, and also
in the area west from the River Bheri, especially in Kumaon and Garhwal which were held by the Gorkhas for a few years prior to the 1814-16 war
with the East India Company (Martin Gaenszle, `The topicality of history: an interview with Mahesh Chandra Regmi', European Bulletin of
Himalayan Research, no.4, 1992, p.44).
26

recent and thus more susceptible to investigation. Although the Nepali words jati and jat can be used now to convey
the distinction between `tribe'/`ethnic group' and `caste' respectively, in colloquial speech they are used
interchangeably. The 1854 Legal code, which systematised the caste hierarchy, uses jat for both categories and in his
discussion of this document, Richard Burghart tries to convey the breadth of reference of jat by translating it as
`species.'27
. The process of incorporation did not always involve putting a new `species' into the bottom of the hierarchy: new
members could sometimes be admitted to an existing caste or a whole group raised in status. Such action did, of course,
violate the essential brahmanical conception of closed descent groups in unchanging relationship with each other, and
there would generally be an attenpt to conceal what had actually happened: whereas in modern industrial society
official propaganda is normally concerned to exaggerate the extent of social mobility, caste ideology dictated that the
ruling elite try to understate it. There was, however, widespread awareness that changes in caste status could occur and
that it was royal authority that was able to effect them.
The changes known to have occurred in Nepal in the years before and immediately after unification are revealing. As
has already been seen, members of the Khas tribe were allowed to assume the sacred-cord and converted into kshatriyas (Chetris). In pre-unification Nepal the same facility was allowed to prominent members of the Magar tribe. The
author of the first full-length western account of Nepal, Capt. Kirkpatrick, who visited Kathmandu in 1793, actually
included the Magars as a sub-division of the Chettris.28. Francis Hamilton, writing on the basis of a visit to Kathmandu
in 1802-1803 and subsequent investigations in the border areas, realised that most Magars did not have Chettri status
but reported that they were `now firmly attached to the Shah family's interests, by having largely shared the fruits of
conquest.' He believed that Magars comprised `by far the greater part of the regular troops of that family' and reported
the claim that the Shahs themselves were really of Magar descent. He also noted that many Magar soldiers in the
Gorkha army had forgotten the Magar language and he expressed his own agreement with the view of `many people' in
Kathmandu that the Magars would soon become simply another Parbatiya caste.29
This portrait of Magar assimilation may be exaggerated; many thar (surnames) were common to both Khas and Magar
and this might have led him to overestimate the number of Magars in the army, whilst the assertion that Prithvi Narayan
was himself a Magar was made by a Brahman connected with a rival hill principality who might have wanted to belittle
the Gorkha dynasty. Nevertheless, it is clear that a number of Magars had been assimilated into the ruling elite and
there are also a few examples of Gurungs achieving such prominence. The whole process was directly endorsed by
Prithvi Narayan himself in the Dibya Upadesh, which commends the loyalty of magars and Gurungs whilst counselling
against admittance to the court of `the Khas and Brahmans of the east and west' , who would not follow the Gorkha
court's traditions.30
27

Richard Burghart, `The Formation of the Concept of Nation-State in Nepal', Journal of Asian Studies, vol.44, no.1 (Nov.1984), pp.101-125. The
standard dictionary of modern Nepali, Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh, Kathmandu: Royal Nepal Academy, 1983, employs each of the terms jat and jati
in its definition of the other.
28
William Kirkpatrick, An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul, London: W. Miller, 1811, p.123.
29
Hamilton, Account of Nepal, op.cit., p.26. Hs assertion that a majority of Gorkha troops were Magars is a little surprising given his own
statement(p.244) that in Gorkha itself `the chief inhabitants were Brahmans and Khasiyas, in about equal numbers, with rather fewer Magars, and the
implication in Prithvi Narayan's own Dibya Upadesh (op.cit, p.155) that he chose to rely chiefly on Khas fighters. In the 1830s Magars and Gurungs
together accounted for about 50% of the army rank-and-file (Hodgson Papers (India Office Library), vol.6, ff.175-6).
30

Dibya Upadesh, op.cit. p.160.

The relative fluidity in the 18th. century of what were later to become much firmer divisions has recently led Dor
Bahadur Bista, Nepal's best-known anthropologist, to claim that Prithvi Narayan regarded the different categories of his
subjects as equals and saw Brahmans `as being an ethnic social group without recognising their association with caste.'
Dor Bahadur Bista, Fatalism and Development, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1991, p.45.
This is pressing the case rather too far. The presence of Brahman soldiers in Prithvi's army cannot be used as evidence
for the king's rejection of caste orthodoxy, for even though fighting was not part of the Brahman's Vedic role, many
Indian plains Brahmans managed to combine a military career with strict adherence to principles of ritual purity and
indeed such men at the time formed a large part of the East India Company's forces. In his political testament, the
Dibya Upadesh, Prithvi implies that military work is not really appropriate for Brahmans and recommends his
successors to recruit only Khas, Thakuri, Magar and Gurung into the army.31.
The king describes all these groups as jat, a word which conflates the notions of caste or ethnic group; Bista's translation of this as `people' obscures the caste dimension. In fact the general ethos amongst the Gandaki basin rulers at this
time, including the eagerness of all of them to claim Rajput ancestry, and Prithvi's use of the phrase chota bada (`small
and great (sc.in status)) four jat and thirty-six varna' to describe the totality of his subjects, make it clear that he did see
those subjects in hierarchical terms, but with more scope for the `promotion' of individuals than would later be the case.
The *18th. century picture presents a partial parallel with the relationship between the different groups in the medieval
Scottish kingdom. In Scotland from the 11th. century onwards the dominating political culture was Anglo-Norman,
with an aristocracy either of Norman extraction or assimilated to the Norman feudal pattern. The Celtic-speaking
highlanders were in a subordinate position but individual clan-chiefs might become full members of the Scotsspeaking elite group: a few highland names are found in the largely Norman-sounding list of nobles who attested the
Declaration of Arbroath. In Nepal, immigrants from India and those who had adopted a Hindu lifestyle were in a
dominant position over the various hill ethnic groups, but members of those groups could sometimes gain entry to the
Hindu elite. There were also, however, crucial differences. In Scotland one culture implicitly claimed superiority over
another, but there was little or no sense of intrinsic racial or caste superiority and therefore no attempt to hide the
mingling of groups which took place. A largely non-Celtic elite chose instead to parade its continuity with the Celtic
past, as the acceptance of the name `Scot' itself proclaims. In Nepal the rulers preferred to emphasise their real or
supposed foreign origin and the barrier between groups hardened. In 1816 a list of prominent personalities at the
Nepalese Court prepared by the British Residency identified several bharadars as Magars, but by the 1830s the British
believed that there were no Magars or Gurungs amongst army officers.32 The leading Magar families had indeed
merged with the Khas, as Hamilton had predicted, and the door was closed on those Magar families which had not been
granted the right to wear the sacred thread by Prithvi Narayan's time.
Caste divisions were thus a reality at the time of the Gorkha conquest and became even more of a reality in the 19th.
century. However, the Magar or Gurung ancestry of those no longer officially referred to as such will certainly have
been common knowledge to soldiers serving under them and will have forged an additional tie binding to the Parbatiya
31

Dibya Upadesh, p.155 (where Prithvi Narayan quotes his uncle, the crown-prince of Palpa as telling him that `riding the Brahmans (bahunko
sawar) to war is like riding on a bullock and therefore sinful) and 159.
32
`List of Officers of the Nipaulese Government and of the Bharadars and Sirdars composing the State of Nipaul', forwarded to Calcutta, 16 June
1816, Nepal Residency Records (IOL); Hodgson Papers, vol.6, ff.175-6.

core of the proto-nation' those Magar and Gurung most closely associated with the Shah dynasty's new state.
Aside from this Parbatiya identity anchored around the Khas, a second important factor was the political elite's concept
of the state which Prithvi Narayan had created as an entity to be protected and preserved independently of allegiance to
an individual. When talking of the kingdom in this sense, the Nepali word used was not rajya but dhunga, literally
meaning `stone'. Mahesh Regmi has argued that the use of this word, common from Prithvi's time onwards, signifies a
contrast with the pre-unification system in which the concept of the state, as opposed to the personal bond between king
and follower, had not yet emerged.33 Jean Berlie has pointed out the parallel between this concept and the Thai notion
of lat muang (`spirit of the land'), which was normally represented by a stone. There could conceivably have been a
case of cultural transmission given the south-east Asian origins of some of Nepal's ethnic groups. 34 It may also be
relevant that amongst the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, groups of stones are used to represent the lineage deity, and
thus, in a sense, the continuity of the family.35Whatever the origins of the concept, dhunga was certainly employed in
official Nepali discourse very much in the modern sense of `state'. This is well brought in King
Rana Bahadur Shah's use of the expression just before his assassination by his half-brother, Sher Bahadur, in 1806.
Accusing Sher of having plotted against him, he told him that although he had forgiven him for his offence against his
own person, he still had to answer to the bharadars present for his crimes against the dhunga.36
Further recognition that his individual interests and those of the kingdom could diverge was provided in the role
traditionally played by the bharadari, the political elite including those currently in and out of office. This body
originally consisted of families which had an hereditary attachment to the Shah dynasty in pre-unification Gorkha but
they were subsequently reinforced by a number of families from the former baisi and chaubisikingdoms. 3710On
his 1793 visit to Kathmandu, Kirkpatrick was struck by the importance of the bharadari, stressing that this rested on
their family connection with the ruling dynasty rather than on the wealth or number of supporters that they possessed as
individuals. His description of their role was a perceptive one, which was to be borne out by later events:
10

The leading members of this body, whether actually employed or not, appear to possess such a high authority in
the state, as renders it nearly impossible for the executive government, in whatever hands that may be, to pursue
any measures of an important nature, in opposition to their advice. I have even been assured that the throne of
the Prince himself would no longer be secure should the principal Thurghurs [i.e. tharghars, an older term for the
main bharadars] concur in thinking that his general conduct tended to endanger the sovereignty, which they
possess themselves bound, as far as rests with them, to transmit unimpaired to the distant posterity of its founder,
and the interests of which they do not allow to be determined by the partial views, or temporary policy of the
ruling individual. 9Kirkpatrick, op.cit., p.124.)

33

M.C.Regmi, `Preliminary Notes on the Nature of the Gorkhali State and Administration', Regmi Reseearch Series, 10, 11 (November 1978),
pp.171-4. See also Regmi's comments in Gaenszle, op.cit., p.46.
34
Jean Berlie, personal communication. Berlie has suggested that the use of a stone in the marriage ceremony of the Tai Neua may symbolise the
muang (`Nea (Na) in the LPDR and Yunnan (PRC): a minority and a non-minority in the Chinese and Lao Political System', paper presented to at the
S.O.A.S. (London) Conference on Minorities policy and practice in the Tai speaking region, July 1993', p.6 )
35
David Gellner, Monk, Householder and Tantric Priest, op.cit, p.240.
36
Undated arji of Bal Narsingh Kunwar to King Rajendra, published in Chittaranjan Nepali, Shri Panch Rana Bahadur Shah, Kathmandu, Shrimati
Meri Rajbhandari 2020 VS (1963-4), pp.141-147.
37
Leo R.Rose & John T.Scholz, Nepal: Profile of a Himalayan Kingdom, Boulder: Colorado: Westview Press, 1980, p.21.

All the factors so far discussed still did not make Nepal a nation in the full sense of the word, since the sense of
identification with the new state was limited to a small minority among those within its jurisdiction. They did, however,
provide a foundation which was slowly expanded during the 19th. century.
Factors for national integration in the 19th. century
Conflict with other groups has always been an important element of strengthening in-group solidarity and Anthony
Smith has stressed the importance in the growth of ethnic identity both of the actual comradeship of battle and of the
group memories such conflict generates.38 The early history of Nepal provided plenty of examples both of conquest and
of resistance to an invader. The period of rapid Gorkha expansion along the Himalayas(c.1770 - 1814) inevitably
brought clashes with the ambitions of other powers. To the north, China, under Emperor Quian Long, had just
completed the conquest of Sinkiang and established a protectorate in Tibet; to the west, Ranjit Singh was uniting the
Panjab under the Sikh khalsa; and to the south the British East India Company was extending its control over the
northern Indian plains. Gorkha incursions into Tibet resulted in a Chinese expeditionary force crossing the Himalayas
and reaching within thirty miles of Kathmandu. Although the Gorkhas had to accept a settlement of their dispute with
Tibet on Chinese terms, it was not total humiliation: they inflicted one defeat on the invaders when the Chinese army
attacked the Nepalese camp whilst negotiations were in progress. However, the withdrawal of forces from the far west
in the face of the Chinese threat had halted the momentum of expansion. When the advance was resumed in the 1800s,
Ranjit Singh had forestalled them west of the Satlej. War with the British came in 1814, occasioned by rival claims to
the tarai, the economically vital strip of fertile lowland at the foot of the hills. In the initial stages the Gorkhas inflicted
defeats on over-confident British forces, but superior numbers and resources nevertheless eventually prevailed and in
1816 Nepal had to surrender Kumaon, Garhwal and the section of Sikkim she had previously occupied - a loss
amounting to about one-third of her pre-war territory.
This defeat convinced realistically minded members of the governing elite that accommodation rather than
confrontation with the British was required. Nonetheless, the spirit of military adventurism was strong in the army, a
large proportion of which was concentrated at the capital. Although the rank-and-file were normally content to follow
their patrons in the elite, they did at times in the 19th. century appear on the verge of a more independent role.
Ordinary soldiers were, like their commanders, remunerated by land assignment, but once out of service were often
tenants on the lands assigned to others. The army was thus in an ambiguous position between the elite and the
peasantry generally.
The army provided an important power base for the dominant figure in Nepalese politics in the first third of the century,
Bhimsen Thapa. Until his position came under challenge from other members of the bharadari in the1830s, Bhimsen
managed both to maintain reasonably good relations with the East India Company and to project himself internally as
the country's bulkwark against the British. After his fall from power there was a period of renewed
38

Anthony Smith, Ethnic Origins of Nations, op.cit., chapter 2.

tension but the Rana family shogunate (1846-1951) systematised and extended the policy of closer collaboration with
the British which the Thapa family had themselves initiated in their final years. In addition to an appreciation of British
strength, this policy was dictated by the growing weakness of China, which reduced Nepal's earlier scope for playing
off southern and northern neighbour against each other. Apart from her 1855-6 war with Tibet, Nepal now
fought only as an ally of the British empire: Jang Bahadur, the first of the Rana maharajas, himself led forces to assist
the British during the 1857 revolt in India and during the 20th century large contingents served with the allied forces in
both World Wars.
Even before the expansionary phase of the Nepalese state had finished, the tradition of Nepalese serving in foreign
armies had been established. During fighting in Kumaon in 1815 the British organised a battalion of deserters and
prisoners from the Nepalese army to fight alongside them, a switch of allegiance made easier for those concerned
because they had been originally recruited from the newly-conquered area rather than the Gorkha heartland. 39
After the end of the war, numerous Nepalese took service under Ranjit Singh in the Panjab, whose army also contained
a number of British and French officers. The word lahuri, `one who goes to Lahore', thus entered the Nepali language
as the description of any Nepalese fighting for a foreign state. Large-scale recruitment of Nepalese into the British
Indian forces began after 1857, when the high-caste plains Hindus who had formed the backbone of the old Bengal
army were no longer thought `reliable'. The Nepalese government initially regarded this trend as a threat to its own
security, but after the coup of 1885, when the Shamsher branch of the Rana family seized power and were in need of
support against the ousted sons of Jang Bahadur, they allowed open recruitment on Nepalese territory.
Mercenary service of this kind might seem the antithesis of nationalism, and so it certainly appears to members of the
Nepalese elite today. However, fighting as `Gorkhas' (`Gurkha' is simply the British mis-spelling), even if in the pay of
foreign masters, helped to consolidate a Gorkha identity amongst the fighters themselves and other members of the
castes from whom they were recruited. Nepalese fighting battles for the Sikh state of the Panjab or the British Empire
might later be seen by some as humiliating dependency, but for others it perpetuated the sense of military prowess
which the early years of the unified Nepalese state had engendered.
Within Nepal itself, military service also acted as an integratory factor in a more direct way, bringing members of
different communities together and binding them by ties of material interest to the government. From the end of
Prithvi Narayan Shah's reign, army recruitment was confined in practice to the Thakuris, Khas, Magars and Gurungs,
who formed around 40% of the population in the hills, but in 1847 the Kiranti tribes (Rais and Limbus) of the eastern
hills were then made eligible and, at least during the 1850s, Tamangs and Bhotiyas (groups of strong Tibetan cultural
ties) were also admitted, bringing the proportion represented to over 50%40 Whilst the maximum number of troops
actually deployed during the Tibetan war was only around 27,000, the pajani system of annual re-enlistment resulted in
39

John Pemble, The Invasion of Nepal, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.


Thakuri, Khas (Chettris), Magars, Gurung, Rai, Limbu and Tamang account for around 35% of the total population according to the 1991 census,
but about 52% if groups native to the high Himalaya and to the tarai are excluded. During the 19th. century much of the tarai had not been cleared
for cultivation and the permanent population was considerably less in proportion to the hills than is now the case. The ethnic composition of the
army is discussed in Whelpton, Kings, Soldiers and Priests, op.cit, pp.209-10.
40

many soldiers being stood-down and there was thus a substantial reserve of trained manpower; the maximum number
of trained soldiers which could be mobilised in an emergency was estimated by British officials in Kathmandu as
around 50,000 in the early 1830s and up to 70,000 in the 1870s, figures to be set against the Nepal government's 1839
estimate of 169,000 fit, adult males of the `military tribes' (i.e. at that time presumably Thakuri, Khas, Magar and
Gurung).41 Both because of the difficulty of compiling precise records and because it was in the Nepal government's
interest to let the British Residency gain an exaggerated impression of its military strength, these figures are not
entirely reliable. The fact does remain, though, that an increasing number of families contained members who were
serving or who had served in the army and that the numbers who could share to some degree in a Gorkha identity were
expanding.
Whilst only a minority of families had a direct link with the army, every inhabitant of Nepal was affected by economic
changes which followed unification. These did not amount to a fundamental alteration in the basis of economic life, for
most Nepalese remained peasants engaged in subsistence agriculture, but the state and its activities now impinged more
strongly upon them. The most obvious of these was the demand on the peasant's produce to meet the needs of the
government, in particular the maintenance of the army. Under the system long established in Gorkha and in the
chaubisi and baisi states, which was in general extended to other area of the country, the king was the ultimate owner
of the land and had first call upon the crop. The royal share could be collected directly by government officials, or the
entitlement sold off to a tax-farmer, assigned temporarily as jagir to individuals in state employ, or permanently gifted
as birta Whatever the precise mechanism of collection, the burden on the actual cultivator was probably around fifty
per cent of the principal crop over most of the country.42
Unification also meant that individual ethnic groups were brought into closer contact with one another. The eastward
drift of the Parbatiyas along the Himalayas, a long-term trend which had been operating for hundreds of years before
Prithvi Narayan Shah, was intensified. It was in the hills of eastern Nepal, where caste-Hindu influence over the hill
tribes was much weaker than in the west, that this was most strongly felt. The stationing of administrators and military
personnel at key centres was only the most obvious part of the process. Where land was under the normal regime of
state landlordship, Brahmans and Chettris could be assigned land as jagir or birta. In the hills adjacent to the eastern
frontier, where the Limbus had been guaranteed the continuance of their traditional kipat system of communal tenure,
the permanent transfer of land rights to non-Limbus was in theory prohibited, but Parbatiyas could obtain access to
agricultural land as tenants of the Limbu headmen. Tension inevitably developed, especially as land acquired a capital
value in the second half of the 19th. century. Limbus were at a particular disadvantage in relation to Brahman settlers
who, in addition to their higher ritual status, had the necessary skills to manipulate the legal system. Pressure from the
tax-gatherer was also a problem and for Limbus and others migration aas one possible answer. Kumar Pradhan has
estimated that between 1840 and 1860 about 15% of the total Kiranti (i.e. Rai and Limbu) population of Nepal moved
41

The 1839 `census' is cited in the Assst. British Resident's December 1843 survey of the Nepalese Army
(Foreign Secret Consultations, 30 March 1844). Krishna Kant Adhikari (Nepal under Jang Bahadur, vol.1, Kathmandu: `Buku', 1984, pp.159-60 &
165) gives various British estimates for the size of the army and the reserve of trained manpower but suggests that the number of dhakres (off-roll
soldiers) may have been exaggerated.
42
The working of the revenue system has been explored in great detail by Mahesh Chandra Regmi. His findings are most clearly set out in his
Landownership in Nepal, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. This work, together with his Thatched Huts and Stucco Palaces, New
Delhi: Vikas, 1979, are drawn on for a summary of the mid-19th. century situation in Whelpton, Kings, Soldiers and Priests, op.cit., p.220-229.

across the border to Darjeeling.43


These aspects of the process seem to bear out Pradhan's thesis that unification meant intensified exploitation rather than
the development of national solidarity, but they were accompanied by other, less malign forms of integration.
T hroughout the hills, Parbatiya settlement, together with demographic pressure, resulted in other ethnic groups
adopting aspects of their material culture, in particular agricultural and rchitectural technique. Phillipe Sagant has
made skillful use of 18th. and 19th. century travellers' accounts to show the stages in which the Limbus abandoned the
`slash and burn' pattern of shifting cultivation prevalent at the time of unification and switched to sedentary and
intensive agriculture. A similar transition made by the Gurungs has been analysed byAlan Macfarlane.44 Links were
also strengthened between different populations with the development of the hill market towns (bajars), where the
primary commercial role was often played by Newar traders moving out from the Kathmandu Valley.
Fuelled by these changes, and in turn itself facilitating them, was the continuing spread of the Nepali language.
Although the name `Nepali' was applied to the language in British India as early as 1820 (with the publication of
Ayton's Grammar of the Nepalese Language) this usage was not adopted in Nepal itself until the 20th. century, and the
language was known within the country itself as khas kura (the speech of the Khas), `Parbatiya` or `Gorkhali.' As
the language of the Parbatiya people, it had long been predominant in the western hills and was, of course, spoken by
Parbatiyas resident in or visiting the Kathmandu Valley. At the beginning of the 19th. century a British visitor noted hat
the language was `making rapid progress in extinguishing the aboriginal dialects of the mountains.'45 Non-Parbatiyas
began speaking the language in increasing numbers not only because they had to do so when dealing *
with their new rulers but also because, as economic integration increased, it was useful as a lingua franca between the
many small populations speaking mutually incomprehensible dialects.46 In many cases what occurred, of course, was
bilingualism (especially for male speakers) rather than the complete disappearance of another language, but the
significant point was that linguistic change was occurring at a fast rate even though the 19th. century European
struggles over `the language of school and office' as yet did not enter the picture. The transformation even affected
those who migrated rather than remain under Gorkha rule: Limbus who moved to Darjeeling to escape the oppression
of Nepali-speaking conquerors were ironically to become a key element in the formation of a Nepali-speaking
community outside Nepal's own borders.
The growing importance of Nepali reflected the practical communication needs of individual Nepalese, and evidence of
a self-conscious linguistic nationalism only begins near the end of the century, but a pointer of things to come may
perhaps be discerned at its beginning when King Rana Bahadur Shah instructed a military commander to `put all the
letters that come to you into your own language in the nagari script.'47
43

K.Pradhan, The Gorkha Conquests, p.191-2. Tensions over land control between Brahman and Limbu are analysed in Lionel Caplan, Land and
Social Change in East Nepal: a Study of Hindu-Tribal Relations, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
44
Philippe Sagant, Le paysan limbu, sa maison et ses champs, Paris: Mouton/Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales, 1976; Alan Macfarlane,
Resources and Population: a Study of the Gurungs of Nepal, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
45
Hamilton, Account of Nepal, op.cit., p.16.
46
Kumar Pradhan, Pahilo Pahar, op.cit., p.15.
47
Harshanath Sharma Bhattarai, `Nepali Bhashako Kanuni Prishtabhumi', Nepali, vol.73 (Autumn 1976), p.24, cited in Michael Hutt, Nepali; a
National Language.., op.cit., p.43. The officer had apparently forwarded a letter written in Maithili, which was often written in a variant of the
Bengali script and had been used extensively in the Newar court at Kathmandu and also for diplomatic correspondence in the eastern hills.

In parallel with economic and linguistic change affecting the lives of ordinary Nepalis, Richard Burghart has argued
that something like the modern concept of a nation state began to evolve in the Nepal government's shifting attitude
towards the territory under its control.48 At the turn of the nineteenth century there existed a clear distinction between
the king's muluk (possessions), which was simply the area happening to be under his tenurial authority at any one time,
and his realm or desha, which was a region of fixed extent under the protection of the king's tutelar deity. The
obligation to maintain a moral order - and in particular the varna hierarchy - applied pre-eminently to the latter. The
muluk, on the other hand, was not seen as a single moral universe, but a collection of different `realms' and of different
`countries' (desha in a second sense), these being geographical regions and/or the homes of different peoples. Thus
when Prithvi Narayan and his immediate successors described themselves as kings of Nepal they were claiming
lordship over the Kathmandu Valley and the country around it bounded by four well-known places of pilgrimage. 49.
When they used desha in an ethnic sense, they were thinking of divisions such as Khasan (the old homeland of the
Khas in the Karnali basin), Magrat (the hills west of Kathmandu once dominated by the Magars, Limbuana (the
homeland of the Limbus) and so on. In the course of the 19th. century, however, the Parbatiya elite, while not losing
sight of the old distinctions, came to see the whole region under their control as a single desha.
The foundation for this change of perspective was the fixing of the frontier. The clash with the British set a definite
limit to Nepalese expansion, which had previously seemed an open-ended process; the earlier aspiration now only
survived fitfully in the slogan of ganga sandh (The Ganges for our frontier!), which was raised from time to time by
wilder elements in the army. Not only was future conquest now not possible but the borders themselves became, at
British insistence, precisely determined lines rather than a zone where the influence of one centre of power shaded into
that of another.50.The territory so-defined came to be regarded as possessing a religious significance simply because,
unlike India, it was under Hindu rule. Prithvi Narayan had himself foreshadowed this development when he described
his newly-created kingdom as asil hindustan, and it was given legal expression when Jang Bahadur
Rana decreed in 1866 that religious endowments by Nepalese individuals should henceforth be made only on Nepalese
territory. Finally, Jang Bahadur's years in power also saw the promulgation of the Muluki Ain (National Code), which
gave legal recognition to a single caste hierarchy encompassing all the different castes/ethnic groups under
Kathmandu's control. State endorsement and enforcement of caste rules within Nepal proper (that is the Kathmandu
Valley and its immediate environs) was nothing new, but extending detailed regulation to the wider unit was a definite
innovation: the desha was extended to coincide with the muluk and a multiplicity of `countries', each with its separate
customary law, was replaced by a single society of jats. Andrs Hfer, the foremost western student of the ain, phrased
it, Nepal was `on the way to becoming a nation of castes.'51
A final strand in the 19th. century pattern is the occasional exercise of the right of the bharadari to restrain royal
48

Richard Burghart, `The Formation of the Concept of Nation-State in Nepal', Journal of Asian Studies, vol.44, no.1 (Nov.1984), pp.101-125.
Hamilton, op.cit., p.192
50
For a detailed discussion of the negotiations on border demarcation after the 1814-16 war see Ludwig Stiller, The Silent Cry: the People of Nepal:
1816-1839, Kathmandu: Sahayogi Prakashan , 1976, pp.216-222
51
Andrs Hfer, The Caste Hierarchy and the State in Nepal: a Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854, Insbruck: Universitatsverlag Wagner, 1979, p.202.
Although both Hfer and Burghart slightly overstate the extent of the Ain's break with the past, their general conclusion remains valid. See the
discussion in Whelpton, Kings, Soldiers and Priests, op.cit., pp.218-20.
49

authority the theoretical existence of which was impressed upon Kirkpatrick in 1801. Power was derived in principle
from the king and normally exercised by him or by whichever minister had his confidence. When Jang Bahadur Rana
succeeded in depriving the Shah dynasty of real power and established his own family as hereditary prime ministers
and maharajas, the Shah king's formal precedence, like that of the Japanese emperor during the shogunate, was
maintained, and the role of actual autocrat played by the Rana maharaja. On two critical occasions, however, the *
political elite as a whole appeared to assert its will against autocratic rule. In 1842, when King Rajendra was unable or
unwilling to halt the harassment of the bharadars by Crown Prince Surendra, a series of meetings involving the
bharadari, representatives of the army, and local functionaries and merchants from the Valley towns, compelled the
king to sign documents promising to restrain his son and transfer certain powers to Queen Rajya Lakshmi. In the
course of these proceedings both Rajendra and Surendra were rebuked to their faces by some of their subjects. Five
years later, when Jang Bahadur took advantage of the continuing dissension within the royal family to make
himself the real master of Nepal, the final deposition of Rajendra in favour of his son was legitimised by the bharadari
decaring that a continuation of divided authority `would have caused the ruin of the kingdom of Sri Maharaja
Prithvi Narayan Shah.' 52
Brian Hodgson, who was British Resident at Kathmandu in 1842, wrote enthusiastically in his despatches of `the
national movement' and the Governor-General's reply suggested he saw shades of the 17th. century struggles
between English king and parliament in the Kathmandu drama.53 These 19th. century British observers were indeed
looking at events through the prism of their own European background, but their language accurately reflected an
important fact: the notion of the nation as something persisting through time was not an alien one to Nepalese minds,
however much the kaleidoscope of court intrigue might overlay it. 16
20th. century Nepal: self-conscious nationalism and ethnic assertiveness
The growth of opposition to Rana rule in Nepal and its overthrow in the `revolution' of 1950-51 was, like the
nationalist movement in India, essentially the product of the exposure of a minority of the population to western
political ideas and the reaction between these ideas and older attachments. There was a natural link between the two
movements in both countries: although Nepal never came under the paramountcy of the British crown, the Ranas, like
the Indian princes after 1857, saw their best interest in collaboration with the British and so, for Indian and Nepalese
radicals alike, opposition to British domination in South Asia and opposition to traditional South Asian autocracy
appeared two sides of the same coin. Madhav Raj Joshi's attempt to introduce Arya Samajist ideas into Nepal in the
first decade of the century is often seen as the beginning of the intellectual movement against the old order, but the pace
quickened after the 1st. World War and agitation amongst Nepalese in India, including Gurkha veterans of the conflict
and former members of the Ranas' own bureaucracy, played an important role. In Nepal itself the dissidents, lacking
the mass-base which Congress was building in India, sought to overthrow the system by the conspiratorial tactics to
which the Ranas themselves had often resorted. The most serious of these attempts, the Praja Parishad affair ended
52

Bharadars to King Rajendra, 17 June 1847, FS, 31 July 1847, published in Ludwig Stiller (ed.), Letters from Kathmandu: The Kot Massacre,
Kirtipur: Centre for Research in Nepal and Asian Studies, 1981, p.p.343-5.
53
See the discussion in Whelpton, Kings.., op.cit., p.116-120

with the executions of the `Four Martyrs' in 1940. With Indian independence in 1947, however, the balance of forces
changed. in 1950-51 a de facto alliance between King Tribhuvan, the India-based Nepali Congress Party and the Indian
government forced the last Rana maharaja, Mohan Shamsher Rana, to accept an end to the Rana system on terms
brokered by New Delhi.54
The 1951 `revolution' ushered in a struggle for power between the monarchy and the political parties, among which the
Nepali Congress was always the most important though the Communists played an increasingly significant role. The
country's first general election was held in 1959 and won decisively by the Nepali Congress. The following year King
Mahendra, who had succeeded his father in 1955, used his emergency powers to remove the government and imprison
iits leaders. There followed thirty years of `Panchayat Democracy', under which real power was retained in the Royal
Palace but non-party elections allowed for `panchayats' (councils) at local and national levels. Congress endeavoured
to repeat 1950-51 with armed raids into Nepal from India but ended the campaign in 1962 when the border war
between India and China caused India to clamp down on their activities. Thereafter, political parties, though banned,
continued to function under varying degrees of repression, relying particularly on support amongst university students.
In 1990 King Birendra conceded a return to Parliamentary democracy after an agitation jointly launched by Congress
and an alliance of Communist groups attracted mass support in the Kathmandu Valley. Elections under a new
constitution in 1991 were won by Congress whilst the main Leftist Party (the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified
Marxist and Leninist) emerged as a strong opposition.55
Both before and after 1950 Nepalese nationalism has been an important factor in the struggle for political power, with
all factions appealing to nationalist feelings as a means of mobilising support. This was part of Maharaja Chandra
Shumsher Rana's motivation in pressing for formal recognition by Britain of Nepal's total independence, granted in
1923; the British had previously hedged on the issue, as, for example, in the foreign secretary's 1888 assertion that
Nepal was `in a state of quasi-subordination to us.'56
The official adoption in the 1930s of the name `Nepal' for the whole kingdom and of Nepali' or its principal language is
presented by Burghart as a falling into line with British usage, 57 but its motivation may also have been the promotion of
a sense of national identity, especially amongst the Newar inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, who could not regard
themselves as `Gorkhali'. An alternative interpretation is that Ranas sought rather to underline Parbatiya hegemony
over the Newars by appropriating the name of the Newars' homeland for the formers' language. This is suggested by
the fact that the national anthem continued until 1950 to refer to `we Gorkhalis' maintaining the `Lord's command over
Nepal.' 58 In either case, the Rana administration was pursuing a recognisably nationalist objective: underlining a
54

For an excellent summary of opposition to Rana rule before 1950, see the opening chapter of Bhuvan Lal Joshi and Leo E.Rose, Democratic
Innovations in Nepal: a Case Study in Political Acculturation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. Prem R.Uprety's Political Awakening
in Nepal, New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers, [1992], provides extensive quotations from dssident writings. The best account of the events of
1950-51, especially the role of the Indian and British governments, is in vol.2 of Rishikesh Shaha's Modern Nepal: a Political History 1769-1955,
New Delhi: Manohar, 1990.
55
Martin Hoftun, Spring Awakening, New Delhi 1993, provides a readable account of the 1990 movement. For the aftermath, see Michael Hutt (ed.),
Nepal in the Nineties, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.
56

Leo E. Rose, Nepal -strategy for survival, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, p.145.
Burghart `Emergence..', op.cit., pp.118-119. `Nepali' seems already to have been the preferred term in 1930 when the Gorkha Bhasha Prakashini
Samiti (Gorkha Language Publication Committee) was restyled Nepali Bhasha Prakashini Samiti (Hutt, Nepali... op.cit., p.34.)
58
David Gellner, `Language, caste, religion and territory: Newar identity ancient and modern', European Journal of Sociology, vol.27 (1986), p.148.
57

linkage between the seat of government, the whole territory under their control, and the dominant language. The Ranas
also appealed to national feeling when reporting dissident activity, referring to `anti-national literature' or `treason
against the nation.'59 Their discourse marked both a continuity with the tradition of the previous century but also an
attempt to counter in its own terms the radical nationalist ideas spreading from the
south.
Nationalism was also a central element in the propaganda of the Rana's opponents and for them, too, `Nepal' rather than
`Gorkha' was becoming the more appropriate term for the nation. The Prachanda Gorkha conspirators chose the older
designation in 1931 and `Gorkha' was included in the title of virtually all the organisations and publications aimed at
rallying Nepalese in India up to he 1930s.60 In the 1940s, although the old label did not go entirely out of use even
then, the wartime organisation conceived in Darjeeling to co-ordinate a rising in Nepal with a Japanese invasion of
India was styled the Akhil Nepal Barga Mahasabha (All Nepal Classes Convention), and some of its
members went on to establish the Nepal Rastriya Congress in 1947.61 The Nepal Rastriya Congress merged in 1950
with the Rana emigr Nepal Democratic Congress (founded in 1948) to form the present Nepali Congress.
Under whatever title, the indictment of the Ranas for selling out to foreign interests was clear, even if, within Nepal, it
had to be indirectly expressed: in 1920 Krishna Lal Adhikari had his innocuously titled Makaiko Kheti (The Cultivation
of Maize) cleared for publication by the government's censorship committee but was imprisoned when Maharaja
Chandra Shamsher realised the point of his complaint that dogs of English breed were being pampered in Nepal, while
native dogs, the reliable protectors, were neglected.62 While the nationalist note continued to be sounded, it was
tempered somewhat by the commitment of many radical Nepalese to the wider struggle against British rule in South
Asia. This extra-Nepalese dimension was underlined by the fact that the Nepali Congress's 1950-51 uprising was
launched from Indian soil, depended on Indian support for its success and had to be terminated because of Indian
pressure to reach a compromise agreement with the Ranas rather than continue fighting for an immediate and total
transfer of state power.
The result of this was that in the post-1951 struggles for power, the Nepali Congress, whilst accepted by many as the
vehicle of national liberation, was also itself open to attack on nationalist grounds. The Rana revivalist forces, which
were an important factor in the political equation until 1960, used this weapon, as did the monarchy and other political
parties. Particularly vulnerable was the Congress leader, B.P.Koirala, whose family were hill Brahmans but had
migrated to Biratnagar in the tarai. Koirala himself had been born in Banaras and returned there at the age of three
when his father fell out with Chandra Shamsher and went into exile. As a young activist he showed commitment to
Nepal, but his Nepali identity was not grounded in the perception of the madhesi `Other'. At the inaugural session of
59

Uprety, Political Awakening.., op.cit., pp.75 & 79.


Michael Hutt, Nepali, op.cit., p.33 lists titles of Indian Nepali journals using the name up till 1945. In recent years `Gorkha' and `Gorkhali' have
come into widespread use again amongst Indian Nepalese seeking to establish a Nepali ethnic identity within India while not implying allegiance to
the kingdom of Nepal.
61
See Uprety, op.cit, pp.104-115 for the Mahasabha's activities.
62
Uprety, Political Awakening, op.cit., pp.26-28. Our knowledge of the book relies on the memories of contemporaries since the only copy not
seized and burned by the government has been lost, and the author himself died of tuberculosis in prison.
60

the Nepal Rastriya Congress he had declared that because of racial, religious and economic links. `Nepal and India are
not two countries' and that `the political difference you find is basically the game of selfish diplomats and politicians.'63
Once engaged in practical politics inside Nepal, Koirala and his party nevertheless proved able to play a more stridently
nationalist tune if required. In 1954, when B.P.'s brother and political rival, M.P.Koirala, headed the government, B.P.
and the Congress party attacked it for surrendering control of Nepalese territory to India under the Koshi River Project
Agreement.64. In his last years, after returning from exile in India in 1976, Koirala sought a reconciliation between the
monarchy and liberal democratic forces, arguing that otherwise national independence would be in danger.
The `revolution' had commenced in October 1950 with King Tribhuvan's dramatic flight to the Indian embassy and this
Indian connection enabled the Rana regime to attempt an appeal to nationalist sentiment against him. Once the Ranas
were dislodged, however, the monarchy was itself in a strong position to portray itself as the embodiment of national
identity, particularly after the accession of Mahendra, who was less beholden to India than his father had been. In
addition to the religious awe surrounding Hindu kingship and to his prestige as the direct descendant of the founder of
the nation, the occupant of the throne was helped by the royal family's century of political emasculation: it was the
Ranas, not the Shah kings, who bore the responsibility for collaboration with British colonialism. The monarchy was
in fact able to claim credit for ending Rana autocracy yet also to count on the loyalty of individual members of the
Rana family who retained high postions in national life, in particular in the army: a century of inter-marriage between
Ranas and Shahs meant that, in a sense, 1950-51 simply saw an exchange of junior and senior roles between two wings
of the same family.65 Using this base, Mahendra presented his `panchayat democracy' under `the active leadership of
the king' as an indigenous alternative to western (and Indian) parliamentarianism. He also made full use of Congress's
Indian links, alleging when he ousted Koirala in 1960 that Congress was compromising national independence.
Throughout Mahendra's reign and the early years' of Birendra's, the official media continued to refer to Congress and
other dissidents operating in exile in India as `anti-nationals', similar phraseology to that which the Ranas had
employed in the thirties and forties.
Also competing for the nationalist mantle were the various factions of the Communist Party of Nepal. Their Marxism
drew heavily on Mao Tse Tung's emphasis on oppressed nations as well as oppressed classes, and, since the foreign
capital which had most significance for the Nepalese economy was Indian capial, it was and is easy for them to appeal
to traditional pahari prejudice against madeshis whilst not appearing to compromise their internationalist principles..
This resulted in a degree of convergence of interest between the Left and the monarchy, and in the sixties in particular
there were tales of Communist activists collecting financial handouts from both the Chinese Embassy and the royal
palace! The anti-India theme continues today with the ferocious campaign by the Communist groups inside and
outside of parliament against the Congress government's sanctioning the Indian construction of a small dam on
Nepalese territory at Tanakpur.66
63

Uprety, op.cit., p.94.


Rishikesh Shaha, Modern Nepal, op.cit., pp.305-309
65
Although the Ranas in general were content to become part of the circle around the king, there were exceptions. Bharat Shamsher, son of the last
Rana maharaja, who led the `Rana revivalist' Gorkha Parishad in the 1959 election, gave his support to Congress demands for a return to
parliamentary democracy after the 1960 royal takeover.
66
For a brief guide to the Communist factions and their ideological differences, see John Whelpton, `The General Elections of May 1991', in Michael
Hutt, Nepal in the Nineties, op.cit.
64

20
If the opposition between hill and plains has historically provided a negative definition for Nepalese national identity,
the important positive factors has been the Parbatiya `core culture'. This matrix has been drawn on both by
traditionalist regimes and by opposition forces, but with natural differences of emphasis and intensity. Both before and
after 1951, Rana and Shah rulers drew on the strength of the Chettri-Thakuris, the Parbatiyas', and thus also Nepal's,
traditionally dominant caste, who account for some 18% of the present population. Although tension between Thakuri
and Chettri in the 19th. century was one factor contributing to political instability, the success of the Ranas in laying
claim to the same Rajput status as the Thakuris but at the same time maintaining connections with other Chettri families
meant that the two groups counted virtually as a single bloc. Emphasis on the Parbatiya (Nepali) language followed
naturally, although the formal declaration of Nepali as the official language was only made under Maharaja Chandra
Shamsher (1901-1929).67. A third crucial aspect was Hinduism, which both linked the country with pan-South-Asian
values and also separated it from an India which was initially under non-Hindu rule and then, following independence
in 1947, avowedly secular. Nepal was only formally proclaimed a Hindu kingdom in Mahendra's 1962 constitution,
but this merely gave modern expression to a long-standing reality: in 1913 it had been
natural for Maharaja Chandra Shamsher, to describe the country as `an ancient Hindu kingdom' when he rejected a
proposal from the new Chinese resident in Lhasa for a union between Nepal and the Chinese republic.68
The new legal code promulgated in 1962 removed statutory backing from the caste hierarchy, but the reliance by the
regime on the traditional aspects of Nepalese political culture meant that languages other than Nepali and values
other than those of the tagadhari Parbatiyas were disregarded. Official propaganda rarely stated this preference
explicitly, but the underlying ethos was that expressed by Yogi Naraharinath, almost the only ideologue to openly
mourn the 1990 downfall of the panchayat system: `there should be a single language and writing system....one style of
dress, one aim and one leader.'69.
The opponents of Rana and then Shah autocracy were obviously not committed to such a narrow view of Nepalese
identity. The leaders of Congress and other political parties were nevertheless drawn mostly from the Parbatiya elite
groups, spoke Nepali rather than a minority language and were strongly affected by Hindu caste values even if they had
adopted an avowedly egalitarian ideology. Modernism and tradition were strangely combined in the pamphlets put out
by the Raktapat (bloodshed) Committee, a dissident group active in Kathmandu during the Second World War. These
echoed the language of Russian anarchism and boasted of contacts with the Soviet and Japanese governments, yet
indicted Maharaja Juddha Shamsher Rana from a clearly Brahminical standpoint: `you will not be blessed with peace
and tranquillity in this Hindu Raj as long as ... administration ... is in the hand of this ignoble outcaste with whom,
according to the laws of our Shastras we should not even drink and dine....one who captures the budding, beautiful,
innocent Brahman damsels to be his concubines.'70Congress and Leftist ranks were to include members of lower castes,
67

No contemporary record has been discovered but K.P.Malla (The Road to Nowhere, Kathmandu: Sajha, 1979, p.135) dates this to 1920, and
T.W.Clark (`Nepali and Pahari', T.A.Sebeok (ed.), Current trends in Linguistics: Linguistics in South Asia, vol.5, The Hague and Paris, Mouton,
1969, p.252, cited in Burghart (`Formation of the concept of Nation-State in Nepal (op.cit.), p.119) implies that it was some time before the change
of officially-favoured name from Gorkhali to Nepali.
68
Asad Husain, British India's relations with the Kingdom of Nepal: 1857-1947, London: George Allen & Unwin, p.280.
69
Yogi Naraharinath, interview in Saptahik Bimarsha, 12 July 1991
70
Pamphlet circulated on 7 September 1940, translated in Uprety., Political awakening, op.cit., p.189. Juddha's habit of virtual abducting any young

and in 1950-51 the insurgents relied heavily on the hill minorities in the eastern hills, but the highest ranks were
normally still in the hands of Brahmans, Thakuri-Chettris or Newars.
Since *1951, under both multi-party and panchayat systems, the Brahmans, Chettri-Thakuris and Newars, who between
them account for about a third of Nepal's total population, have normally held sixty per cent of the seats in parliament
or Rastriya Panchayat.71 The only difference has been that Brahmans, the bulk of the intelligentsia, were boosted by the
multi-party system and the Chettris, the traditionally dominant caste, by the panchayat system. Similarly, of students
enrolled in Tribhuvan University in 1979, 45% were Brahman, 20% Chetri and 19% Newars, and of officials of UnderSecretary level and above in the secretariat in 1969, 33% were Brahman, 35% Chetri and 25% Newar.72
The overwhelming predominance of a Parbatiya-Newar elite in Nepalese society attracted attention and comment even
during the panchayat years, and a number of organisations were set up to campaign for the interests of particular
minorities as far as was possible within the political restraints of the day. In the heady atmosphere following the spring
1990 triumph of the Movement for the Restoration of multi-Party Democracy, the number of such bodies rapidly
increased and minority demands were put forward with a new intensity. The fervency with which many among the
educated took up the ethnic cause was greater than that amongst the mass of the population: a pre-election survey
put the issue of ethnic equality low down on the list of voter priorities.7321Nevertheless, what began as the
preoccupation of an activist minority may turn later into a genuine mass movement and the present ferment is therefore
worth some attention.
The discussion so far has given a general view of the diversity of Nepalese society. Table 1 (p.26) provides a more
detailed picture, but has to be used with great caution. Probably because of the potential sensitivity of the subject, the
Nepalese government did not include a question on caste/ethnic group in the 1961, 1971 and 1981 censuses. When
information on caste was again collected in 1991 they showed an apparent jump in the proportion of high caste
Parbatiyas in the population since 1952/4: hill Brahmans apparently rose from 6% to 13% and Chhetris from 12% to
16%.74 Particularly in the case of the Brahmans, the differences are too great to be accounted for by differential rates of
natural increase or by emigration and the error must be in one or both sets of data. I have accepted the 1991 statistics,
but if these figures are in fact inflated the degree of ethnic\caste inequality is that much greater than assumed here.
A second problem is conceptual and concerns especially those groupings which are normally regarded as ethnic. It is a
cardinal error to regard all such groups as `natural' units in contrast to a `constructed' Nepali nation. Many of them are
girl who caught his fancy on the streets of Kathmandu is confirmed in British Residency Records (Rishikesh Shaha, Modern Nepal, op.cit.vol.2,
pp.127-128.)
71
Because caste affiliation is not always formally recorded and some common surnames are used by one than more caste, figures cannot be
completely precise. Calculations using Harka Gurung's figures (`Representing an Ethnic Mosaic', Himal, May/June 1992, p.20 yield 62.4%, 65.4%,
57.1% and 61.9% for 1959 (multi-party direct election), 1978 (non-party, indirect election), 1981 (non-party, direct election - nominated members
excluded) and 1991 (multi-party, direct) respectively. Pashuram Tamang, `Sansadiya Am Nirvachan 2048 ra Janjati', Jhilko, no.16 (April-Sep 1991)
p.61, gives 74.3% for 1967 (non-party, indirect) and Rishikesh Shaha's data (Politics in Nepal, 1980-1990, New Delhi: Manohar 1990, p.134-5)
suggest 70.8% for members directly elected on a non-party basis in 1986 (he leaves 6 M.P.s out of 112 unaccounted for).
72
K.P. Malla, `Bahunvada: Myth or Reality?', Himal, May/June 1992; A.Baenhakker, A Kaleidoscopic Circumspection of Development Planning
with Contextual Reference to Nepal (Rotterdam: University Press, 1973, p.25, quoted in Rishikesh Shaha, Nepali Politics: Retrospect and Prospect,
2nd.ed., Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978,p.58.
73
Borre, Ole, `What do the Nepali voters Say?', Spotlight, 31 March 1991, p.37, Table 5.
74
The caste distribution for major groups according to the 1952/4 census are shown in Rishikesh Shaha, Nepali Politics: Retrospect and Prospect,
op.cit., p.58.

far from being the homogeneous, ideal tribe pictured in the introduction to this paper. The Newars, the most
economically and culturally advanced of the hill minorities, are in no sense a tribe. Although classed as a single jati by
other Nepalese and treated as such in the census statistics, they possess an intricate caste structure of their own: it is
only the higher Newar castes (those shown in the table as entitled to full Hindu or Buddhist tantric initiation) which can
be regarded as forming part of the Nepalese elite with Parbatiya Brahmans and Chettris. The divisions are such that it
is doubtful if there was any strong sense of `Newarness' amongst the Newar population until the shadow of Gorkha
loomed over them. Two recent studies of Newar ethnicity differ over the prospects of success for those propagating a
strong sense of Newar identity but agree that at present it is still locality and the circle of families accepted as of equal
caste status which matters for most Newars.75
Whilst other hill minorities possess a less complex and more egalitarian social structure, the Nepalese anthropologist
Dilli Ram Dahal has plausibly argued that none of these groups `is a tribe by any of the standard definitions' because
`they lack such basic tribal characteristics as a common territory or over-arching political political institutions.'76
Colloquial Nepali usage, as already remarked, does not distinguish the notions of `caste' and `ethnic group' and this
reflects not just a lack of intellectual sophistication but an understanding of an important reality: the ethnic labels
commonly employed often conceal internal differences and mask similarities. These labels have often been assigned
by outsiders, in particular by the state, to place the group within a hierarchically-conceived scheme of classification.
In other cases, individuals or communities have themselves adopted a name to find an advantageous slot in that
structure. The Rai, for example, are a collection of peoples speaking mutually unintelligible languages - hence the
Nepali proverb jati Rai, uti kura (Every Rai a different tongue). Their collective eponym is derived from the title given
to their chieftains by Nepali speakers.
----------------------------TABLE 1: CASTES AND ETHHNIC GROUPS
(Figures in brackets are percentages of the total population (18 million) taken from the 1991 sample census data
presented in `Harka Gurung, Jat-jati bare prarambhik tathyanka', Saptahik Bimarsha, 16 Saun 2409. Groups accounting for less than 0.1% of the population have been omitted)
1) Parbatiyas (39.8%)
Twice-born:

BRAHMANS

THAKURIS

12.9%
1.6%

CHETTRI (formerly KHAS) 16.1%


Renouncers: Sanyasis
Kanphata Yogis)
75

)
1%

David Gellner, `Language, caste, religion and territory. Newar identity ancient and modern', European Journal of Sociology, vol.XXVII, (1986),
p.102-38, emphasises the emergence of a sense of Newar identity amongst educated Newar youth, whilst Declan Quigley, `Ethnicity without
Nationalism: the Newars of Nepal', European Journal of Sociology, vol.XXVIII (1987), p.152-70, sees no room for this intermediate level between
the traditional, smaller-scale loyalty and identity as a Nepalese citizen.
76
D.R.Dahal, `Tribalism as an Incongruous Concept in Modern Nepal', Colloques Internationaux du VIth European Conference on Modern South
Asian Studies, quoted in Nancy E.Levine, `Caste, State and Ethnic Boundaries in Nepal', Journal of Asian Studies, vol.46, no.1, (Feb.1987), pp.7188.

Untouchables: Kamai (metal-workers)


Damai (tailors)

2%

Sarki (cobblers)

1.5

4.8%

2) NEWARS (5.5%)Harka Gurung treats the Newars as a single group. Figures for the main subdivisions are taken
from Marc Gaborieau, Le Nepal et ses populations, Brussels: Editions complexes, 1978, pp.198-206.
Entitled to full BRAHMANS 0.1% VAJRACHARYA/SHAKYA 0.5%
initiation:

SHRESTHAS 1%

Other pure

Uday

0.3%

MAHARJANS (JYAPU) 2.3%

castes:

`Ekthariya' etc. 0.5 - 0.7%

Impure castes:

Khadgi(Kasai), Dyahla etc. 0.3%

3) Other hill ethnic groups (`tribes') (20.2%)


MAGARS

7.3%

TAMANG

GURUNG

2.4%

LIMBU

Chepang 0.1%

5.5%
1.6%

Thami

a) Castes (15.5%)
1%

RAJPUT )

0.3%

Kusbaha )

1.0%

Kayastha ) (Kshatriya)
Musahar )
Bhat

Baniya

0.3%

0.7%
0.2%

(Vaisha)

0.5%

Other pure
castes:

YADAV/Ahir (herdsmen) 4%
Kurmi (cultivators)

0.9%

Mallah (fishermen)

0.5% 23

Kewat (fishermen)

0.5%

Kumhar (potters)

0.3%

Halwai (confectioners) 0.2%


Impure, but
touchable:

Kalwar (brewers/
merchants) 0.9%

Dhobi (washermen)

Sunuwar 0.4%
0.1%

4) Madhesis (31.1%)
Twice-born: BRAHMANS

RAI 2.8%

0.4%

Teli (oil-presser)

0.4%

Untouchable: Chamar (leather-worker)

1%

Dushad (basket-maker) 0.5%


Khatawe (navies)

0.3%

(b)Ethnic groups (8.8%):


Inner tarai: Kumal 0.4% Majhi 0.3% Danuwar 0.3% Darai 0.1%
Tarai proper: THARU 6.5% Dhanuka 0.7% Rajbamshi 0.4 Gangai 0.1%
(c) Muslims (3.3%)
----------------------------------TABLE 2: MOTHER-TONGUE SPEAKERS OF MAIN LANGUAGES (%AGE OF TOTAL POPULATION):
Language
Nepali

1952/4
48.7

1961

1971

1981

1991

50.1

52.5

58.4

53.2

12.0

11.5

11.1

11.8

Tarai (Indo-Aryan):
Maithili

11.2

Bhojpuri

0.2

Abadhi

N.A.

Tharu

4.4

6.1
4.8
4.3

7.0
2.7
4.3

7.6
1.6
3.6

6.6
?
4.8

Hill (Tibeto-Burman):
Tamang

6.0

5.6

4.8

3.5

4.7

Newari

4.7

4.0

3.9

3.0

3.5

Magar

3.3

2.7

2.5

1.4

2.2

Rai/Kirati

2.9

2.5

2.0

1.5

1.9

Gurung

2.0

1.7

1.5

1.2

1.1

Limbu

1.8

1.5

1.5

0.9

N.A.

Source: 1952-1981 census figures from table in V.B.S.Kansakar, `Population of Nepal', in .P.Malla (ed.), Nepal:
Perspectives on continuity and change, Kirtipur, Nepal: CENAS, 1989, pp.43-44; 1991 figures from preliminary
census findings (Gorkhapatra, 7 June 1992). 25
TABLE 3: LANGUAGE SHIFT IN SELECTED MINORITY GROUPS (1991)
Hill (proportion now with Nepali as mother tongue)
Magar 69.9% Gurung 54.2% Limbu 43.8% Newar 37.5% Rai 32.1% Tamang 14.5%
Tarai (proportion now with Nepali or other Indo-Aryan language as mother tongue)
Tharu 26.2%
Source: calculated from census data for 1991 in Tables 2 and 3, and partly based on Prakash E. Raj's comparison of the
data in Saptahik Bimarsha. 28 August 1992; the Limbu figure is based on the 1981 figure for Limbu language speakers
and therefore probably an over-estimate.
----------------------------------------------The Gurung, Tamang and Thakali (a very small but economically important trading community from the upper Kali
Gandaki Valley) speak closely related languages and their common forerunners appear to have been an ethnic group in
southern Tibet about a thousand years ago.77 The present-day Tamang, second largest of the hill minorities, were
previously known as Murmi or not differentiated from the lowly-regarded Bhotiyas (groups of Tibetan cultural
affinity). It was only in 1932 that they received formal recognition as a group and permission to use the surname
`Tamang' (a Tibetan honorific term meaning `Cavalryman').Pashuram Tamang, `Tamangs under the Shadow', Himal,
May-June 1992, p.25; Gaborieau, Npal et ses populations, op.cit. p.132. Those Tamang who live west of the
Kathmandu Valley generally feel as closely related to the Gurung as to the eastern Tamang. Since the cultural and
linguistic differences are slight and Gurungs are a higher-status group, many Tamangs have chosen to `pass' as Gurung,
particularly to enlist in the Nepalese and foreign armies where recruitment was traditionally restricted to specific
groups.78.The Tamang/Bhotiya ethnic boundary is similarly porous: some decades ago Tibetan speakers in the northwestern district of Humla were ordered by the government to call themselves Tamangs to strengthen Nepal's hand in a
77

Andrs Hfer, Tamang Ritual Texts, I: preliminary studies in the Folk-Religion of an Ethnic Minority in Nepal, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1981,
p.7.
78
Pashuram Tamang, op.cit., p.27

border dispute with Tibet.79


Like the data on ethnic affiliation, the census statistics on mother-tongues (Table 2) also have to be used with caution.
Given the Nepalese situation of many languages in contact and one official language having by far the greatest number
of speakers and the greatest prestige, a child may be hearing two or more languages in the home right from the start.
What, for example, is the mother-tongue of a Newar child whose parents speak to him in Nepali so that he will not be at
a disadvantage when he begins Nepali-medium education but continue to speak to each other in Newari in his
presence? In addition, the Panchayat era's stress on the dominant Parbatiya culture may have caused individuals
responding to a census question, or the government employee writing down their answers to record `Nepali' when they
were really speakers of minority languages. This would explain why the total percentage of Nepali speakers, after
rising steadily for many years, apparently dipped in 1991, whilst the main hill minority tongues seemed to have
recovered some of their lost ground.
Despite all these uncertainties, certain political consequences can be deduced at once from the basic data. The first of
these is the strength of the Parbatiya upper castes' posiion within the hills. Brahmans, Thakuris and Chetris make up
46.7% of the population of hill origin, and although they are thus technically a minority, the remaining 53% is divided
into a plethora of small groups, with the largest, the Magars (11.4%), long in close association with the Parbatiyas and
now 70% Nepali speaking. Furthermore the non-Parbatiya groups are widely dispersed geographically: the secondlargest, the Tamangs do form the largest ethnic bloc in several hill districts around the Kathmandu Valley, but are only
an absolute majority in the northern border district of Rasuwa 80Finally there is the fact already emphasised above
that all the hill ethnic groups, even if retaining their original language in the home, accept Nepali as the hill lingua
franca and also share an identity as pahari rather than madhesis
In the tarai, too, there is great diversity, with no groups holding the predominant position which the Parbatiyas have in
the hills. There are tensions between the recent settlers from the hills (now between 35 and *40% of the tarai
population), the indigenous `tribal' groups and the plains caste Hindus. However, the last mentioned grouping
dominate in a belt of 9 districts in the east-central tarai and a regional party, Sadbhavana, secured 6 seats from this *
area in the 1991 election.81 There is potential for the creation of a tarai identity based on the use of Hindi (the lingua
franca of the region though spoken by few as a mother-tongue), and also on a shared sense of grievance against hill
domination. In view of these marked differences from the hills, the minority issue in the latter region will be considered
first before returning to the tarai situation.
Although Nepal's 1990 constitution prohibits the election commission from recognising ethnic or regional parties, the
principle apparently followed for the 1991 elections was to deny registration only to parties whose name or
constitution made their ethnic or regional objectives too explicit. Thus of the parties appealing specifically to the hill
79

80
81

Levine, op.cit., p.79-80.


Harka Gurung, `Representing an Ethnic Mosaic', Himal, May-June 1992, p.21, Table 4.

Dilli Ram Dahal, `Grasping the Tarai Identity', Himal (May-June 1992), p.17-18, gives a succinct summary of the demographical situation in the
tarai.

minorities, the Mongol National Organisation and the Nepal Rastriya Janajati (`National Ethnic Communities') Party
were refused recognition and the Limbuana Liberation Front announced a boycott of the elections in protest against the
restrictions, but the Nepal Rastriya Janamukti Party, campaigning basically for ethnic quotas within the political and
administrative system, was allowed to participate. None of these groups have a large following, and the largest share of
the vote gained by the Janamukti Party in any of the 50 constituencies where it stood was only 10%82 Its share of the
Nepal-wide vote was 0.47%, well under the 3% hurdle it needed to pass to be recognised as a national party at the next
lections. Even if the 3% barrier were removed for the next general election, the demographic situation together with
the first-past-the-post electoral system would make it unlikely that parties with an appeal only to minorities could gain
a significant number of parliamentary seats.
In this situation, the natural method for putting forward hill ethnic demands is a combination of lobbying by non-party
presure groups and mobilisation of ethnic votes through parties which also appeal to the Parbatiyas. In the two-party
system which has emerged in Nepal, the opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) is, like the
governing Nepali Congress, led mainly by Parbatiya Brahmans, but it has made the stronger effort to appeal to the
minorities and gathered more of their vote at the election. This, of course parallels the situation in many other multiparty democracies: in the U.K. and in the U.S.A. it is the Labour Party and the Democrats, rather than their more rightwing rivals who can rely on the votes of disadvantaged ethnic groups. This pattern is likely to persist in Nepal, though
the complexities of politics at the local level may result in Congress also developing links with ethnic activism; there
were recent reports of a Congress party official being linked with the distribution of a pamphlet calling for Brahman
and Chettris to `go back to Benares'.83.
27
Another possible channel for ethnic discontent would be the more radical Left-wing groups. The most extreme of the
communist groups in parliament, the United People's Front, has voiced vocal support for ethnic demands, and in
summer 1992 endorsed the idea of self-determination for every ethnic minority.84 Outside parliament, the Communist
Party of Nepal (Masal), which called for a boycott of the 1991 election, is close ideologically to the Peruvian Shining
Path guerilla movement and it has been suggested that insurgency based partly on ethnic discontent is a strong
possibility for Nepal if the parliammentary system fails to deliver real economic improvement. 8527 At least
amongst some Limbus in east Nepal there was an ethnic aspect to the insurgency against the Rana regime in 1950-51.
The Masal, however, draws its strength from an area of west-central Nepal where only a small percentage of the population are non-Parbatiyas and ethnic tensions not such a major factor.
Hill ethnic demands, so far advanced strictly through constitutional channels, fall into three main categories:
institutional, cultural and economic. Many activists call for recognition of the `separate national identity' and `right *
to self-determination' of all Nepal's ethnic groups, the formula now endorsed by the United People's Front. This could
82

This was obtained by a Limbu candidate in East Nepal. Only six other of the party's candidates managed to get more than a thousand votes.
Saptahik Bimarsha, 23 April 1993
84
Nirmal Lama, `Janjati samasya bare',Saptahik Bimarsha, 17 July 1992
85
R.Andrew Nickson, `Democratisation and the Growth of Communism in Nepal: a Peruvian Scenario in the Making?', Journal of Commonwealth
and Comparative Politics, vol.XXX, no.3 (Nov 1992), pp.358-386.
83

in theory lead to federalism, and Khagendra Jang Gurung, leader of the Nepal Rastriya Janajati Party, advocates the
division of the country into a dozen ethnic regions.86 Given the present distribution of the population it would be
impossible to create even approximately homogenous ethnic states without resorting to `ethnic cleansing' on a massive
scale and a more practical approach would be some kind of cantonal arrangement. A Tamang activist has proposed
reorganisation of local government to allow a decentralisation of power to ethnic community level; at present the
`Viillage Development Committees' (formerly Village Panchayats) do not correspond to physical villages and include
settlements of many different communities. For the central level, he has proposed turning the Upper House
(RastriyaSabha), which is at present largely elected by the members of the lower house ( Pratinidhi Sabha), into a
`House of Nationalities', with representation for all ethnic groups in proportion to their numbers. 87 The idea of
guaranteed representation for minorities in the Rastriya Sabha was accepted in both the Unified Marxist-Leninists
(UML) and United People's Front election manifestos, whilst the Rastriya Jan Mukti Party advocated proportional
representation at all levels below the very top in both the administration and political parties. 8828Since there is UML
support, a formula for Upper House representation is a distinct possibility but anything more radical would run up
against the twin hurdles of acceptability to mainstream political parties and deciding just how many of the myriad
`ethnic' divisions in Nepal are to be regarded as politically relevant.
Two cultural issues, both with possible ramifications in the power structure, have also been keenly debated: religion
and language. Religious controversy in the wake of the 1990 movement focussed on whether the 1990 constitution
should retain the 1962 description of the country as a Hindu kingdom. Secularism for its own sake is not attractive to
any outside a small intellectual elite, but it serves as a symbol of opposition to the high-caste Hindus and their
dominant position in the social structure. The problem is complicated by an argument over just how Hindu the kingdom
really is. The upper castes amongst the Parbatiyas and in the tarai, one section of the Newar upper castes, and those
most strongly assimilated to these groups are undoubtedly Hindu, whilst other Newar upper castes are undoubtedly
Buddhist. The remainder of the population include elements from both `Great Traditions' and `tribal' elements in their
religious practice. By reckoning as Hindu all who do not categorically reject that identity, the traditionalists can claim
an overwhelming Hindu majority, whilst Buddhist activists can deny it by counting only wearers of the sacred thread as
Hindu: the statistics produced by both sides are equally suspect.89. Any attempt to settle the argument by arguing that
Buddhism is really a branch of Hinduism is of course resented by fervent Buddhists as an attempt at domination by
inclusion.
Although the conservatives carried the day in the constitution drafting committee, Leftist parties and ethnic activists
continue their advocacy of secularism and an amendment to the constitution is a possibility if the Left comes to power.
However, as the example of India shows, an avowedly secular state will not stop many citizens from seeing their
86

Martin Hoftun, Spring Awakening, op.cit.


Pashuram Tamang, `Address of Welcome at A Ceremony Organised by the Nepal Ethnic Communities Confederation in Honour of Ethnic
Community Members of Parliament', Kathmandu, July 1991. In a subsequent article in Himal (May/June 1992), Tamang advocates equal
representation in the upper house for all communities, irrespective of numbers.
88
Pashuram Tamang, `Sansadiya Am Nirvachan...', op.cit., p.30; Gore Bahadur Khapangi, reported in Nepali Awaj, 15 June 1990 and Martin Hoftun,
Spring Awakening, op.cit.
87

89

The 1981 census reports 89.5% of the population as Hindu. Pashuram Tamang, writing to the prime minister in August 1991 on behalf of the
`Various Religions, Languages, Nationalities Action Committee, claims that 77% of the population are non-Hindu

national identity partly in terms of Hinduism.


On the language issue, the constitution declared Nepali `the language of the nation' and `official language' but made
concessions to pluralism by declaring that all languages spoken as mother tongues in Nepal were `national languages'
and that any community had the right to operate primary schools in their own language. This falls well short of activist
demands for complete equality between languages and for the government itself to provide mother-tongue education.
Among the national political parties, the United People's Front has again gone furthest to meeting this demand,
promising the use of mother-tongue at all levels in the education system and in the courts and administration. 9029
The practical difficulties in accepting any demand for `linguistic equality' in Nepal are legion. Among the minority
languages, Maithili and Newari do have well-developed literary traditions and a more-or-less standardised written form
but this is not the case with most of the others. Providing primary education in, for example, Tamang would require
selecting one dialect for development as a written standard and then a lengthy effort in textbook production. Tamang
and all the other languages of Nepal do in theory have the potential to be developed as a `language of school and
office', but should the Nepalese state be required to devote scarce educational resources to realising that potential for
every one of them?
It is certainly doubtful whether the mass of speakers of the minority languages even want this. Wherever languages are
in contact, people have generally been willing to use another language outside the home if they are given the
opportunity to use it and if speaking the other language would clearly be to their economic advantage. The process
results in widespread bilingualism and then in possible loss of the original language. In the British Isles, though the
decline of Scots Gaelic is partly to be explained by the expulsion of whole communities from the Highlands during the
18th. and 19th. century clearances, the switch to English normally resulted from the Celtic population's wish for greater
economic opportunities rather than compulsion by the government.91 The increasing use of Nepali in the hills, a trend
established long before, can be similarly explained. 29
In the last third of the 19th. century in Europe campaigns for the use of hitherto undeveloped vernaculars as languages
of culture and administration became a more important aspect of nationalist movements. It formed part of a growing
stress on the right to self-determination of even the smallest potential nations which laid the foundation for the
emergence of so many new nation-states in the 1919 peace settlement. The same trend can be seen at work all over the
`Third World' and now in post-Cold War Europe, often with violent consequences. In his analysis of the 19th. century
development, Hobbesbawm, unkindly but not altogether unfairly, characterises the vernacularist movements as in part
`a vested interest of the lesser examination passing classes.'92 This `instrumentalist' interpretation of linguistic
nationalism is much favoured amongst students of South Asia also.93 There are, to be sure, other more purely

90

United People's Front, Election Manifesto, Kathmandu, 1991.


V.E.Durkacz, The Decline of the Celtic Languages, Edinburgh: Donals, 1983.
92
Hobbesbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, op.cit., p.118.
93
Malcolm Yapp, `Language, Religion and Political Identity: a General Framework', in David Taylor & Malcolm Yapp (ed.), Political Identity in
South Asia , London: S.O.A.S., 1979, pp.1-34. Paul R. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, London, 1974 is probably the bestknown example of this approach.
91

ideological factors at work, but elites and would-be elites seeking a smaller pool in which to be bigger fish are an
important part of the explanation.
It is where job opportunities are directly at stake that there is probably the greatest resonance between the activist
demands and the current aspirations of most of the hill minority population. The key issue is that of increasing the
proportion of minority-members in public-sector employment. Following the long-standing Indian example, ethnic
pressure groups demand a quota system (`reservations' in the standard South Asian terminology) to
redress the present imbalance in favour of the higher castes. On this question there is a very clear Left/Right divide
between the mainstream parties, with the UML and other communist groups endorsing the proposal and Congress
firmly opposed. The introduction of reservations at a time of increasing economic pressure on all sections of the
population is indeed likely to be highly divisive, as in India. The hill Brahmans, the group who would feel most
threatened by such a system, would acquire more of the characteristics of an assertive ethnic minority themselves. 94
Such group assertiveness has not been necessary in the past as they were secure first in the privileged position
granted them when the caste system was legally enforced and now because of their higher level of education. Friction
between other groups could also increase with argument over the relative degree of disadvantage of different
minorities and on the definition of minority boundaries.
The perceived unfairness of any kind of ethnic/caste quota system is not purely a matter of the privileged defending
their privileges. Caste in India or Nepal (like race in the U.S.A.) is only an approximate indicator of economic
status. Brahmans are on average a lot wealthier than Tamangs but there are many exceptions, and it is of course the
better-off individuals within the minorities who would be best-placed to take advantage of opportunities reserved for
the group to which they belong. Restriction of job opportunities for Chhetris or Newars as groups would raise even
greater problems of equity. Especially in far-western Nepal, where the non-Parbatiya proportion of the population is
ery small, there are many Chettris amongst the `have-nots'. Within the Kathmandu Valley, upper-caste Newars count
amongst the elite, but hardly members of the Jyapu cultivator caste and certainly not Newar untouchables. Rather than
allowing the best-placed individuals within each group to turn caste and ethnicity into political and economic resources
for intra-elite competition, and in so doing harden presently flexible inter-ethnic boundaries, affirmative action' would
be better focussed directly on backward regions and on individuals with income or landholding below a prescribed
limit. Despite these dangers, however, it is likely that the electoral convenience of caste or community-based appeals,
together with the recent `ethnicity wave', will produce irresistible pressure for the introduction of reservations in some
form or another. The prospect in the hills is thus for increased ethnic/caste tensions and possible violence, but there is
hope for keeping these within manageable limits, and, given the demographic situation, little prospect of real pressure
for autonomous areas.
In the tarai, which contains around 40% of Nepal's population and generates about two-thirds of its wealth, the
diversity of the population means that many of the points made concerning the hill situation also apply. There re,
however, two crucial differences. First is the common culture linking many tarai communities with the other side of an
94

Prayag Raj Sharma, `How to Tend this Garden?', Himal, May-June 1992, p.8.

Indian border and the constant movement of people and goods across this, which is not under control and is probably in
fact uncontrollable without disproportionate effort by the Nepalese authorities. A direct consequence of this is the use
of Hindi as a link language between the different tarai communities. The second factor is a tradition of regionallybased political organisation, starting with Bhadrakali Mishra's Tarai Congress in the 1950s and now represented by the
Sadbhavana Party. Sadbhavana holds six seats in parliament, all from Lumbini or Sansari districts and all except one
won because the majority of the voters were split between different nationally-based parties.95 Its appeal is probably
limited at present because of mistrust by other communities of its Rajput leadership but so long as the feeling persists
amongst the Indian-origin tarai-dwellers that they are disadvantaged as madeshis they pose a serious challenge to the
present unitary Nepalese state. Attempted implementation of their demand for a federal constitution, with three states in
the hills and two in the tarai would lead to serious conflict between madhesis and settlers from the hills, but strong
pressure for such an attempt is a real possibility in the medium-term future.
The demand for Hindi to become a second official language is a major part of the Sadbhavana platform, and, although
the issue is not yet a pressing one for madeshi voters, it might become so. Many hill Nepalese believe such demand
could be diffused by allowing instead a limited role for the principal spoken languages of the tarai (Maithili, Bhojpuri
and Avadhi) with Nepali then accepted as the link language between communities.96 Whilst it is true that standard Hindi
is spoken as a mother-tongue by very few in the tarai, the Maithili, Bhojpuri and Avadhi speakers on the other side of
the open border have long been used to employing Hindi as their main language of literacy and link with other
communities. If they perceive Nepali as something imposed on them rather than as a door to wider economic
opportunities, the demand for mother tongue and Hindi rather than mother tongue plus Nepali could well grow.
The linguistic solution for the tarai may be retention of Nepali as the language of written record, but encouragement of
all tarai languages, including Hindi, as spoken languages and as vehicles for literature. 97 All urban Nepalese can at
least understand spoken Hindi if only because of exposure to the Hindi cinema, and literacy in any of the three
languages opens the door to literacy in the others.
Both in language and in other matters opposition to an Indian `Other cannot be a unifying force in the tarai as it has
long been in the hills. Integration into a relatively homogeneous, Nepali-speaking Parbatiya culture may be a long-term
possibility for hill minorities but not for those of the tarai. This does not mean that the Nepalese government will
become totally unable to take an independent line from the Indian government on any issue, but the presentation of any
clash as one between rival cultures can only increase alienation in the tarai. I was made keenly aware of this twenty
years ago when demonstrators protesting against the integration of Sikkim into the Indian Union roamed the streets of
Kathmandu shouting Dhotiwala murdabad! (Death to the dhoti-wearers!). A Maithili-speaking Indian friend of mine

95

See John Whelpton, `The May 1991 Elections' for details of the Sadbhavana Party's election manifesto and results. A brief account of the party's
background is given in Martin Hoftun, Spring Awakening, op.cit.
96
In the 1950s there was an unsuccessful campaign by Maithils on the Indian side of the border for a Maithili-speaking state. See Paul Brass,
Language, Religion and Politics in North India, op.cit.
97

Hindi, Nepali and Maithili are closely-related languages written in the same script and all drawing on Sanskrit for their higher-level vocabulary.
Prakash E.Raj, Saptahik Bimarsha, 28 Aug 1992, makes this point strongly and even implies that the Nepali speakers in the hills should regard the
speakers of other Indo-Aryan languages in southern Nepal as linguistic allies against the advocates of the Tibetan-Burman hill-minority languages.

remarked that very many Nepalese citizens wear the dhoti.


Acceptance that citizens of Nepal do not have to make an all-or-nothing choice between a Nepali or Indian cultural
identity will probably prove the only way to resolve the tarai problem. A similar spirit would help in Darjeeling here
the Nepali-speaking community has the problem of minority status within West Bengal, and in Bhutan where the
Lepcha hillmen view the ethnic Nepalese in the south of their country much as many pahari Nepalese view people of
Indian origin in the tarai. The situation in Bhutan has already degenerated into violence and it will require tatesmanship
both in Kathmandu and in the tarai to prevent a similar outcome.
Conclusion
The slow process of creating a national identity in Nepal has now been complicated by an incipient movement to turn
ethnic minorities within Nepal into nations within the nation. There are continuities between the processes both in the
18th. and 19th. centuries and now: the strengthening of pre-existing similarities between people and the drawing of a
more distinct boundary between the in-group and outsiders. Current nationalist ideology and ethnic activism do not
represent something completely new. But modernity in Nepal as elsewhere has brought a great intensification in the
process as the intensity of interaction between individual Nepalese and their government and between different
communities within Nepal has increased. Unlike the Scottish case, the construction of a Nepalese identity was still
incomplete when the era of self-conscious nationalism and ethnic activism arrived. Although the momentum towards
assimilation of the hill peoples into a Nepali speaking community is probably too strong now to be seriously threatened
by the new ethnic assertiveness, increased friction between groups is nevertheless likely.
A more serious challenge to the current bases of Nepalese nationhood is posed by the mobilisation of people of Indian
origin in the tarai. A strong Nepalese state with its main economic base in the hills might succeed in integrating the
tarai peoples on lines already successful in the hills, but the tarai is itself the economically stronger region and a hillorientated state will remain too weak to counteract fully the Indian cultural identity of many of the tarai people.
Acceptance of the impossibility of establishing a Nepalese identity fully distinct from India will therefore be essential
for the peaceful resolution of hill-tarai tensions.
The Nepalese case illustrates clearly the general principle that the process of nation building involves accretion around
a nucleus, the `core ethnie of Anthony Smith's analysis, which in Nepal's case is provided by the Parbatiyas and
particularly the Parbatiya high castes. The process, therefore, inevitably involves a degree of inequality between
centre and periphery. This inequality may be stark and formal, as with the `nation of castes' envisaged by the 1854
Legal Code, or de facto when groups who did not originally share in the core culture are required to assimilate to it.
The assimilation does not have to be complete: for example, members of a minority community may use their own
language amongst themselves whilst operating successfully in the national language at school and work, but
modernisation does require a degree of homogenization.

In the past these requirements were accepted more readily even by members of minorities themselves. Plural societies
now, however, are witnessing a growing revolt by minority groups against peripheral status. This can be explained
partly by the convenience of ethnic mobilisation as a tool in electoral competition between elites. It also reflects two
contemporary ideological trends: an insistence on eliminating inequality of all forms, and a reaction against the
homogenisation and standardisation that go with increasing economic integration. Taken to a logical extreme, this
would entail an ever-increasing number of nation-states or at least autonomous regions, but where the minority
concerned lacks a viable geographical base the outcome is increased conflict within the existing state framework. In
this process, decisions made by those holding or seeking political power will continue not just to respond to individuals'
perceptions of their identity but also to reshape those perceptions.
REFERENCES
Acharya, Baburam, Shri Panch Badamaharajadhiraj Prithvi Narayan Shahko Samkshipta Jivani (Abridged Life of His
Majesty King Prithvi Narayan Shah), Kathmandu: His Majesty's Press Secretariat, 2024-5 V.S.(1967-9).
Adhikari, Krishna Kant, Nepal under Jang Bahadur, vol.1, Kathmandu: `Buku', 1984.
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, London: Verso/New Left Books, 1982.
Armstrong, John, Nations before Nationalism, Chapel Hill, 1982.
Berlie, Jean, `Nea (Na) in the LPDR and Yunnan (PRC): a Minority and a Non-minority in the Chinese and Lao
Political System', paper presented to the S.O.A.S. conference on Minorities Policy and Practice in the Tai-speaking
Region, July 1993.
Bista, Dor Bahadur, Fatalism and Development: Nepal's Struggle for Moderni zation, Hyderabad: Orient Longman,
1991.
Borre, Ole, `What do the Nepali Voters Say', Spotlight, 31 March 1991.
Brass, Paul, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, London, 1974.
Burghart, Richard, `The Formation of the Concept of Nation-State in Nepal', Journal of Asian Studies, vol.44, no.1
(Nov 1984).
Caplan, Lionel Land and social change in Eastern Nepal: a Study of Hindu- Tribal Relations, London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul.
Dahal, Dilli Ram, `Grasping the Tarai Identity', Himal, May-June 1992, p.17-18.
Donaldson Gordon, Scottish Historical Documents, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1970.
Durkacz, Victor Edward, The Decline of the Celtic Languages: a Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict in Scotland,
Wales and Ireland from the Reformation to the 20th. Century, Edinburgh: Donald, 1983.
Gaborieau, Marc, Le Nepal et ses Populations, Brussels: Editions Complexes, 1978.
Gaenszle, Martin, `The Topicality of History: an Interview with Mahesh Chandra Regmi', in European Bulletin of
Himalayan Research, no.4, 1992.
Gellner, David, Monk, Householder and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1992.
______________, `Language, Caste, Religion and Territory: Newar Identity Ancient and Modern', European Journal
of Sociology, vol.27, 1986.

Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism, 1983.


Grierson, Sir George, Linguistic Survey of India, Calcutta: Superintendent of Government Printing, 1916.
Gurung, Harka, Review of Tanka Subba, Ethnicity, State and Development, in
Himal, May-June, 1992, p.40-41.
_____________, `Representing an Ethnic Mosaic', Himal, May-June 1992,pp.19-21
_____________, `Jat-jati-bare prarambhik tathyanka' (Preliminary Statistics on Castes and Ethnic Groups), Saptahik
Bimarsha, 31 July 1992.
Hamilton, Francis Buchanan, An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal, New Delhi: Asian Educational Service, 1986 (rep.
of 1819 ed.)
Hitchcock, J.T., `An Additional Perspective on the Nepali Caste System', in James T. Fisher (ed.), Himalayan
Anthropology, The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1979.
Hobbesbawm, E.J Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1990.
Hodgson, Brian H., `The Military Tribes of Nepal', in Essays in the Language, Religion and Literature of Nepal and
Tibet, New Delhi: Manjushri., 1972 (rep. of 1874 ed.).
Hofer, Andras, Tamang Ritual Texts: Preliminary Studies in the Folk-Religion of an Ethnic Minority in Nepal,
Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1981.
Hofer, Andras, The Caste hierarchy and the State in Nepal: a Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854, Insbruk:
Universitatsverlag Wagner, 1979.
Hoftun, Martin, Spring Awakening, New Delhi, 1993.
Hussain, Asad, British India's Relations with the Kingdom of Nepal, 1847-57, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970.
Hutt, Michael J., Nepali: a National Language and its Literature, New Delhi: Sterling, 1988.
________________, Nepal in the Nineties, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993..
Jackson, Kenneth, Language and History in Early Britain, Edinburgh, 1983.
Joshi, Bhuvan Lal & Rose, Leo E., Democratic Innovations in Nepal: a Case Study in Political Acculturation,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Kansakar, V.B.S., `Population of Nepal', in K.P.Malla (ed.), Nepal: Perspec tives on Continuity and Change, Kirtipur,
Nepal: CENAS, 1989, pp.28-50.
Kedourie, Elie, Nationalism, London: Hutchinson, 1971
--------------, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, London: Weidenfeld & Nicho las, 1971.
Kirkpatrick, William, An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul, London: W.Miller, 1811.
Lama, Nirmal, Janjati Samasya Bare' (On the Problem of the ethnic communities), Saptahik Bimarsha, 17 July 1992.
Levine, Nancy E., `Caste, State and Ethnic Boundaries in Nepal', Journal of Asian Studies, vol.46, no.1 (Feb 1987),
p.71-88.
Macfarlane, Alan, Resources and Population: a Study of the Gurungs of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1976.
Malla, K.P., The Road to Nowhere, Kathmandu: Sajha, 1979.
___________, `Bahunvada: Myth or Reality?', Himal May/June 1992, p.22-24.

Nepali, Chittaranjan, Shri Panch Rana Bahadur Shah, Kathmandu: Shrimati Meri Rajbhandari, 2020 V.S.(1963-4).
Nickson, R.Andrew, `Democratisation and the Growth of Communism in Nepal: a Peruvian Scenario in the Making?',
Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, vol.XXX, no.3 (Nov.1992), pp.358-386.
Pemble, John, The Invasion of Nepal: John Company at War, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
Pokharel, Bal Krishna (ed.), Panch Say Barsha (Five Hundred Years), Lalitpur, Nepal: Sakha Prakashan, 2043 V.S.
(1986/7).
Pradhan, Kumar, Pahilo Pahar (The First Step), Darjeeling: Shyam Prakashan, 1982.
_______________, The Gorkha Conquests: The Process and Consequences of the Unification of Nepal with Special
Reference to Eastern Nepal, Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Prebble, John, The Lion in the North, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973.
Quigley, Declan, `Ethnicity without Nationalism: the Newars of Nepal', European Journal of Sociology, vol.XXVIII
(1987), p.152-70.
Raj, Prakash., Nepalma Bhasha ra Jat-Jati tathyanka' (Language and Caste/Ethnic Group Statistics in Nepal),
Saptahik Bimarsha, 28 August 1992.
Regmi, Mahesh Chandra, Land Ownership in Nepal, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
_____________________, `Preliminary Notes on the Nature of the Gorkhali State and Administration', in Regmi
Research Series, vol.10, no.11 (November 1978)
_____________________, Thatched Huts and Stucco Palaces, New Delhi: Vikas, 1979.
Rose, Leo E., Nepal - Strategy for Survival, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Rose, Leo E. & Scholz, John T., Nepal: Profile of a Himalayan Kingdom, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Sagant, Philippe, Le Paysan Limbu, sa Maison et ses Champs, Paris: Mouton/Ecole des Haut Etudes en Science, 1976.
Shaha, Rishikesh, Nepali Politics: Retrospect and Prospect (2nd.ed.), Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1978.
________________, Politics in Nepal, 1980-90, New Delhi: Manohar, 1990.
________________, Modern Nepal: a Political History 1769-1955, New Delhi: Manohar, 1990.
Sharma, Prayag Raj, `How to Tend this Garden?', Himal, May-June 1992, p.7-9.
Smith, Anthony D., Theories of Nationalism, London: Harper & Row, 1971
_________________, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.
Stiller, Ludwig, The Silent Cry: the People of Nepal: 1816-1839, Kathmandu: Sahayogi Prakashan, 1976.
_______________, Letters from Kathmandu: the Kot Massacre, Kirtipur: Centre for Research in Nepal and Asian
Studies, 1981.
Tamang, Pashuram, Sansadiya Am Nirvachan 2048 ra Janjati' (Parliamentary General Election 1991 and the Tribes),
Jhilko, no. 16 (1991), pp.27-33.
_________________, `Tamangs under the Shadow', Himal, May-June 1992, p.25-27.
_________________, `Address of Welcome at a Ceremony Organised by the Nepal Tribal Confederation in Honour
of Tribal Members of Parliament', July 1991.
_________________, `Open Letter to Prime Minister G.P.Koirala on behalf of the Various Religions, Languages,
Nationalities Action Committee, Aug. 1991.'
United People's Front, Election Manifesto, Kathmandu, 1991.

Upreti, Prem R., Political Awakening in Nepal (The Search for a New Identity) New Delhi, Commonwealth
Publishers, [1992}.
Whelpton, John, Jang Bahadur in Europe; the First Nepalese Mission to the West, Kathmandu: Sahayogi Press, 1983.
______________, `The Ancestors of Jang Bahadur Rana: History, Propaganda and Legend', Contributions to
Nepalese Studies, vo.14, no.3 (August 1987), pp.161-191.
______________, Kings, Soldiers and Priests: Nepalese Politics and the Rise of Jang Bahadur Rana, 1830-57, New
Delhi: Manohar, 1991.
______________, `The General Elections of May 1991', in Michael J. Hutt (ed.), Nepal in the Nineties, New Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 1993, pp.48-81.
Wink, A., Land and Sovereignty in India. Agrarian Society and Politics under the 18th. century Maratha Svarajya.,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Yapp, Malcolm, `Language, Religion and Political Identity: a general framework', in David Taylor and Malcolm Yapp
(eds.), Political Identity in South Asia, London: S.O.A.S., 1979.