• Indigenous peoples in Nepal

    Indigenous peoples in Nepal

    The Nepalese population is comprised by 125 caste and ethnic groups. Nepal has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, the constitution denies the collective rights and aspirations for identity-based federalism of indigenous peoples, and Nepal’s indigenous peoples are thus still facing a number of challenges.
  • Peoples

    36 per cent of Nepal’s total population of 26.5 million are of indigenous nationalities, according to the latest census. Indigenous peoples’ organizations claim a figure of more than 50 per cent
  • Diversity

    125 caste and ethnic groups together constitute the Nepalese population
  • Rights

    2007: Nepal adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Indigenous World 2021: Nepal

According to the 2011 census, the Indigenous Nationalities (Adivasi Janajati) of Nepal comprise 36% of the total population of 30.2 million,[1] although Indigenous Peoples’ organizations claim a larger figure of more than 50%. The 2011 census listed the population as belonging to 125 caste and ethnic groups, including 63 Indigenous Peoples; 59 castes, including 15 Dalit castes;[2] and three religious groups, including Muslim groups.

Even though Indigenous Peoples constitute a significant proportion of the population, they have been systematically discriminated, marginalized, excluded, subjugated, dominated, exploited and internally colonized by the dominant caste groups throughout Nepal’s history in terms of land, territories, resources, language, culture, customary laws, political and economic opportunities and collective way of life.

The new Constitution of Nepal promulgated in 2015 recognizes Khas Arya supremacy but denies the collective rights and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples[3] despite the fact that Nepal has ratified ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and voted for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) Outcome Document. Their implementation is still lacking. Laws, draft bills, ordinances and policies are not in line with UNDRIP and ILO Convention 169. The Nepalese government has shown no signs of implementing the recommendations, which include amending the Constitution to explicitly recognize right to self-determination and all the rights of Indigenous women, in line with the UNDRIP, as recommended by the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The President dissolved the House of Representatives on 20 December 2020 based on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. It is said that new elections will be held on 30 April and 10 May 2021. The Supreme Court’s verdict is pending as to whether or not the dissolution was constitutional.

2020 turned out to be an unforgettably forgettable year for Nepal’s Indigenous Peoples. The government was not only regressive but also highly repressive. Indigenous Peoples faced insecurity and hardship in their everyday life as the government took undue advantage of a series of lockdowns, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to violate human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Activities related to national parks

Violations of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples continue unabated in national parks and protected areas. News about such violations covered the front pages of national newspapers and drew the attention of the international community. During the heavy monsoon season, for example, Chitwan National Park authorities forcefully attempted to evict 10 Chepang families from a buffer zone in South Central Nepal by burning down two houses and destroying eight more with elephants.[4] In a statement, Amnesty International said: “Authorities must stop ruthless evictions of Indigenous peoples”, and “Forcing anyone from their homes is an act of cruelty. To do so with the use of arson and charging elephants, risking lives and destroying the few possessions of an already marginalized community, is unconscionable and a human rights violation.”[5]

In another incident, on 16 July, six Chepang youths who had gone to collect ghongi (mud-water snails) from a river inside the Chitwan National Park were detained by the Nepal Army patrol inside the park. They were released the same day but one of them died from what were believed to be injuries inflicted by the army personnel after he was caught.[6] The father of the victim filed a complaint at the District Police Office claiming that his son was tortured by the Army patrol, which led to his death.[7] The Nepal Army released a press statement regarding an internal investigation into the case.[8]

In February 2020, a Fact-Finding Mission was conducted by the Lawyers Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP) and the National Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF) in response to human rights allegations connected to WWF as revealed by the Kathmandu Post in 2019.[9] A report was prepared and submitted to an Independent Panel of Experts that the WWF had established to conduct an independent review into the allegations.[10] The report revealed a number of human rights violations by the National Park Authorities and army personnel that included killings, sexual abuse, arbitrary detention, torture, harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and racism.[11]

In another case, Indigenous Peoples from Upper Dolpo, who have a customary practice of long-distance trade between Tibet and the lowlands of Nepal, are facing other kinds of difficulty due to their trails being inside the She-Foksundo National Park. The trails are in a bad condition, making their journey miserable during the time of seasonal migration. Village municipalities have given priority to building trails but the Ward Chair of She-Foksundo-8 said that the She-Foksundo National Park had become an obstacle to its construction works, and that their development works were stalled because the Park officials had not given permission for the work.[12]

Land grabbing

The government continued to scale up the grabbing of Indigenous Peoples’ lands in various parts of the country. It decided to form a Land Issue Resolving Commission (LIRC) and issued an ordinance[13] which came into effect on 16 April 2020. The main purpose of the commission is to distribute land to landless sections of the population, including Dalits, squatters and informal settlers.[14] It is highly likely that Indigenous Peoples’ lands will be occupied by non-indigenous landless settlers. The legislation includes: a) the Land Use Act, b) the Working Procedure for Collection of Data by the Local Level on Landless Dalit, Landless Squatters and Unsystematic Settlements, 2020, and c) The Identification and Verification of Landless Dalit, Landless Squatters and Unsystematic Settlers, 2020.[15] These were all drafted without the participation and representation of, and without the obtaining free, prior and informed consent of, Indigenous Peoples.

The protest of Indigenous Newa in Khokana, Lalitpur against such land grabbing by the government resulted in a clash between them and the police.[16] “Police say four personnel injured; locals say over a dozen were hurt in the incident” and “Local residents said they are not against development but that uprooting a community from its settlement is unacceptable”.[17] Police fired tear gas but it did not dim the spirits of the protestors. Representatives of UNESCO and ILO carried out a field visit to the historic sites in Khokana and Bungmati to determine whether the government projects were destroying the Newa’s cultural heritage. They also interacted with the Indigenous community members.[18] The government has furthermore demolished houses in the Balaju area for road expansion and the Newa are “protesting against demolition of houses done without any basis or information.”[19] The independent complaints mechanism of the World Bank Inspection Panel has also registered a Request for Inspection from the affected Indigenous Newa communities in relation to the construction of a dry port in Chobhar, Kathmandu, for non-compliance with the Bank’s Environmental Assessment policies.[20]

An influential private company is implementing the Patibhara Darshan Private Limited Cable Car in Mukumlung, known as “Patibhara”, in Taplejung district, in order to develop the Indigenous sacred site into a tourist hub by constructing a cable car without obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous Peoples. The representatives of the Yakthung (“Limbu”) clans and LAHURNIP jointly submitted a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission, demanding that its original name of Mukumlug be retained and urging the NHRC to put pressure on the government and the company to stop the destruction of their sacred sites.[21]

Indigenous Majhi communities are protesting against the Dudhkoshi Hydropower project at Rabhunwaghat and Sunkoshi Marine Diversion Project in Ramechap. They have been pleading with the government to let them remain on the riverbanks but, if the hydropower project goes through, they will be evicted and lose their land, their livelihood and their culture.[22] The Magar Indigenous people are likewise protesting against the Tanahu Hydropower project in Tanahau for the same reasons.

Indigenous women

The National Indigenous Women's Federation (NIWF) came up with a Position Paper on Indigenous Women's land rights in 2020. Of the 29 positions, Position 1 stated, “Let no one violate, interfere, deny, abuse, non-comply or ignore we indigenous women’s collective human rights related to lands, territories and resources as these are our inalienable, indivisible, natural, inherent, universal and fundamental human rights and freedom.”[23]

A series of regional and national dialogues with policy makers, political leaders and other stakeholders were organized by the Indigenous women’s organizations in Nepal to discuss meaningful implementation of CEDAW’s 14 November 2018 recommendations, which include amending the Constitution to explicitly recognize the rights of Indigenous women, in particular their right to self-determination, in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Climate change

The government passed an Environment Protection Regulation on 7 October 2020 without consulting or obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples.[24] The Ministry of Forest and Environment has called for experts to enrol on its Roster of Environmental Experts. The stated qualifications do not include Indigenous Peoples’ expertise in customary knowledge, skills, technology and practices, and Indigenous Peoples are thus not considered as environmental experts by the government – although they are the custodians of much of Nepal’s remaining biodiversity.[25]

COVID-19 pandemic

After confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Nepal on 23 January, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown on 24 March and lifted it on 21 July.[26], [27] By 31 December, the total number of confirmed cases was 260,593, with 252,359 recoveries and 1,856 deaths.[28] The lockdown made the lives of poor and working Indigenous Peoples and Dalits more difficult due to job losses, food insecurity, racial and gender discrimination, domestic violence, violence against Indigenous Peoples and deaths due to hunger and suicide. The government furthermore took undue advantage of the lockdown to scale up the repression and grab Indigenous Peoples’ land.[29], [30]

Dissolution of the House and general outlook for the coming year

On 20 December, the President dissolved the House and declared elections for 30 April and 10 May 2021. The Supreme Court of Nepal is due to give a verdict on whether or not this move was constitutional.[31] After the collapse of the elected government within three of the last five-year terms, Nepal's political situation has become highly fluid. If the Supreme Court should declare that the dissolution of the House was unconstitutional and call for its re-establishment then the existing parliament will be under the full control of the Khas Arya racial supremacist party and leaders. It means Indigenous Peoples’ rights would continue to be violated by the government and private business companies. If the Court justifies the Prime Minister’s move then Indigenous Peoples are still represented only through the main political parties, which are against the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples.

For Indigenous Peoples to be directly represented through their own representative organizations, chosen through their own processes a change in the election law would be needed (which is quite unthinkable). There is also a possibility that the Prime Minister may impose emergency rule for at least a year and, if so, repression against Indigenous Peoples would continue. Whichever course politics takes, it appears that gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, land grabbing of Indigenous Peoples’ ancestral lands, forced evictions, the marginalization of customary self-government systems, and cultural genocide will be further intensified. Infiltration by and co-option of Indigenous Peoples by the main political parties will further weaken the resistance of the Indigenous Peoples’ movement. ILO Convention No. 169 and the UNDRIP will be limited to the theory but not the practice.

The year 2021 and beyond will remain a significant challenge to Indigenous Peoples in terms of enjoying their human rights. Indigenous Peoples have started to scale up their resistance movement, bottom-up from community level, but international support is needed now more than ever before to stop the violations, denial, interference, abuse, non-compliance and disregard for Indigenous Peoples’ inalienable, indivisible, natural, inherent, universal and fundamental human rights and freedoms on the part of the state and private business companies.

 

Krishna B. Bhattachan belongs to the Thakali Indigenous people. He is one of the founding faculty members and former Head of (and recently retired from) the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tribhuvan University in Nepal. He is associated with the Lawyer’s Association for Human Rights of Nepal’s Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP) as an advisor and Indigenous expert. He has published several books and articles on Indigenous issues.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here

Notes and references 

[1] The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) of Nepal make a population projection every day. The projected population on 15 January 2020 was 30,212,287. Central Bureau of Statistics, Government of Nepal. “Today’s Population.” https://cbs.gov.np/

[2] Hindu cosmology divides the population into hereditary caste groups who are ranked according to ritual purity and impurity. The Dalit castes form the lowest tier of the caste system and are highly marginalized to this day. (Ed. note)

[3] 61 Indigenous Peoples were initially officially recognized in Nepal through the ordinance Rastriya Janajati Bikas Samiti (Gathan Adesh) 2054. Indigenous Peoples have been officially and legally recognized by the government since 2002 (2059 B.S.) through the National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities Act (known as the NFDIN Act), which lists 59 distinct Indigenous communities in the country.

[4] Indigenous Voice. “Indigenous Chepang people's houses burnt down in Chitwan.” 20 July 2020.

https://www.indigenousvoice.com/en/indigenous-chepang-peoples-houses-burnt-down-in-chitwan.html

[5] Amnesty International. “Nepal: Authorities must stop ruthless evictions of Indigenous peoples.” 21 July 2020.

 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/nepal-authorities-must-stop-ruthless-evictions-of-indigenous-peoples/

[6] Kumar Paudel, Ramesh. “Nepal Army personnel blamed for death of Chepang youth.” The Kathmandu Post, 24 July 2020. https://kathmandupost.com/province-no-3/2020/07/24/kin-of-chepang-youth-who-died-after-being-thrashed-by-nepal-army-personnel-seek-impartial-investigation-into-the-incident

[7] Ibid.

[8] People’s Review. “NA soldiers beat a youth to death, investigation initiated.” 24 July 2020. https://www.peoplesreview.com.np/2020/07/24/na-soldiers-beat-a-youth-to-death-investigation-initiated/

[9] See Bhattachan, Krishna B. “Nepal.” In The Indigenous World 2019, edited by David Nathaniel Berger, 366-373. IWGIA, 2019. https://www.iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/IndigenousWorld2019_UK.pdf

[10] WWF. “Embedding Human Rights in Nature Conservation - from Intent to Action.” 17 November 2020. https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/wwf_independent_review_/?

[11] National Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF). “Fact Finding Mission Report- Violation of Indigenous Peoples' Human Rights in Chitwan National Park of Nepal.” February 2020. http://niwf.org.np/publication/fact-finding-mission-report-chitwan-national-park/

[12] Mian, Abdullah. “उपल्लो डोल्पालीका दुःख.” Kantipur National Daily. https://ekantipur.com/news/2020/12/01/160678504498768797.html

[13] Text in Khas Nepali language: Land Issue Resolving commission (LIRC), 16 April 2020. http://lirc.gov.np/assets/uploads/download/download/2020-05-18/aayogko_tor_rajpatra_ma_prakasit.pdf Text

[14] नेपाल सरकार, भूमि सम्बन्धी समस्या समाधान आयोग. “LIRC, About.” 2021. http://lirc.gov.np/about

[15] Ibid.

[16] See a video of the clash at Srijana Creation. 2020. “Farmers and Nepal Armed Police force clash at Khokana...” Uploaded on 4 July 2020. YouTube video, 4:47 mins. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aqu4NqlYbo

[17] Dhungana, Shuvam. “Khokana locals, police clash over ‘paddy transplantation protest’.” The Kathmandu Post, 4 July 2020.https://kathmandupost.com/visual-stories/2020/07/04/four-policemen-injured-in-clash-with-locals-in-khokana

[18] Online Khabar. “युनेस्कोको प्रतिनिधिले गरे खोकना–बुङ्मतीको अवलोकन.” 2020. https://www.onlinekhabar.com/2020/08/887339

[19] Shrestha, Sangita. “Balaju-Bypass Road Expansion: Displaced locals in relay fast.” My República, 12 August 2020. https://myrepublica.nagariknetwork.com/mycity/news/balaju-bypass-road-expansion-displaced-locals-in-relay-fast

[20] Community Empowerment & Social Justice Network (CemSoJ). “Campaign to restore archaeological Kamal Pokhari in Thamel urges ILO and UN to protect rights infringed due to construction of Chhaya Center.” 3 May 2020. https://cemsoj.wordpress.com/2020/05/03/campaign-to-restore-archaeological-kamal-pokhari-in-thamel-urges-ilo-and-un-to-protect-rights-infringed-due-to-construction-of-chhaya-center/

[21] Naya Online. “पाथीभराको नाम सच्याउन र पोक्लाबाङको समाधिस्थल भत्काउनेलाई कारवाही गर्न मानवअधिकार आयोगमा उजुरी.” 1 July 2020. https://nayaonline.com/2020/07/01/41138/; Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP). “Mukkumlung (in Khas Nepali language –‘Pathibhara’) - the sacred lands of Yakhung (‘Limbu’) Indigenous Peoples.” 2020.

https://www.lahurnip.org/mukkumlung-in-khas-nepali-language-pathibhara-the-sacred-lands-of-yakhung-limbu-indigenous-peoples

[22] Khabar, Halesi. “हामीलाई नदी आसपासमै पुनःस्थापन गरियोस् : दूधकोशीका माझी समुदाय.” Halesikhabar, 23 December 2020. https://www.halesikhabar.com/25389/?__FB_PRIVATE_TRACKING

[23] National Indigenous Women’s Federation (NIWF) and the European Commission. “Position Paper on Indigenous

Women’s Land Rights.” September 2020. http://niwf.org.np/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/2-eng-Part.pdf

[24] Government of Nepal, Ministry of Forests and Environment. http://www.mofe.gov.np/downloadfile/Env_Regulation_rajpatra_1592360474.pdf

[25] Government of Nepal, Ministry of Forests and Environment. “वातावरण विज्ञहरुको सूची (Roster) को लागि दरखास्त आव्हान सम्बन्धी सूचना.” 9 December 2020. http://www.mofe.gov.np/noticedetail/374/2020/43922161

[26] PTI. “Nepal confirms first case of deadly coronavirus.” The Economic Times, 24 January 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/nepal-confirms-first-case-of-deadly-coronavirus/articleshow/73590302.cms

[27] Republica. “Govt decides to lift nationwide lockdown from Tuesday midnight.” My República, 22 July 2020. https://myrepublica.nagariknetwork.com/news/nepal-all-set-to-end-nationwide-lockdown-from-tuesday-midnight/

[28] THT Online. “Man found dead in Kirtipur.” The Himalayan Times, 21 May 2016. https://thehimalayantimes.com/kathmandu/man-found-dead-kirtipur-2/

[29] Kumar Jha, Abdesh, and Binu Subedi. “The lockdown is killing the poor and the marginalized.” The Kathmandu Post, 4 June 2020. https://kathmandupost.com/province-no-2/2020/06/04/the-lockdown-is-killing-the-poor-and-the-marginalised

[30] Pradhan, Shirish B. “Nepal’s daily wagers walk home amid coronavirus lockdown.” Outlook India, 17 April 2020. https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/nepals-daily-wagers-walk-home-amid-coronavirus-lockdown/1805924

[31] Ghimire, Binod. “House dissolution: Whether it’s lawful is now for Supreme Court to decide.” The Kathmandu Post, 22 December 2020. https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/12/22/house-dissolution-whether-it-s-lawful-is-now-for-supreme-court-to-decide

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IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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