Social Inclusion of Ethnic Communities in Contemporary Nepal

Social Inclusion of Ethnic Communities in Contemporary Nepal

by Monika Mandal


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Social Inclusion of Ethnic Communities in Contemporary Nepal focuses on the dynamics of ethnic identities and movement in South Asian states in a comparative framework. As we witness a series of explosive ethnic revivals across the globe, this study investigates the issues around ethnicity that have come to occupy centre stage in Nepal's contemporary political and development discourse. Nepal is at the crossroads of state building. The Constituent Assembly is now looking into the modalities of establishing a multi-cultural, multi-social, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and multi-ethnic federal state. In the aftermath of the April 2006 Jana Andolan II and the commitment of the ruling political alliance to restructuring Nepal along federal republican lines, the assessment of Nepal's ethnic question from multiple perspectives - political, sociological, economic and spatial - has acquired a new urgency. Ethnic identity is only one part of the problem of ethnicity in Nepal.

Federalism therefore has to be conceived of as an exercise in addressing the multiplicity of issues that form the agenda of Nepal's development, so that a politically, socially and economically integrated, dynamic and progressive Nepal emerges from the shadows of the past.

This work includes an intensive analysis of facts, figures and particulars collected from available records and surveys. One of the aims of the study is to assess the defining ethnic identity among the Limbus, centred on a case in an urban area in the Kathmandu Valley. This work is mainly based on qualitative data but quantitative data has also been used to measure various aspects of the community, like the level of educational, economy etc.

This volume will be an invaluable guide for the scholars of federalism in Nepal while also educating the lay reader in general.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789381904589
Publisher: Sun Links Ltd
Publication date: 08/15/2013
Pages: 482
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.19(d)

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Social Inclusion of Ethnic Communities in Contemporary Nepal

By Monika Mandal

KW Publishers Pvt Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIS)
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-93-81904-58-9


A Comparative Definition: Ethnicity in Nepal within World and South Asian Perspectives

The term 'ethnicity' first appeared as an English word in 1950. It was officially recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1953. One of the earliest compilations of articles under that heading state: 'Ethnicity seems to be a new term'. The meaning of the term is equally uncertain. It can mean 'the essence of an ethnic group' or 'the quality of belonging to an ethnic community or group', or 'what it is you have if you are an 'ethnic group', generally in the context of other ethnic groups.

Quite clearly, 'ethnicity' is a derivative of the much older term and is more commonly used as an adjective 'ethnic', which in the English language goes back to the Middle Ages. This adjective is derived from the ancient Greek term ethnos; it was used as a synonym of gentile, that is, non-Christian and non-Jewish pagan in New Testament Greek. For example, the Greek noun survives as ethnie, with an associated adjective ethnique. As the English language has no concrete noun for ethnos or ethnie, the French term is used here to denote an 'ethnic community' or 'ethnic group'.

The key term in the field is that of 'ethnic group' or 'ethnic community', but it is one for which there is no agreed specify or ostensive definition. The issue is complicated by the levels of incorporation, which named human culture communities display. Handelman has distinguished four such levels — that of ethnic category, the loosest level of incorporation, where there is simply a perceived cultural difference between the group and outsiders, and a sense of the boundary between them. In the next stage, that of ethnic network, there is regular interaction between ethnic members such that the network can distribute resources among its members. In the ethnic association, the members develop common interests and political organisations to expiree these at a collective corporate level. Finally, we have the ethnic community, which possesses a permanent, physically bounded territory, over and above its political organisations; an example would be an ethnie in command of a national state. Most people would seem to compare the latter with what are termed 'nations', and to simplify these levels by opposing the ethnic category to the ethnic community. Handelman's typology is useful, but it fails to capture the specifically 'ethnic' content of an 'ethnic community' or ethnie. We need to consider other elements, and Schermerhorn's well-known definition points us in the right direction, "An ethnic group is defined here as a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood." Examples of such symbolic elements are kinship patterns, physical contiguity, religious affiliation, language or dialect forms, tribal affiliation, nationality, phonotypical features, or any combination of these. A necessary accompaniment is some consciousness of kind among members of the group.

Ethnie is a named human population with myths of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more elements of common culture, a link with a homeland and a sense of solidarity among at least some of its members.

In other words, ethnies habitually exhibit, albeit in varying degrees, six main features:

1. A common proper name, to identify and express the 'essence' of the community.

2. A myth of common ancestry, a myth rather than a fact, a myth that includes the idea of a common origin in time and place and that given an ethnie a sense of fictive kinship, what Horowitz terms a 'super-family'.

3. Shared historical memories, or better, shared memories of a common past or pasts, including heroes, events, and their commemoration.

4. One or more elements of common culture, which need not be specified but normally, include religion, customs, or language.

5. A link with a homeland, not necessarily its physical occupation by the ethnie, only its symbolic attachment to the ancestral land, as with Diaspora peoples.

6. A sense of solidarity on the part of at least some sections of the ethnie'spopulation.

This brings out the importance of shared stories and memories in the definition of ethnies, and the subjective identification of individuals with the community; without the shared stories and memories, including stories of origin and election, and the sense of solidarity they engender, we would be speaking of an ethnic category rather than a community. The second key element is the orientation to the past — to the origins and ancestors of the community and to its historical formation including its 'golden ages', the periods of its political, artistic, or spiritual greatness. The destiny of the community is bound up with its ethno-history, with its own understanding of a unique, shared past.

In exploring this question, I shall draw on selected theoretical and meta-theoretical contributions to the analysis of ethnicity, beginning with Fredrik Barth's 'Introduction' to his edited volume Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Barth 1969), which to my mind represents the clearest defense of an a historical concept of ethnicity.

The concept of ethnicity developed by Barth in his 'Introduction' could roughly be labelled a naturalist one. Although a main original contribution of his essay consisted in stressing that ethnic identities are created from within and not by virtue of 'objective' cultural differences, thereby giving him the label 'subjectivist' in some quarters, he also makes it clear, if implicitly, that ethnic phenomena are endemic to humanity and not to any particular kind of society. More specifically, Barth locates the emergence of ethnic distinctions to differentiation within a society and the concomitant development of divergent standards of evaluation and constraints on interaction. Disentangling the concept of ethnicity from the concepts of race and culture, the main epistemological contribution of Barth's article consisted, perhaps, in his refining and considering the concept of society seen as a natural phenomenon of cultural humans, while not discarding it completely. He shows that societies may be poly-ethnic, and thus, contain delineated and distinctive groups, that the boundaries of societies may be not only relative but also 'permeable' in the sense that people may permanently cross into another society (i.e. another ethnic group), and finally, that the members of an ethnic group need not share all the characteristics deemed as defining of the group (a polytheic 'family resemblance' is sufficient).

On the other hand, the actual status differentiation within a society (notably ethnicity as an imperative status) is taken for granted in the greater part of the text and so is, by implication, the social structure. The systems of relationships entailed by ethnicity in various contexts are implicitly regarded by Barth as comparable, and in the final parts of his essay, he goes on to discuss contextual variations and their implications for analysis. The actual boundary mechanism which defines ethnicity is, in other words, held constant and is implicitly assumed to be context-independent. Ethnicity thus becomes, in Barth's version, an important defining concept and thereby a formal comparative concept, an analytical bridgehead not confined to any particular kind of society or historical era. Barth's view is underpinned by the other contributions to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (cf. especially Haaland's, Izikowitz' and Knutsson's contributions), which largely deal with interethnic relations in non-modern or non-industrial societies where ethnicity has yet to become a mobilising force in mass politics.

The view of ethnicity presented in Abner Cohen's 'essay on the anthropology of power and symbolism', as well as in his important 'Introduction' to his edited ASA monograph on Urban Ethnicity, differs from that of Barth in this regard. Whereas Barth could be represented as a moderate realist, Cohen makes it clear that he is a committed nominal — to him, ethnicity is neither more nor less than a useful heuristic concept tailored to make sense of particular, historically delineated processes such as urbanisation in Africa. Cohen, thus, identifies ethnicity with the processes whereby 'some interest groups exploit parts of their traditional culture in order to articulate informal organisational functions that are used in the struggle of these groups for power'. A few pages on, he elaborates the notion by adding, among other things, that ethnicity 'involves a dynamic rearrangement of relations and of customs and is not the result of cultural conservatism or continuity'. In Cohen's analysis, ethnicity appears as neither more nor less than a form of corporate traditionalism, and is as such confined to modern circumstances — presumably presupposing institutional differentiation, literacy and the state.

However, like Barth, Cohen also depends on a historical, formal, defining concept. Unlike Barth, who developed his boundary model partly to evade the pitfalls of structural-functionalism, Cohen embraces structural-functionalist explanation, using it explicitly as a general comparative frame into which he puts, under certain historical and political circumstances, the empirical phenomena classified as ethnicity. This logic is also evident in Cohen's ethnographic analyses of Hausa in Ibadan and Creoles in Freetown. In other words, whereas ethnicity appears as a natural social phenomenon in Barth, it is relegated to the status of an historical contingent phenomenon in Cohen as a part of the defined space, as a part of the society under scrutiny. A question to which we shall have to return is, obviously, whether the two authors have the same phenomenon in mind when talking about ethnicity.

There are many concepts for which definitions are problematical. 'Ethnic identity', 'ethnic group', and 'ethnicity' are three of such concepts. There is always a temptation to create watertight definitions with neat boundaries, thereby eliminating the possibility of confusion with neighbouring concepts. In an essay on comparative philosophy, John Ladd follows Wittgenstein in commenting on this tendency and in reiterating the necessity of distinguishing different orders of phenomena: "Inexact, fuzzy concepts are different from scientific concepts or other kinds of concepts that are susceptible of exact definition. Wittgenstein compares the attempt to define such concepts with the attempt to draw a sharp picture corresponding to a blurred one ... anything — and nothing — is right."

This does not mean that we should abandon attempts to define inexact concepts; rather, we are much content with elastic definitions that approximate what we wish to define. Moreover, we must not agonize over our inability to reconcile exceptions and contradictions. 'Ethnic identity', 'ethnic group', and 'ethnicity' are concepts that take their form and content from the give and take of human behaviour, from shaping actions and from being acted upon. There is the same continuity and change about them as there is about human behaviour.

In this spirit, I offer the following definitions: An 'ethnic group' is a reference group invoked by people who share a common historical style, based on overt features and values, and who, through the process of interaction with others, identify themselves as sharing that style. 'Ethnic identity' is the sum total of feelings on the part of group members about those values, symbols, and common histories that identify them as a distinct group. 'Ethnicity' is simply ethnic-based action. These definitions are sufficiently specific to mark off a category we may call 'ethnic', and at the same time they are flexible enough to allow for change. The history of thinking about ethnic identity and related phenomena has not always been characterised by such flexibility. That brings us to the definition of 'ethnic' that provide the title of this chapter and that will serve as an appropriate point of departure for discussions of definitional debates.

Attempts made by earlier anthropologists and sociologists to define 'ethnic' share many characteristics with the Webster definitions. These scholars believed in the distinctiveness and immutability of ethnic groups, a view that is not surprising in light of the general emphasis in the social science on social institutions, equilibrium, and the analogy that society, like all organisms, made sense; that is, it was an internally consistent system. Ethnic groups were seen as another kind of social institution that fit into the large society in certain ways and that maintained a conservative equilibrium.

If ethnic groups are real, we must be able to point to tangible evidence of their reality. Wsevolod Isajiw reviewa definitions of ethnicity and lists attributes of ethnic groups that appeared in 27 definitions. He abstracted a total of twelve characteristics. The five that appeared most often were (in descending order of frequency) common ancestral origin, same culture or customs, religion, race or physical characteristics, and language. They are attributes that are immediately apparent or easily checked for presence or absence. The remaining attributes include many based on feeling or status, such as sense of people hood, common values or ethos, and Gemeinschaft relations. Because they are less visible, they are less useful for quickly categorising individuals or groups. Many people assume that a person acquires all these characteristics and learns the meaning of symbols and values by virtue of being born into an ethnic group. "A person does not belong to an ethnic group category by choice. He is born into it and becomes related to it through emotional and symbolic ties."

Ethnic groups and Ethnic Identity Formation

There are three ways of defining ethnic groups — in terms of objective attributes, with reference to subjective feelings, and in relation to behaviour.

Objective Definitions

"Definitions based primarily on traits or combinations of traits and feeling-states fall into category of objective definitions," according to Isajiw. But overt traits do not retain the same form throughout all time. The Swahili of eastern Africa offer another example of the insufficiency of purely objective definitions. The only overt feature they shared was the Swahili language, but Swahili is a lingua franca for East Africa and, as such, is spoken by a great many people who are not Swahili. As William Arens notes, "Definitions based on overt features are useless for this particular group: Such a typology leaves few, if any, of the residents of East Africa out of the picture. On this basis, a Swahili could be a Christian, Muslim, or Pagan; dress in an Arabian, European, or traditional style, and live in a town or in the scattered hamlets of the interior — just to mention a few of the possibilities. In effect, the cultural characteristics are extremely diverse and infinite and there is no reason for assuming that this should not be the case. It does not seem profitable, there, to pursue a definition in terms of cultural phenomena since the use of a common language appears to be the only constant."

Fredrik Barth's call for attention to the boundaries of ethnic groups as the important defining features, rather than the cultural stuff enclosed by the boundaries, is probably the most significant attempt to articulate the problems of making objective definitions of ethnic groups — the cultural features that signal the boundary may change, and the cultural characteristics of the members may likewise be transformed, indeed even the organisational form of the group may change; yet, the fact of continuing dichotomisation between members and outsiders allows us to specify the nature of continuity, and investigate the changing cultural form and content.

Barth seems to be saying that we cannot define ethnicity solely on the basis of overt cultural features. This position is perfectly logical and acceptable.

The response to Barth, however, brought social scientists to the opposite equally narrow position. Individuals took only the first part of Barth's prescription, ignoring or overlooking the important phrase 'allows us to ... investigate the changing cultural form and content'. With this new charter, they embarked upon studies of interaction and boundary maintenance to the virtual exclusion of discussions of cultural features. Cultures, in fact, become crucial in the strategies of identity selection and management.


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Table of Contents


Preface and Acknowledgements,
1. A Comparative Definition: Ethnicity in Nepal within World and South Asian Perspectives,
2. Historical Perspectives on Ethnic Diversity in Nepal,
3. The Ethnic Context of Contemporary Nepal,
4. Ethnic Identity Politics in Nepal,
5. Spatial Distribution of Population by Mother Tongue and Language Diversity in Nepal,
6. Ethnic Migration in Nepal,
7. Socio-Cultural Lifestyle of Ethnic People in Nepal,
8. Defining Ethnic Identity among the Limbus,

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