Beyond symbolism

  • Indigenous nationalities need substantive support, not tokenistic public holidays

Aug 12, 2016-

On Tuesday, indigenous nationalities in Nepal and around the world observed the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. At an event organised by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal rhetorically expressed commitment to make the day a public holiday from next year. While some may have been impressed by the prime minister’s gesture, it says little about what his plans are in improving the lives of indigenous nationalities.

Among others, the indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajatis)—comprising 35.81 percent of the total population, according to the 2011 census—face various difficulties in maintaining their cultural and linguistic identities. Centuries of hegemony of the so-called high castes has resulted in the exclusion of indigenous people from mainstream social, economic and political processes. This has led to a very poor representation of indigenous peoples in the state institutions. According to the Nepal Living Standards Survey 2003-04, the country’s average poverty rate was 30.9 percent. For indigenous peoples, the rate was 35.1 per cent; it was 18.4 percent for the so-called high castes.  

The rights of indigenous nationalities, which have distinct cultural, linguistic and other characteristics, are a sensitive matter for many countries. There are various international and national legislations in place to protect indigenous cultures and languages. In India, for instance, there are several laws and constitutional provisions, such as the Fifth Schedule for mainland India and the Sixth Schedule for certain areas of north-east India, which recognise indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-governance.

Social, economic, political and cultural exclusion, especially when combined with high poverty levels, has serious repercussions in multi-ethnic societies. Nepal is a case in point. The decade-long Maoist insurgency of the country was, to some extent, a result of systematic exclusion and marginalisation of large sections of the population.

Since the 1990s, with the country’s constitution acknowledging both the presence and relative social and economic deprivation of the indigenous population, there has been an upsurge in the indigenous nationalities’ movement. This has been instrumental in reforming discriminatory provisions of the state. The Nepal government ratified the ILO-convention 169 in 2007—a legally-binding international instrument which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.

Still, just having the required legislations and committing to international instruments are not enough. Implementation holds the key. The draft of the national action plan relating to ILO 169 has not been approved yet, for example.

The new constitution ensures some progressive provisions for the Adivasi Janajatis such as the right to social justice on the basis of the principle of proportional inclusion. Politically, while the major parties hail the statute as a progressive document, the fact remains that many indigenous groups are protesting against it alongside the Madhesis.  

Obviously, Nepal has some way to go before the marginalised communities feel that they live in a society that treats them as equal citizens. But what the indigenous nationalities need is state support in preserving their languages, cultures and identities, alongside affirmative actions to addresses issues of educational and economic opportunities that will go some way in creating a level playing field.

Prime Minister Dahal, who led the insurgency championing the cause of the poor and the marginalised, including the indigenous nationalities, yet again finds himself in a position where he can use his bully pulpit to persuade the Nepali people why citizens from all groups need to believe that they are equals. And as the head of government, he can have a huge influence on policymaking, too.

Published: 12-08-2016 08:50

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