The experience of the Kamali Institute will doubtless apply to other pockets that exist all over the Nepal Himalaya, where g rou ps of people continue to s uffer from the yoke of feudalism, and wherever efforts are being made to shake up the old and in order to bring in the new.
Chaudabisa valley used to come under a separate district called Tibrikot until some 12 years ago, but now it forms the eastern part of Jumla District. The area lies east of Jumla town, at the headwaters of the Tila and the Chaudabisa beneath Kanjiroba and Patrasi himals.
I was drawn to selecting Chaudabisa as the area for applied research because of an incongruous situation that exists here. The indigenous Khas live in absolute poverty even though their region itself is rich in natural resources and should be delivering a much higher standard of living. In fact, encouraged by the high demand for herbal raw material in the plains market, the locals were engaging in indiscriminate plunder of the very resource base which promised them a better future.
My interest also has a personal element, for my ancestors came from this area more than 300 years ago to settle down in the kingdom of Patan in Kathmandu Valley. I wanted keenly to gauge the distance that had developed between myself and this region of my purkha.
Jumla used to be the .center of the powerfulKhas kingdom of the western hills of Nepal from around the 14th century until the close of the 18th century. It is a region with interesting historic vestiges. Sinja, which formed the northern part of today's Jumla district, has interesting archaeological remains, including records of the Khas kingdoms of yore. The earlier Khas kings were Buddhist (while the public was shamanistic) and employed lamas to keep their records in the Tibetan language. Subsequent infiltration of Hinduism led to destruction of much of these Khas records, although some are still available for scholars, scattered in monasteries and other repositories of Mugu, Humla, Dolpa and Dailekh.
The Khas people were of pastoral
nomadic background and were spread widely inmanypartsof present-day western Nepal. Thei r tribal character began to change from around the latter part of the 14thcentury when Brahmin pand its began arriving at the court of the Khas kings. The illiterate kings and courtiers with their rustic lifestyle must have liked the idea of a Hindu caste framework based on the principles expounded in Manusmriti, as this would give them a permanent high status based on birthright rather than on personal ability and competence.
The unravelling of the Khas empire accelerated with the seizure of the throne of Delhi by the Mughals, as more displaced Brahmins came up to settle in the Khas territory. More Thakuris and Chhetris had to be created as clients for the incoming Brahmins to cater to. That was the beginning of the end of the Khas people's collective strengths.
Agents and Profiteers
Fora social scientist, Chaudabisa was also a place of interest because its nature had not been overly affected either by tourism or the negative effects of modernisation and its attendant material culture. Many other High Himalayan areas of Nepal such as Solu-Khumbu, Mustang and Langtang have been influenced beyond recall, but Chaudabisa provided laboratory conditions for the social sciences and development studies together to engage a region in genuine and long-lasting efforts at social and economic transformation. Hopefully, if the workhere is successful, the model can be used with modifications in other similarly situated hill areas of Nepal.
In recent years, because of increased population, the local people have been pressuring the surrounding natural environment. Part of the reason for the population increase is the success of child survival programmes in an area which did not receive family planning help, which was refused on grounds of political ideology. (Funds for the programme came from USAID, which could not allow family planning programmes under directives formulated by a Republican United States President.)
The agents and profiteers in the herb trade are lined up all the way from Delhi's
Khari Bauli bazaar, across the border, and up to Jumla town. With a pittance of money, these people lure Chaudabisa's population into destroying the fragile natural base of their hillsides, uprooting herb plants roots and all.
The Khas have been exploited historically by all kinds of people, including government employees and local feudals, such as in their being forced to provide free labour. The first time the Khas of Chaudabisa recall receiving payment for work done was when King Mahendra made his famous trek to Rara Lake three decades ago. In was only then that the system of wage labour began to be implemented.
More than 30 years of educational programmes at the primary level and more than 12 years of secondary education have done nothing for the Khas. Education has not been meaningful.
Child marriage is a bane of Chaudabisa's Khas. It often leads to disenchantment when the bride and groom comes of age. About fifty percent of early marriages in Chaudabisa end in elopement of either partner, with the new husband being made topaycompensationtotheformerhusband. Women suffer grievously from loss of status in the process.
The irony is that many Nepalis and most western scholars think that all Khas are Chhetri and that therefore they are not one of the so-called janajati, or ethnic, communities of the country. To be qualified as janajati, is the understanding, one has to have Mongoloid racial background and must speak a Tibeto-Burman mother tongue.
The fact is that a vast majority of the Khas have never been Hinduised, let alone 'Chhetri-ised'. Thus, while it may be true that today's Chhetri of Nepal branched off from the Khas, what has happened is that the descendants of the original Khas remained distinct, remote and deprived like other janajati groups of the country. The status of the Khas has dipped so low that the very term 'Khas' is today used by the upper classes as an insult. This is why the Khas people tend to style themselves as Chhetri, even though the tagadha ri (thread-wearing) Chhetirs treat the Khas as low caste shudra.
MaylJune 1995 HIMAL
The bulk of Jumla's Khas continue to live with their shamanic ritual practices, make alcohol at home, offering it to their deities, and drinking themselves. Nevertheless, due to historical and political reasons, their racial background d isquali fles them from being called' jana jati'. All this has left the Khas with an identity crisis unique even in Nepal, and a total loss of self-esteem and self-confidence.
To be jana jati in present-day Nepal isat least to have the ability to demand that mainstream society recognise the existence and rights of your tribe or community. While this right might have little use other than bring some peace of mind to ethnic activists, the Khas do not even have this on their side. They do not have an existence: their language is not even recorded in the national census even though they have a tongue that is distinct.