What does it mean to be a Nepali ?

December 31, 2006 at 11:44 am 4 comments

What does it mean to be a Nepali?
The elements and characteristics of national unity
Originally appeard in The Nepal Digest – August 1, 1998 (6 Shrawan 2055 BS)
–Bijay Raut

This is a follow up on the previous article of mine by the title of  “Indo-Nepal border and the state of Bihari Nepali.” Several people responded to that article. I have written a response to those responses in the form of a new article by the title of “What does it mean to be a Nepali: The elements and characteristics of national unity.” This article raises questions about “Nepalihood” and challenges the traditional notion of Nepali in which attempts were made to equate the characteristics and identities of the “ethnic Nepali” to that of “Nepali nationals.” Furthermore, the article probes the elements and characteristics that define “national unity,” and reaches to the conclusion that it’s not the imposition of the characteristics of one “ethnic group” on all other groups, but the adherence of all groups to the “secular political ideals and mutually accepted sets of values” that breeds national unity in a country.

The response to my previous article by my friend by the name of Raju Sitaula appears first and is followed by my response.




I agree with the problems you have identified. They are real. Not only people from terai, but many Nepalese from the north, mainly of the Tibetan origin, are discriminated in Nepal because of their race. While you might feel that discrimination is more severe for the Teraiwasis, I would not be surprised if Nepalese of Tibetan origin feel otherwise. But your analysis is totally one sided and ignores the fact that in Nepal everyone is discriminated against because of their social status, if not because of race. Ours is still a feudal country. The people from the hills, the people you claim to be racist, have been victims too. In any society, minorities tend to feel ignored, with or without institutional attempt to ignore them. You claim it is hard for people from terai to get citizenship. Let me tell you from experience that it is not easy for people from hills to get citizenship certificate either. The problem is our inefficient, incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy than racism. Teaching Nepali language to the children in terai is not ‘people from hills imposing their culture in terai.’ It is a way to unify a racially, ethnically and culturally diverse country. Isn’t it hypocritical on your part to say that people from terai are not easily accepted in Nepali mainstream while accusing the government of racism for trying to teach them Nepali language? Besides, you seem to argue that terai constitute of one group of discriminated people. This is wrong. People within Terai are as diverse from each other as they are from the rest of Nepal. Within terai there have been cases when one group discriminates other group. Your suggestion that may be Nepal should join Indian union is an unpardonable sin and illustrates the root of this problem. That you and may be some other teraiwasis feel no connection to Nepal. How can we open a debate on national reconciliation when you are not even sure if you want to be a Nepali?




‘What Does It Mean To Be A Nepali: The Elements And Characteristics Of National Unity’


Thank you for your thought provoking response. Responses like yours will certainly foster a better understanding of the issues and problems of our country. However, your response was superficial, incomplete and derailed from the main themes of my article.

If you go back and look at the preface of my article, it states clearly that it aims to “increase the awareness of the history of the evolution of Indo-Nepal border, highlight the plights of the Indian origined Terai people as well as pacify the growing anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal.” It appears to me that you have somehow perceived my article as a “manifesto” of some extremist Terain political party, and that my article claims the Indian origined Terain people are the “only” victims of racism and discrimination in Nepal. As you have mentioned (I am glad that you have finally acknowledged) that there several other groups of people with similar problems, of which Tibetan origined Himalayan people’s plights are parallel to that of Indian origined Terai people in terms of racism and “identity crisis,” my article makes no attempt to prove that it is “only” the Indian origined Terai people who faces such problems; what it does attempt is to highlight the problems of ” a group” of people in Nepal known as the Indian origined Terai people or Bihari Nepali for simplicity.

What has caught me with surprise is that though I have talked about a
“regional” problem of Nepal which in turn is a “national” problem, you seem to have taken my arguments as that of some “foreign” land and not of Nepal. Your inherent inability to distinguish between the problems of Nepali Terai from the problems of Indians coupled with the practical impossibility of differentiating an Indian origined Nepali from an Indian national have prevented you and the group of so-called “genuine Nepali” to integrate the issues of Bihari Nepali into the process of national reconciliation and unity. It is not, as you have said, that the Indian origined Nepali of Terai don’t “feel connected” to Nepal or they don’t “want to be” Nepali (had it been so they wouldn’t have obtained Nepali citizenship in the first place or have had migrated to the neighboring Indian states), it appears to me that you and the so called “genuine Nepali” are unable to recognize or unwilling to accept them as Nepali. Certainly, your accusation that the Indian origined people of Terai are “not even sure if [they] want to be Nepali” reflects the elements of racism in it, and undoubtedly typifies the attitude of you and your group towards the other groups.

Apparently the history of the evolution of Indo-Nepal border and the problems associated with it, the major themes of my article, did not catch your attention at all. Had you been able to understand the history of Indo-Nepal border, you would have grasped the depth of the current problems of the Bihari Nepali which are deeply rooted in the history. What you see is a plain present with no historical context. My dear friend, since “present is conditioned by past,” your knowledge will be incomplete and your attempts to solve the current problems futile if you don’t know the past.

You might have felt the story of Indian origined people of Terai biased or “one sided” because it was told by me, a Bihari Nepali. Had it been told by you or other so-called “genuine Nepali,” it would have been more credible. I believe this sort of tendency is a part of human nature. Even in the United States, the whites continued to ignore the civil rights of the blacks until Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black leaders started asserting their rights. Though every white knew the problems of the blacks, very few raised those issues at the national level before the civil rights movement. Similar tendencies of ignoring exist in Nepal. Very few national leaders have raised the issues of Tibetan or Bihari Nepali at the national level and virtually no Prime Minister has mentioned them. Even the “Sadhvavna Party,” which claims itself as the advocate of the Indian origined Nepali, is misunderstood and accused of being “foreign” or “Indian” party. Obviously, a level of tolerance on part of the so-called “genuine Nepali” as well as correct initiatives from the national leaders are required to listen, understand, and analyze the stories told by the Tibetan and the Bihari groups. The blatant accusations and appalling apathy will only make the situation from bad to worse.

Now let me proceed asking simple questions: What does it mean to be a Nepali? Who is Nepali? How do I know whether am I a Nepali or not? Am I a Nepali? These questions might seem funny to you personally because you don’t need to ask such questions since you are among one of the so-called “genuine Nepali,” but there are millions of people in Nepal who have to ask these questions every now and then, specially people from the two ethnic groups, Tibetan origined Himalayan people and Indian origined Terai people, who face severe “identity crisis.” The traditional concept of Nepali that mainly incorporates the characteristics of the so-called “genuine Nepali” needs to be reconsidered, reevaluated and redefined.

Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural country. Among several ethnic groups in Nepal, Nepali (or “Pahari”) is one of them. In other words, Nepali are a group of people who belong to an ethnic group know as “Nepali.” Likewise, Newar are a group of people who belong to an ethnic group known as “Newari,” and so on. The common error in the traditional definition of Nepali is that it attempts to equate the characteristics of the ethnic group known as “Nepali” to the “national identity” of the Nepali nationals, i.e., the citizens of Nepal. Going back to the history again, you will find that this attempt to equate the identities of the “ethnic group Nepali” to that of the “Nepali nationals” was primarily initiated during the tenure of King Mahendra and carried on throughout the “Panchayati Raaj (1961-1990).” This process was referred as “Nepalization.” King Mahendra’s efforts to present Nepal as a “monolithic” country failed to encapsulate the diverse element of the diverse groups. In the process of “Nepalization,” he tried to impose the characteristics of the ethnic Nepali — Nepali language, Hindu religion, Hindu festivals and other Indo-Aryan cultural aspects, etc. — on all other ethnic groups.

For the sake of argument, let me outline the general (I emphasize, it’s general) characteristics of the so-called “genuine Nepali” or the “ethnic Nepali” or “Pahari.”

1. Ethnicity — Nepali 2. Language — Nepali 3. Religion — Hindu (Only Hindu Kingdom in the world; like medieval Europe where state and religion were inseparable; What about the rights of Muslims and Buddhists?) 4. Citizenship — Nepali 5. Race — Indo-Aryan (Mongoloid to a certain extent) 6. Skin-color — Pale White or wheatish white or fair skin 7. Nationalism — Anti-Indian (King Mahendra planted the seeds)

There is only one group of people in Nepal, the so-called “genuine Nepali
(or ‘Pahari’),” who possess all the above mentioned characteristics. All other groups possess only some of the characteristics. Also, all seven characteristics are not equal in magnitude; some are more crucial than the other. Since efforts have been made in the past to equate the characteristics of the “ethnic Nepali” to that of “Nepali nationals,” all other groups obviously do not meet the traditional definition of “Nepali” and are therefore discriminated or feel alienated across the characteristics traits they do not possess.

Talking about the two groups that face severe “identity crisis,” they possess only few of the seven characteristics. The Tibetan origined Himalayan people, though have relatively fairer skin, are dominantly Buddhists, are of Mongoloid race and share a piece of anti-Indian nationalism. Similarly, Indian origined people of Terai have dark skin, are dominantly Hindu (although almost all Muslims in Nepal are from this group), are of Indo-Aryan race and do not share the anti-Indian nationalism. Both groups possess Nepali citizenship, few of them speak Nepali language while virtually no one from these groups speak Nepali as the first language.

The anti-Indian nationalism, promoted by King Mahendra, has been growing rapidly in the recent years. There is no indication that these sentiments will cool down in the near future. The issues involving Indo-Nepal border and India-Nepal relationship often meet headlines in the general media of Nepal, most of them relaying negative sentiments against India. Although the anti-Indian nationalism might seem at first glance to be a unifying factor among Nepali, it should be remembered that a fifth of the population which is of Indian origin do not share such sentiments and are most likely to be the victims of such sentiments. As a result, the anti-Indian nationalism will be more a destabilizing factor than a unifying tool. The hatreds (mixed with fear) of the so-called “genuine Nepali” towards Indians are indiscriminately directed towards the Indian origined Nepali. Thus the “genuine Nepali’s” concerns about being overcome by Indian influences should take into account the concerns of the Indian origined Nepali who worry of being victims of the anti-Indian crusade.

So what is nationalism? What is the factor that unites a country? What unites different and distinct “nations” in a “nation-state ?” Obviously, as we have seen from the above arguments, that by equating the characteristics of one ethnic group (regardless of whether it is a majority or not) to the national characteristics or by imposing the identities of one group on all other groups, it is not possible to bring a sense of unity among the diverse groups. There will always be a group or groups of people who will feel alienated and subsequently discriminated. The alienation or discrimination of one group or groups of people in a country is dangerous, destabilizing, and the focal point of violent ethnic conflicts. This is evident from the history that is full of violent and bloody ethnic conflicts. Such conflicts have broken a country into several parts, turned friends into foes and replaced peace and harmony with chaos and grieving. In fact if you look around, even today, you’ll see such conflicts ravaging the world and breaking apart the countries. The ethnic strife across Africa, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the current crisis in Kosovo, the Tamil separatist movement in Sri-Lanka, all are vivid examples of ethnic aspirations erupting from the failure of reconciliation and mutual understanding among varied ethnic groups living under the same umbrella. The danger of similar ethnic aspirations looms over our destiny as well if we fail to timely reconcile among ourselves.

Having argued that the imposition of the identities of one ethnic group upon all other groups in a country does to bred national unity, let’s now focus on what exactly brings unity in a country. Since we are talking about unity among different “nations (ethnic groups)” in a “nation-state (a country),” it should be intuitive enough to think of unity in terms of something common or shared among those different “nations.” If we can somehow come out with “a set of values” or “ideals” that are common or shared by all “nations,” we can certainly design a paradigm of national unity. This paradigm will emerge as a “common ground” among all groups and unite them across their similarities and commonality. The greatest challenge for us therefore is to design such paradigm of unity.

The beauty of the modern concept of a “nation-state” lies in the fact it provides us with a forum to design the paradigm of unity. Each “nation-state (country)” in this world has more than one “nation (ethnic groups, religious groups, etc.).” In other words, it’s not only Nepal that poses challenge of diversity, in fact, all countries in the world have diverse population. The country’s strength or unity is determined by its ability to hold the different “nations” together within a definite territorial boundary called national boundary. The countries which cannot hold their “nations” together or in where there is a near absence of coincidence between ethnic and political borders are the one which are more prone to political instability or ethnic conflicts. All across Africa, the tribes or the ethnic groups who are unable to coincide their narrow ethnic borders with the political border of their countries are the ones who are engaged in civil wars or ethnic strife.

Let me now cite few examples to illustrate the notion of the national unity paradigm in the modern “nation-states.” The United States serves as a good example where the national unity paradigm is derived not by imposition of the identities of one ethnic group on other (although the majority of the Anglo-Saxon whites is felt), but by adherence of her different and distinct groups to “common sets of values” or “ideals” inscribed in the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution.” In other words, it’s the “secular political ideals and mutually accepted sets of values,” and not the identities of one ethnic group that have brought unity among remarkably diverse groups of people of the United states of America. The whites, the Asians, the Blacks, the Hispanic, and the native Americans, all are bound together by “common political ideals and sets of values” known as “nationalism” which is secular, mutually shared and binding. Though the American society is not yet in a perfect unity, the spirits of “multi-culturalism” and “multi-ethnicism” prevail and the society is gradually moving towards its ultimate goal. In contrast to American nationalism or the ideals of unity, Nepalese nationalism is not secular (based on hatred for another country or group), is not mutually shared (since one fifth of the population don’t share it at all), and therefore not binding.

This national unity paradigm based on the “secular ideals and mutually accepted sets of values” is an ideal concept. However, it serves as a benchmark in the manner similar to the concepts of “perfect competition” or “perfect monopoly” used to evaluate the nature of the market. Like the market, which is always in-between the extremes of the “perfect competition” and “perfect monopoly,” the state of national unity is also in-between two extremes. The more a country shares the “secular ideals and mutually accepted sets of values” the more it is united and vice versa. This is true and is evident all around the world, both in the developing and the developed countries.

India represents an another example of the above discussed national unity paradigm, though it has many flaws. However, the remarkable thing about India is that it is a “federation” of the states like the United States. It means the distinct and different states of India have united under mutually accepted secular political principles and share common sets of values. If it were not “secular” ideals and values, it would not be possible for the shockingly diverse polity of India to bind together and come under one common umbrella. Again, it is because of such “secular” and “mutually accepted” principles that each state in the Indian Union has been able to preserve its unique “state” identity while at the same time added a “national” identity to them. Bihar, Assam, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra, etc., each state represents unique groups of people, each with own separate language, ethnicity, culture, etc. Each state is so different and distinct that each can form a separate country like Nepal. Yet they are united and bound because they understand the strength of unity, mutual understanding, and the importance and power of the “federal” government in solving the “state” problems. If over twenty distinct and different states (including Sikkim which has dominant “ethnic Nepali” population) can come together to form an Indian union, I don’t see it as impossible for Nepal to join the Indian Union on the similar token.

India, like the United Nations (UN), is not a “separate entity.” Like the UN, which is an organization of all member nation-states in the world united together for common cause, India is also a federation or organization of its member states united together for common good. Like the UN, India can only function well if all its member states function properly. When we talk about Indian origined Nepali, in fact, we are talking about groups of people belonging to certain ethnic groups in India, i.e., Bihari and Marwadis. India, itself, is not an ethnic group or any such entity, it is a philosophy, an abstract noun. It is a representation of “mutually accepted sets of values and secular political ideals.” In fact, the modern concept of a “nation-state” assumes its function as a philosophy rather than an entity. Only in Nepal, and other such countries, the concept of a “nation-state” is interchangeable with an ethnic group or such entity. This is incorrect and will never lead to national unity.

An example of how the imposition of the characteristics of one ethnic group on other leads to chaos can be found in India during 1960′s when the federal government tried to impose Hindi, the language of the Northern India, on other groups by making it the only official language. This was unacceptable by other groups. In fact, it is against the very concept of the “nation-state.” As a result it failed and the federal government had to settle down with 16 official languages! This might explain your accusation that it is a hypocrisy on my part to complain the compulsory education of the Nepali language while complaining for not being accepted in the mainstream Nepal. As the case of India explains, language cannot always be the best tool of unification. Again, in case of Nepal it is the imposition of the language of one ethnic group on another. Linguistic unity is not a prerequisite for national unity. What do you think would have been the situation of the former Prime Minister of India, H.D. Gowda, who neither spoke Hindi nor English, if Hindi had been the only official language of India? Now we understand why a Newari speaking or Bhotya speaking individual is forced to learn Nepali if s/he wants to engage in the national politics or get a government job in Nepal.

Coming back to our discussion about the possibility of the political unification of Nepal to the Indian Union, I’ll say, at this time, the idea is still in an infant stage. Let’s take it as another hypothesis in our analyses. Hypotheses like that certainly broaden our scope of thinking and analyses, and help us reach the best conclusion. I definitely expect from you people to shed some light on this hypothesis in your future responses. In fact, in my last letter, I suggested this idea just as an immediate solution for the “Indian immigration” problem. I did’t consider at all the social and economic ramifications of the political union. I hope we’ll have more to say about this in future.

In conclusion, I’ll say underneath all these arguments and analyses lay our innate desire, hope and wish for a better, prosperous, and united Nepal. The purposes of all these debates are to increase our awareness and understanding of the issues and problems that our country is facing. These debates are in no way intended to express any “partisan” sentiments or any such sentiments that destabilize the unity of our country. Personally, I think I would be a fool to think of something that will bring disharmony in our society. It wont be a step forward, but two steps backward.

We all know that Nepal is one of the least developed countries in the world. It is the country that lacks both natural and human resources for development. It is the country where 75% of the lands are mountainous. It is the country where education was illegal to the masses throughout the 104 years of Rana regime. It is the country that lacks coherent national unity. The real problems of our country are therefore hunger, poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment. All the social and political problems we have been discussing are but the manifestations of the dire economic conditions. Our discussions and debates should always be directed towards finding concrete solutions to these problems. Our arguments must not be for their own sake but for the sake of the betterment of our country.

We are more fortunate and privileged than our fore-fathers and fathers in terms of education, access to information and technologies. Our generation, I think, will be the most educated generation in the history of Nepal. Eventually the state of affairs will fall in the hands of our generation. No doubt, well have to start preparing ourselves for that day. What our fore-fathers and fathers did not do or what they did wrong needs to be carefully reviewed, scrutinized and analyzed. Only then will we be able to come up with policies that will lead us and our country to proper directions.

Our ends therefore are better, prosperous, developed and united Nepal. All our discussions and analyses are but means. We should continue our debate and keep defining the means. Any means that gets us closer to our ends should be reviewed carefully and adopted if deemed necessary. If political unification with India, for instance, takes us closer to our ends, we shouldn’t refrain ourselves from doing that.


                        [Who is "ethnic Nepali"?]

Confusions may arise about the definition of the “ethnic” or “genuine” Nepali. By “ethnic” Nepali, I refer to the “Pahari” Nepali. The “Pahari” Nepali is one of the many ethnic groups in Nepal. The demographic map prepared by the CIA (Library of Congress classification: Government Documents, PREx3.10/4:N35/2) presents the major ethnic groups in Nepal in the following categories:

1. Pahari: The majority group; dominant in the hills above “Chure range” and below “Himalayan range”; populated also in Terai and the Kathmandu valley. 2. Indian origined Terai Nepali ( Bihari, Marwadis, etc.) : The Second majority, close to Indo-Nepal border 3. Tibetan Origined Himalayan Nepali ( Bhotia, Sherpa, Thakali, etc.): Close to Nepal-Tibet border 4. Gurung: Dominant in the outskirts of Pokhara Valley 5. Newari: Dominant in the Kathmandu Valley, Dhulikhel and other hilly areas 6. Tamang: Dominant in the outskirts of Kathmandu Valley and other hilly areas. 7. Kirati, Rai, Limbu: Kirati and Rai dominant in the hills of east-central Nepal and Limbu in the hills of far-eastern Nepal.

Bijay Raut Middlebury College


Entry filed under: Articles. Tags: .

Historical:: Kingdom of Vijayapur in 1770 AD Indo-Nepal Border and the state of Bihari Nepali

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bijay Raut  |  January 1, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    I am the author of this article. Thank you for posting it here. However, I would llike add a note that since this article was written in 1998, more than 8 years ago, when I was a junior in college, I may have outgrown some of my own ideas since then. Nevertheless, I do adhere to the core themes of the article regarding Madhesi plights and rights.

    Thanks a bunch!

  • 3. binod thapa (Nepal)  |  January 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    BE AWARE….!!!
    MIND IT.

  • 4. Prakash  |  November 19, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    It is very clear that this article is written by a person who has ill intention for Nepal. Below are the reasons:
    1. First and foremost – nobody will like to kill his/her own mother to get a new, rich, powerful, intelligent, beautiful(you can add more attributes) mother.
    2. There is nothing called Tibet origin Nepali or Indian origin Nepali. Eg. Madhesis(whether Bhojpuri, Maithili, Avadhi & others) have been living in the land which we call Madhes/Tarai since ages. Just because one is sharing the physical/cultural characteristics with the people across the international border do not make them of foreign origin.
    3. Nepali is the first language of Hill brahmins(bahuns( and hill kshtriyas(chetris). Since chetris ruled big chunk of country for a long time, they have promoted their language and has become a national language which can be read, spoken and written by vast majority of people in Nepal. There is no other language which can replace it in near future in Nepal. Yes many people whose first language is not Nepali do suffer because of this. To mitigate this problem, 3 languages should be made mandatory for all the matters of communication whether in schools, colleges or for jobs. The 3 languages should be easy to guess – Nepali, English and any one local language of one’s choice. Think about this.
    4. There is nothing called Nepali ethnicity in Nepal. There are more than 70 ethnicities in Nepal. You may check wikipedia for the same.

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Celebration of 1,00,000

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People Celebrating faguwa (Holi), with the fun of music, quite popular among Terai people. Holi is celebrated each year on the eve of falgun purnima Faguwa (Holi) Celebration

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