David Gellner is professor of anthropology at Oxford University. He did his doctoral research on traditional Vajrayana Buddhism of the Newars and Newar social organization in the Kathmandu Valley. Gellner has authored and edited many books including Nationalism and Ethnicity in Nepal, and Ethnic Activism and Civil Society in South Asia. He was in Nepal last week to present a paper in a symposium entitled “Ethnicity and Federalism.” Republica’s Post B Basnet caught up with him at Bajra Books at Thamel last Tuesday. Excerpts:
There is an upsurge of ethnic movement in Nepal along with lots of talks on ethnic federalism. What is ethnic identity, anyway?
Distinguishing institution of ethnicities depends on how complex societies are. Very simple societies which have no contact with people of different kinds often have no concept of ethnicity. The ethnic names which the other people call them just mean people. They do not have a concept and they do not have a strong sense. They are just people. They do not divide the world into different kinds of people. When you have complex societies, then you get complex sets of differentials. But, these sets of differentials do not necessarily have to be what we think of ethnicities today.
In the pre-modern society, for example in South Asia, you have caste system in which people are divided into different groups. They thought of themselves as different from each other, but that is not exactly what ethnicities mean today in the modern world. During the classical period of nation-building in Europe, the idea was that everybody belonged to one nation, but inevitably in every nation there would also be groups of people who did not share the dominant cultural mainstream and tended to form groups. So at the end, ethnicity would have double meaning. There is one sense in which everybody is equally ethnic and there is another sense in which some people are more ethnic than others. Some people like Indians, Chinese or Greeks in the USA and the UK are ethnic, but white people are not . Yet in another sense everybody is equally ethnic; whiteness can be another possible ethnic identity. These are group identifications.
The point is: Does everybody equally have to have ethnic group? In some context they do, and in other , they do not. It is a very complicated question on a complicated subject which is highly political. What kinds of ethnic groups are identified and are not identified or accepted is very contentious isseue with serious political and economic consequences.
What do you think is the reason behind the ethnic upsurge in Nepal? Do you think there is the role of globalization and other agencies in it?
It is too easy to blame external forces, but that is not the answer. I think why it happened in Nepal is because Nepal has a very large cultural diversity. There are lots of groups that have radically different culture and they have their own regions. India also has a large group of ethnic groups which are more indigenous as compared to those in Nepal. So, the question is why Nepal has so much ethnic diversity in a relatively small space. The answer is that Nepal is stretched out across the Himalayas. Therefore, you have very different cultural and ecological niches which encourage cultural diversity and you have influences from Tibet in the north and India in the south. There are lots of people who are related to kind of Southeast Asian people. They migrated here and are now called Janajatis. Similarly the Khas people also migrated to this land. It is not like in melting-pot fashion that all these things came together but in a salad-bowl pattern. And it has such an ecological diversity going right from the Tarai up to the high mountains that encouraged large amount of cultural diversity before the 20th century.
After 1990, people were free to organize and express. And yes there is a certain irony in the fact that at the very time people were coming together, getting education and participating in the global market in the same way, they started concentrating on differences. The reason for this is that there has been what people call the 240 years of a very hierarchical system in which certain groups of people were dominant and had much better life while other people were subordinated and were not allowed to join the bureaucracy. They had to go abroad to join the military and that was the only way for them. And Dalits got the worse deal. As you come out of a very hierarchical system, it is not very surprising that people want to do something about that. There are long historical grievances that people want to rectify.
Ethnic activists are demanding for ethnic federal states to rectify the long historical grievances you just mentioned. Do you think it is good to delineate federal states along ethnic lines?
Whether it is justified or not, some countries that adopted ethnic federalism saw disastrous consequences. As for naming the federal states with ethnic names like Tamuwan or Limbuwan or Magarat, I do not see any problem. The key issue is what you call in Nepal Agradhikar or preferential rights. What the ethnic activists want is not only reservations. For example, activists in Tamuwan want 51 percent of seats in Tamuwan Assembly reserved for Tamus, even though their population is less than that. And that is very problematic. They would like the indigenous people to have more access to resources. For example, in a Gurung village which is in fact multi- caste village, if only Gurungs are allowed to go to the forest and use forest products, it would be problematic. And if you try to institutionalize this practice, it may lead to serious conflicts. But I do not think the political parties would possibly accept that. Yet that does not mean some people are not thinking along those lines. I mean, I do think Nepal as a state has signed the ILO 169 and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It means something for ‘indigenous people’.
What are the implications of signing those conventions?
The implication is that for those peoples who are designated ‘indigenous’, the government has the responsibility of ensuring that their rights are not infringed and that they do not suffer.
Ethnic activists have long been saying that only certain Janajatis are indigenous peoples and others, including Chhetris and Brahmins are migrants? What do you have to say?
No. It is a highly political question in Nepal. The Sherpas are indigenous people, but they arrived in Nepal may be four hundred years ago. And obviously Chhetris and Brahmins arrived in Nepal much earlier than that. There is also a movement that claims Chhetris are Janajatis. So these are political issues . There is also a Dalit Janajati party that claims Dalits are also Janajatis. So, we could end up with a situation where 100 percent of the population are Janajatis just like in Northeast India. Most of the peoples there are scheduled tribes.
Do you think there is any possibility of reaching an agreeable settlement on the demands for ethnic federal states?
Some ethnic community is obviously going to be disappointed. Tamangs and Newars both want Banepa to be a part of their region, but it cannot be part of both. So, some people would be disappointed at some point. I am not a great expert on the internal political details of Nepal. And I am not a political scientist too. I told the organizers of the conference that they should have invited political scientists who specialize on designing constitutions and drawing up boundaries. Things were narrowly explained from anthropological point of view only. You need different kinds of experts to come together and decide how we can do things better.
How do you assess the current political situation complicated by the ethnic upsurge?
Everybody I met in the last 10 days tells me that it is impossible to finish the constitution writing by May 28 and there has to be at least six months extension of the CA term. And the opinion of Nepali people about the politicians would be even lower after that. I am confident that this time the extended six months would be enough. I am very encouraged by the fact that the conference I came to attend was extremely well attended by activists, political party leaders, civil society members , and intellectuals. We had a similar conference on ethnicity three and half years ago. The topic was exactly the same and it was a good conference, but the level of interest was higher now than before. People like you did not come to interview me then. Clearly, time has come for serious discussions and I am very much encouraged by the fact that people have decided to talk to each other. They may disagree but they debate and listen to each other.
in true republica fashion a corrigendum is yet to be made. i think you ought to insist. it´s a rather bold statement and in places without the internet this comment will never surface.
As a matter of fact, what I said was ´Some countries have adopted ethnic federalism, and it hasn´t been a disaster.´ Unfortunately the interviewer misheard this as ´and it has been a disaster´, a rather stronger statement than what I actually said.
John Smith, Newars have been practicing their culture and tradition for a long time without any hindrance from other culture. So, from where this issue of preserving their culture came from? They were able to preserve their culture for hundreds of years and will be able to do so for years to come even without federalism. Why, in your opinion, is there a sudden need of ethnic federalism to protect cultures? In my view, ethnic division will bring out more discrimination, and is just a way for thes
The headline given to this interview is totally out of context. Knowing David Gellner´s earlier writings, I fully doubt if he ever said this to the interviewer. However, the interviewer seems deliberately purported this sentence into his mouth to mislead the readers. Nepalese readers are well aware of this kind of misleading reports. Especially, the Bahun-Chetri dominated Nepali media is notorious in distorting facts when it comes about ethnic rights and ethnic federalism in Nepal.
Thanks Mr Gellner for speaking out your mind. If a Bahun or Chhetri speaks against ethnic federalism, he is accused of showing Brahminist hill high cast ego. Now Gellner has just said that there are countries that adopted ethnic federalism and there are janajatis elites who have immediately accused him of being a “privileged” British. Laughable.