Indigenous Taraiwasi vs. Madhesi
Indigenous Taraiwasi vs. Madhesi
– Pramod Mishra
JAN 19 –
At a time when the Constituent Assembly (CA) seems serious about demarcating and naming the federal units, we must understand the distinction between Madhesi and Tarai Janjati and why Rajkumar Lekhi (Kantipur: Jan. 4) and Laxman Tharu (Kantipur: Sept. 21, 2009) have taken up the cudgel against Madhesi leaders and Madhesisation of the ethnic movement. Tharu and Lekhi, the leaders of the Tharuhat movement, want to separate the Tarai indigenous groups from the Madhesi groups. By Madhesi they mean those who are caste Hindus of the Tarai from the Brahmins on down to the non-Dalit castes, such as Yadav, Dhanuk, Baniya, etc. They, however, want to make an alliance with the Madhesi Dalits as they would with the Pahadi Dalits and all other indigenous groups, such as Dhimals, Rajbanshis, Gangais, Sataars, etc.
On the other hand, Madhesi leaders like Upendra Yadav and Jaya Prakash Gupta think that all of Madhes is one in terms of administrative unity: hence, their slogan — One Madhes, One Pradesh. While Gupta and Yadav seem to have withdrawn their claim on the Tharuhat area, they claim Morang, Jhapa and Sunsari to be part of Madhes. And when that doesn’t seem possible, they cry foul and blame the divide-and-rule policy of the Bahun-Chetri ruling class to create division among Tarai-Madhesi groups.
What is the complex picture of ethnicities in the Tarai?
The cultural practices, geographical location, and more severe political disenfranchisement separate them from the caste Madhesis. For example, all these Tarai indigenous groups have been basically cultivators with a few here and there given the status of zamindar by the rulers before the abolition of zamindari in the 1960s. A Rajbanshi zamindar, for example, despite his control over fellow Rajbanshis and others in revenue collection, juridical matters of reward and punishment, would sit together with each other and eat even though he may not give his daughter to his fellow Rajbanshi peasants in marriage. Instead, he gave his daughters and brought brides from fellow Rajbanshi zamindars across Morang and Jhapa.
But the more significant difference lay in other cultural practices. These ethnic groups, unlike caste Hindus, were animists for the most part. In birth, marriage and funeral ceremonies, they didn’t need a Hindu priest. On the last evening of the funeral ceremonies, they invited their own Rajbanshi Ojhas and the Ojha installed what is called Akhraa in which the Ojha presided over the ceremony with much solemnity.
He sacralised the individual basil leaves in mantra-purified water and lighted a clay lamp with mustard oil, then dipped a leaf in hallowed oil of the lamp, and waved the leaf around and looked up by the light of the lamp to see where the spirit of the deceased was wandering. It was the Ojha’s task to use his uncanny powers to call up the deceased’s spirit to ease its passage across the river to its final abode. As an aid to the Ojha’s efforts, earlier in the day, we, the kinsmen of the deceased, performed Dhemali. We were made to stand in white loin cloth in a row on the courtyard, which had been cleaned and made muddy by pouring a liquid mixture of yoghurt, turmeric powder and other herbs. Then with a signal from Dhod Gosain, the Ojha in our area, we rolled in the mud from one corner to another, mourning the dead. The marriage ceremony, too, didn’t require a Hindu priest.
There was, however, some degree of Hinduisation or what sociologist M.N. Srinivas called Sanskritisation among the Tharus, a little less among Dhimals but especially among Rajbanshis. Many became my father’s Jajmans starting in the 1930s. My father coaxed many of them out of their villages and took them on annual pilgrimage to Char Dham — Badri, Kedar, Dwarika and Rameshwaram — and the trio of Gaya, Kashi, and Prayag. Once or twice, before I was born, he had them organise Katha and presided over it.
Although one can find Rajbanshis on both sides of Nepal-India border, the majority inhabit the stretch of cultivable land along the edges of now denuded forests all along Jhapa and Morang. The Dhimals inhabited a little inside the forest and many ate pork and drank liquor. This marked the difference between the Rajbanshis and Dhimals. Tharus, too, had a spread-out existence historically all along the Tarai strip.
So, what are the political and cultural implications of this geographical habitation of Tharus, Rajbanshis, Dhimals and so on? One, these Tarai ethnic groups are not traditional caste Hindus in cultural practices. That’s why many Tharu leaders who belonged to Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha reconstructed their ethnic origin by tracing it to the Buddha. Two, because they lived as peasants mostly along the edges of the forest in the Tarai, they do not have the occupational caste traditions as it exists among caste Hindus of Madhes and adjoining Indian states of Bengal, Bihar and UP. They were and are traditionally cultivators of land. There is little motivation for educational attainment among them. Three, women in these groups have more freedom both at home and outside and attitude toward women’s right to elopement and second marriage is more relaxed.
The Rajbanshis and Tharus, and Dhimals most of all by virtue of their small number and habitation inside the forest, found themselves on the frontline of Hill-Tarai migration. Wherever they encountered the high caste hill folks, they became losers because the hill migrants came motivated by a complex sense of cultural and political empowerment that derived not only from the myriad empowering narratives of the Hindu scriptures but also from the historical sense that the Nepali state belonged to them by virtue of their language as the national language, their caste and kin as people who manned the political and administrative machinery. King Prithvi Narayan Shah was their undisputed hero. They also had a work ethic and frugality born of the tough hilly terrain that gave the hill high caste migrants an edge that these groups could never match. These were further aggravated by the Jagir and Birta systems of the rulers before 1950 and the systematic deforestation of the Tarai thereafter, depriving the Tarai indigenous groups of manure for the land and games, pastures for cattle, leaves and wood for livelihood. They suddenly find their land giving less yield and cultural life impoverished.
On the other hand, the caste Madhesis, both the migrants from India and those who had been living in the Tarai all along, had a sense of cultural resources in the vastness of North India with contiguous castes, cultural and language groups. Most Madhesis had some land, occupational caste skills, a sense of belonging to a larger cultural group and therefore part of the bigger history of India by proxy. Despite the high educational attainments among males among them, they could only be technicians — engineers, doctors, agricultural and medical technicians and teachers -but not civil and security officials. They therefore felt more acutely their second class status. And so, when an Upendra Yadav’s MJF or the Congress thinks of choosing a Taraiwasi for political posts in New Nepal, they prefer caste Madhesis.
The indigenous groups of the Tarai experienced quadruple deprivation: they found themselves on the frontline of Hill-Tarai migration; they couldn’t access the limitless cultural resources of India, unlike the Madhesis; nor could they compensate from Lahure recruitment, like many hill nationalities; and they were nevertheless victims, like the Madhesis, of the discriminatory structures, policies and practices. This discrimination increased multifold after 1960 as the state made incursions into people’s lives through the Panchayat system and opened the door of corruption to enrich the hill high castes in the state machinery.
And so, when Lekhi and Tharu feel frustrated by the Madhesi leaders’ all-hogging attitude, there are complex reasons we need to understand.
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