Kamaiyas in pursuit of land rights

September 6, 2007 at 4:29 pm Leave a comment

Kamaiyas in pursuit of land rights

By Shakun Sherchand Leslie

Sunder Tharu and Chalu Chaudhary were among the 175 Kamaiyas who walked, rode on bullocks and bused through asphalt highways to Kathmandu. They were determined to end their nightmares of being bonded and landless with the dream of a piece of land to call their own.
With rage in their hearts and determination of will, in fierce reaction to injustice consolidated for more than two centuries, they moved in unison; man and women, capturing the horrors of new Nepal.

Nine days of andolan starting July 17, they staged their satyagraha in Mandala, Singha Durbar and in front of the prime minister’s residence. Half hungry, some of them sick with hepatitis and dehydration, they stood patiently, barking up the right tree. The establishment threatened, beat, arrested and imprisoned them for seven days with hope to thwart the demonstration. Unwilling to be intimidated till their demands were signed, sealed and fulfilled, they gave an ultimatum depending on the issues.

On the sixth day, the lingering entourage of the prime minister conceded to meet the desperate problems of 36.000 families scattered in the five districts of Banke, Bardiya, Dang, Kanchanpur and Tulsipur.

They had raised Rs 4200 from Banke, Rs 7500 from Bardia and Rs 12, 000 from Dang. Contributions of two rupees from their ragged existence and some grains from those who could not afford to pay for carrying their voice, the Kamayias helped sustain their satygraha to Kathmandu. Two hundred and fifty thousand, technically freed bonded laborers were convinced that once more the price for the long march to Kathmandu was a price worth paying for justice.

The plight of 300.000 Kamaiyas was totally ignored, while the state peace process is engaged in the beleaguered peace politics of 30,000 Maoist cadres in the 12 cantonments.

Realizing that the new state would not heed to their miserable conditions, they had learnt one useful lesson from the Maoists: Confrontation with the state policy. Unlike the bitter political conflict of the Maoists, they wanted their issues settled by productive negotiations between the powerful and the powerless.

With the enforcement of the Civil Code in 1853, the state had gradually succeeded in encroaching the land of the Kamaiyas and Tharus, who were tillers of terai. As a result, the state rendered them landless. A similar pattern of land conversion of the Tamangs in the surrounding of Kathmandu valley with the kipats and ghuti sanksthans (religious foundations) existed.

Fertile and rich, the tarai belt was infested with malaria until the US eradicated malaria in 1952. Since then, terai progressed to become the rice bowl of Nepal, upgrading the land value. By the mid-1960s, two million people migrated to terai. By 1971 cultivated land in terai was 41 percent compared to 9 percent in the hills and 2 percent in the mountains.

The Civil Code was a powerful weapon employed Mahendra’s land reforms, further enslaving the sons of the soil to those interlopers of the mid-hills, who had come with nothing. The State dictators saw their own profit and greed. They grabbed the bowl and enforced the tillers to be dependent on them for the rice. By signing the “lapche”, (fingerprint) on lokta paper, in a language that was foreign, the land rich and resilient Tharus became Kamaiyas. The forced ownership became a competitive victory among the high castes. The Kamaiyas and Tharus gradually watched their land slip from their hands. Seventy percent of land being transferred to Brahmin zamindars, 10 percent to Chhetris and 15 percent to Janajati and Tharu landlords.

In the absence of land rights, they were forced to change their habits and sanskritization schemed to obliterate a history of cultured people that dated its origin to the Shakyamuni Buddha, Ashoka and the Koli heritage. Debasing an indigenous, self-sufficient group to a demoted level in the enforced social hierarchy, the Tharus became Kamaiyas, the poor families of sharecroppers.

Until 2000, they had subsisted on a minimum wage of Rs 1.65 per person, per day, with an additional supply of four and a half quintal grains per annum, per family. Unable to feed the dependent and hungry in their families, the Tharus and Kamaiyas were confined to indebted slavery. Their wives and children were indentured servants and slaves, being bought and sold at a price that was convenient to the zamindars (landlords).

As the social scale is tipping with the agitation for pluralistic policy, the government has repeatedly ignored the reality, preparing a hackneyed document in 2000, for partial freedom without empowering them. The government led by G P Koirala drafted a cattle treatment and boxed them into subhuman definition of red, blue, green and white categories further dividing their cause and issues.

Once again, an agreement was signed between the ex-Kamaiyas delegation and the government.

However, in conflict and in the peace process, the Kamaiyas have always gotten the short end of the social/political justice. Misused by the society, the political parties and the Maoists, most political leaders would rather turn a Nelson’s eye to completely liberating them, as most of their land holdings in terai would go barren without the diligence of the Tharus.

Shifting their lives between master, land and state, their identity is meaningful in serving the purpose of a vote bank near election time. If the floods wash the hunger of 75,000 homeless Kamaiyas, who should cry for them?

Should Kathmandu care? Like Steinbeck’s “Orkies”, the Kamayias determination propped on twig-like legs, reminding me that their march is one in search of land, jobs and dignity — totally relevant in the world we are trying to create a “new Nepal.”



Entry filed under: Articles.

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