Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Deepak Thapa on Nepal's Tamangs - The country is yours

It is a story worth telling, the one about how cars were carried over the mountain trails on human backs till the 1950s so that Nepal’s ruling class in Kathmandu could zip around the Valley’s few roads. It is something that adds to Nepal’s exotic mystique, which most of us are guilty of encouraging. For the most part, the grainy, black-and-white photographs of these laborious undertakings showing scores of men struggling with metallic beasts of vehicles tell us nothing more than just that. Until recently, that is, when a newsmagazine carried a story of five surviving members of those labour gangs that carried cars from Bhimphedi all the way to Thankot, whence, in the words of one of them, “The babusahebs [gentlemen lords!] of Kathmandu would race them to their homes.”

Porters transporting a car across a stream in Nepal (January, 1950).
Porters transporting a car across a stream in Nepal (January, 1950). 
Photographer: Volkmar K. Wentzel

The names of this octogenarian quintet from the areas around Bhimphedi are worth recording: Dhan Bahadur Gole, Hira Bahadur Ghalan, Iman Singh Rumba, Jukta Bahadur Waiba and Pote Gole. What ties them together is not only that they are a part of history lost forever, but they are also all Tamangs. That should not be surprising considering that the hills and vales surrounding Kathmandu is a strong Tamang country and they would thus be the natural choice to be the bearers of these vehicles for the rulers.

Blaming the oppressed: This brief introduction brings us to present-day Nepal. A couple of weeks ago, a polite conversation gently veered towards the reality that as a group Tamangs suffered more from April quake than anyone else. But the discussion suddenly turned very uncomfortable when a high-ranking government official made three statements that reflected what seemed like wilful ignorance but, more disturbingly, a willingness to take patently prejudicial ‘facts’ at face value.

Assertion 1: Eighty percent of the crimes committed in the Valley are by Tamangs.

Assertion 2: Tamang families celebrate when they give birth to a baby girl since she will grow up, join the sex trade, and support the family.

Assertion 3: Crime and sex work among Tamangs is culturally ingrained.

As a senior bureaucrat, he would probably be privy to crime statistics—if these existed, for I seriously doubt that our cops actually have broken down the crimes committed by caste/ethnicity. In all probability, he was passing on information gleaned from off-the-cuff remarks made by officials in their tête-à-têtes. But what was disconcerting was he had clearly not given a single thought to why, if true, that could be so.

Our official (and no points for guessing which social group he belongs to) surely had no idea that in their youth Messrs Gole etc from Bhimphedi had no option but to work at porterage. Tamangs were prohibited from accessing the main form of social mobility available to the major Janajati groups—service in the British Indian army. 

All because they were required by the Kathmandu elite for services that scholar-activist-politician Parshuram Tamang enumerated in 1992 as follows: “During the Rana years, Tamangs were used as menial labour by the rulers and the courtier class—as construction labour for the durbars, for cutting trails, portering, carrying palanquins, running mail, delivering forest-based products, weaving baskets and trays, keeping palaces clean, maintaining the indoors, doing gardening, providing agricultural labour, keeping herds, making lokta paper, holding umbrellas, maintaining hookahs, carrying goods, and serving as surrogate mothers for high-born offspring.”

Anthropologists David Holmberg and Kathryn March found that northern Tamangs had to provide 25 days of compulsory service every year to the rulers/state during the Rana era. This is not corvée labour common to many feudal societies when one provides services free of charge on state projects. The 25 days was something every household had to contribute on an annual basis and often that 25 extended to 30 days as well. Forget getting paid for their labour, they even had to make provisions for their own food.

The one area of government employment open to Tamangs was as pipa, the generic term for menial workers in the Nepali army, which has historically been the preserve of Tamangs. No chance of rising through the ranks. Exiting the country was one way of escaping this burdensome existence and many certainly did that, mainly to Darjeeling, where the Tamang population had reached 50,000 by the end of Rana rule, becoming the second biggest Nepal-origin group there.

If you keep a people down for centuries, it does have an impact on later generations. No wonder that Tribhuvan University’s Nepal Social Inclusion Survey 2012 found that among the 6-25 age group of Tamang males, 47 percent had been educated at just the class 1-5 level, and only 12 percent had studied beyond class 11. The latter figure is half the attainment at that level for the two other large Janajati groups, Magars and Tharus, themselves quite backward. Block all avenues for progress, treat them like dirt, and then despise them for failing to advance upwards. We have heard it all before whether in the case of blacks in America or the Roma in Eastern Europe.

Kidnapping the girls: As for the sex trade, anyone with any interest in the subject will have heard these stories, particularly as they relate to certain villages in Kathmandu’s periphery. But can anyone believe that entire communities are primed to sell their daughters into this heinous profession unless there are extraneous reasons? As Parshuram Tamang had noted: “The system of keti basne imported women from the Tamang hills for all kinds of chores in Rana palaces. The maintenance of scores of female retainers, some of whom served as concubines, is said to have started the trend towards prostitution among poverty-stricken Tamang communities.” Did anyone miss the irony that the cause of their poverty were the Ranas to begin with?

How Tamang women were viewed by the state becomes clear from this quote from an interviewee of Holmberg and March’s: “On the night of the big festival there, the royal herders would just grab the girls and take them off. You were unable to say anything about this even if it was one’s own wife.” If cowherds could get by with such impunity, one can imagine what went on in the stucco palaces of Kathmandu.

Right the wrongs: I probably should stop here given the sheer ignorance of our government official, who, as a Kathmandu native, would have seen Tamangs and their situation throughout his life. But that a person in such a position of power and responsibility can be completely blind to the structural inequities that have played such a major role in the continued backwardness of Tamangs says a lot about our state and its functionaries.

As we enter the phase of recovery from a disaster that has devastated the lives of thousands of Tamangs, we have been provided with a golden opportunity to finally right all these years of discrimination. If managed properly, there will no longer be any need for words such as poet Pratap Bal Tamang’s in ‘Aasyaang—think for yourself!’ (in Manjushree Thapa’s translation of this address to an imaginary maternal uncle): “You too are a citizen—like the others of this country/…The country is yours as well/The universe is yours as well/Your rights exist here too.” One can only hope that whoever heads the reconstruction authority has at least an understanding of this most fundamental of truths.