Saturday Features

The struggle to get by

Yangesh’s debut book, Bhuiyan, chronicles the historic oppression of the landless communities in Nepal and the fight to change that reality

- Sandesh Ghimire

Ani Ghar chahi kata paryo ni? So where is your house?” This popular conversation opener in Nepal conveys the cultural importance of owning private property, and further shows the implicit assumption that everyone has a place of belonging—at least a small piece of land, and a roof above their head which they can call their own. This way of starting a conversation has also formed a cultural preconception: That everyone owns a house, or owns a piece of land somewhere within the territorial boundaries of Nepal. This cultural attribute of the Nepali society has also seeped into the way the Nepali language is used. As journalist Kedar Sharma once pointed, other than a close approximation—‘gharbarbihin,’—a word that is used to describe homelessness is non-existent in conversational Nepali. And, ‘Sukumbasi,’ the word used in describing landless people, rarely makes into the lexicon of development discourse; even though politicians have developed an aptitude for exploiting these words when they need to shore up their vote bank.

Nonetheless, for Parbati Raji, it is not just the politicians who have exploited her. Her life started as a bonded labourer in the western Tarai belt, where she laboured every day to feed 50 mouths in her feudal landlord’s household. The government in 2000 CE brought forth a proclamation to free thousands of people, like Parbati, who were held in bondage as Kamaiyas. Thousands like Parbati were freed but they were not offered any support from the state to be incorporated into society. “If I was in prison, at least I would be able to eat,” Parbati says to the writer Yangesh, whose debut book, Bhuiyan, chronicles 10 different stories of people in the Tarai who have suffered because of landlessness.

After wandering helplessly from one place to another, as Yangesh chronicles it, 500 Rajis made a small settlement inside the buffer zone of Bardiya National Park. Every night the families living there have to be prepared to ward off wild animals. But the greater threat comes from the authorities. Community members of the buffer zone are allowed to reap benefits from the natural resources of the community forest. To be considered as a community member, however, one has to own a piece of land in the vicinity. But for Parbati Raji, who has not made a transaction greater than a few hundred rupees at a time in her life, owning a piece of land is a distant dream. Since they are considered illegal residents, in the eye of the law, the Raji people are constantly wary of the forest department which has made several threats and attempts to burn down their leaky huts. 

These tales of suffering that the author presents to the reader is not a historical accident. As it is pointed out in the book, these tales of agony have repeated themselves, generation after generation since Jung Bahadur Rana rolled out the Birta system to appease his courtiers, which was further aggravated by land reform policy introduced by King Mahendra in 1964 CE. 

Yangesh chronicles stories of misery from all across the Tarai belt and from different ethnic groups, who have suffered not just from the state apparatus, but also from the culture of economic and social exclusion. But despite the suffering, these communities have harboured a dream of Independence: A hope that their descendants will one day own the land they work upon. 


With the arrival of every major political party, the marginalised population of the Tarai had their expectation raised. However, Tara BK, one of the subjects of the book, reflects while telling her story, “the political parties promised to liberate us, but they all turned out to be oppressors.” Finally, when the torchbearers of marginalised voices, the Maoist, joined mainstream politics to instead become crony capitalists, these groups seemed to have realised that liberation will not come from without—from a benevolent liberator—but only from within, through internal mobilisation and organisation. 

In the decade since the second Jana Andolan, there have been other movements to fight for the legal framework to allow for the dignity and liberty to live an average life. According to Yangesh, these social movements have mostly been helmed by women, and he has transcribed the suffering and struggle of these women as they non-violently fight against the various oppressive forces of Nepal.

For centuries, the Raji in the west and the Chamar and Mushahar in the east have been conditioned as beast-of-burden in human form—eating, sleeping, thinking like a human, yet deprived of the opportunity to be recognised as a human. Parbati Raji, even after slaving herself away for the satisfaction of her landlord, did not get enough food to nourish herself and her baby right after giving birth. In Tikapur, a few kilometres away from the Buffer zone where the Raji community lives, the writer discovers that half of those who are registered as ‘Sukumbasis’ are infact not, but they are reaping the benefits from the state, while half of the actual ‘Sukumbasis’ have not been able to register because they are not able to afford the 100 rupees required for the paperwork.  

In the eastern Tarai belt, the situation is equally grim. In one of the stories that Yangesh recounts, a pregnant Musahar woman opposing the corrupt governance of a local school administration in Sunsari gets beaten and suffers a miscarriage. The district governing body ritualistically responds by setting up an investigation committee whose reports falsely claim that she was never pregnant. In the neighbouring districts, when the Chamars refused to remove dead cattle from the village, as a way of demanding social equality, they were boycotted by the entire society.  

All kinds of imaginable oppression have led to the struggle for dignity. Yet the common origin of all this suffering is the historic landlessness of the people.  Most of the struggles and fights recounted in the book have had little success, as it is rarely the case in Nepal that the poor are able to change oppressive policies. Despite that, some struggles, like the one against the corrupt school administrators, eventually came to a successful resolution. 
The book starts out as a travelogue of a writer who is looking for a story, the way a vulture is looking for a morsel. The writing meanders and seems quite distracted in the early chapters; perhaps showing that Yangesh had not quite discovered a ‘right tone’ for his book. For instance, when the writer is going to interview Salma Behena—the first person we meet—he spends pages describing the market and the temple area of Nepalgunj. As these descriptions are laced with several social observations, it could have been a great newspaper article, but they don’t serve any function within the structure of the book. Furthermore, frequent typos and Yangesh’s occasional surfacial explanations can get testing at times. In spite of the few initial hiccups, however, as the stories progresses, the narrative gets tighter. But this is a book to be read for its subject matter rather than its literary flair. 

Bhuiyan is  written with journalistic dexterity which will serve as an important source  document for readers and scholars trying to understand the  internal hegemonic structure of Nepal that have plagued the lives of thousands of people in the Tarai belt, and elsewhere. Above all, through its stories, this book is an indictment of Nepali polity and its culture of not allowing some of its citizens the dignity to life. And in the portrayal of the struggles, it becomes clear that the historical missteps can only be absolved through a creation of a culture where the likes of Parbati Raji become capable of reading, and better yet, writing their own stories—in their own homes. 

 

- The writer tweets at @nepalichimney

Published: 2018-02-03 08:45:49