Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Barghar System and traditional governance among Tharus

The research was conducted by Raja Ram Chaudhary (Courtesy: United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator's Office)

Before the advent of the modern state, communities all over the world developed their indigenous institutions and governance mechanisms. The Tharus in the Tarai region of Nepal call this the barghar system, a local governance institution with a traditional head and staff. This village leadership is selected during the Tharu Maghi (or New Year) festival in Magh (mid-January), when the festival calendar is also decided and development priorities are agreed. The traditional Tharu leader, called a barghar, is either selected by consensus or elected by villagers for a year term. Barghars are also known as mahatawa in Dang and Surkhet and bargharia or bhalmansa in Kailali, Kanchanpur, Bardiya and Banke. A form of mahatawa also exists among Tharu in the eastern and central regions but is less established and adhered to than in the west. The traditional Tharu village leadership comprises the barghar (head), likhandariya (secretary), guruwa (priest), kesauka (assistant priest), and chaukidar or chirakia (a person responsible for assembling people and disseminating information). The barghar also appoints a person responsible for repairing homemade tools who is typically from the lohara - a hill dalit caste. The barghar’s position is voluntary whereas villagers pay paddy to the others to acknowledge their services.

Traditional roles and responsibilities of Barghars
Over the generations, the Tharu community has developed the barghar system and their lives have evolved around it. The traditional roles of barghars include coordinating with community members to identify and prioritise community development needs or activities and to manage community labour (and, to a lesser degree, material) inputs into projects such as road repair or construction of irrigation canals. Priority is given to utilising the labour of the community while seeking other resources, such as financing or materials, from local authorities and NGOs.

Traditionally, barghars also perform the role of adjudicator of community disputes and issue decisions and verdicts, generally with community consultation. According to a barghar in Bardiya district, typical cases and disputes that are resolved by barghars include disputes on the use of natural resources (irrigation channels, forestry products, etc.), disputes between family members or with outsiders, and some forms of domestic violence. However, criminal cases are referred to the formal judicial system. Persons interviewed felt that most Tharu community members viewed the verdicts as fair and acceptable and considered the practice to be efficient as it is free of cost and without the delays of the formal judicial system.

However, local community based and civil society organisations stated that there might be drawbacks within the system with regard to cases brought by women (as the barghar system is traditionally male-dominated), or where the barghar’s own family members were concerned.

Other functions are to determine the festival calendar and perform rituals. They lead the selection of persons with religious responsibilities and coordinate traditional rituals and poojas (worship). They also manage and facilitate Tharu festivals, dances and marriage ceremonies.

Efforts to institutionalise the Barghar System
Barghars started to unite and form networks at different levels to seek recognition of their role. They claim the practice is an example of good governance and self governance, and that it contributes to local development, peace building and the rule of law.

The first national barghar conference was held in Bardiya in December 2010, and issued a manifesto with 19 demands (see box below). In addition, the conference formed a central committee - comprising 31 members - that met on June 2nd, 2011 in Dang and formed the Federation of Barghar, Bhalmansa and Mahatawa. The meeting emphasised that budgets should be allocated for the promotion of Tharu culture and self governance at DDC level and recommended that budgets to develop and promote Tharu culture be incorporated in the Government of Nepal (GoN) national plan (or “Red Book”) under the Ministry of Culture after endorsement by Tharu traditional leaders. It further stipulated that 25% of revenue generated from natural resources be provided to Tharus in districts where they form a majority. The committee decided to continue its symbolic protest program to pressure the government and political parties through activities such as workshops, peaceful protests and mass meetings, but that it will not engage in bandhs, blockades and strikes. This decision is, however, not necessarily shared by other Tharu organisations.

Networks among barghars at district and VDC level have been formed since the conference last December, and barghars have requested the system be acknowledged and their role and participation in government structures be strengthened. This has been stimulated in part by various Tharu leaders and organisations that have sought to engage with the barghar system through, for example, organising dialogues and trainings. Combined, they have intensified the debate on the barghar system through discussion and interactions with government, civil society and political parties. Additionally, with the democratic struggle still evolving to define the rights of individuals and state structures, political and other interest groups are competing to establish their supremacy within the existing political system, in part by trying to co-opt traditional institutions like the barghar system.

In a meeting organised by NEFIN with barghars, NGOs, intellectuals and media in Jhalari VDC, Kanchanpur, in May 2011, one Tharu organisation representative claimed that the barghar system became weak after 1990. Some believe this is a result of government policies such as the Local Self Governance Act (LSGA) that did not acknowledge or provide a role for traditional governance mechanisms. This is often the case throughout the world as indigenous governance systems are increasingly replaced by state institutions.

Barghars and other actors in the community
Barghars stress that they should be consulted for any development, administrative, or justice issues in their communities. However, local authorities do not acknowledge the barghar system as there are no provisions for it under national law. A barghar interviewed in Kailali noted that they are not heard by government authorities and had faced difficulties in having their role acknowledged when dealing with local police, administrators, and VDC secretaries. A person interviewed in Kailali said that some development partners consult barghars to gather villagers, organise meetings, and facilitate their development and humanitarian efforts within Tharu communities.

Most barghars are Tharu, and their roles are well recognised and their leadership widely accepted in the community. However, a NGO staff working on Tharu issues noted that sometimes the decisions risk to be biased, particularly when the issues are related to their family members or relatives.18 The barghar system is an indigenous Tharu tradition and non-Tharu people rarely participate in barghar selection or any traditional planning process. Issues of concern to non-Tharu groups are generally not brought to the attention of barghars. The system has lost influence over the long term as an increasing number of people from other groups (e.g. Pahadi or Madhesi communities) who do not recognise the barghar leadership have settled in the Tarai. However, more recently, some non-Tharu settlers in the Tarai from hill districts have also adopted the barghar system. One study revealed there are some barghars with hill origins in Kailali district, including persons from the hill Dalit community as well as those from higher castes. However, those interviewed in Kailali noted that barghars with hill origins are very few.

The barghar system is considered by many Tharus as integral to their economic, social, and cultural life. The barghar is responsible for village-wide affairs and their role, particularly in mobilising communities to contribute labour for infrastructure development and in mediating local disputes, is well recognised within the community. This mechanism is said to be vital for internal resource mobilisation. Similarly, the barghar selection process and the planning and decision-making processes he or she leads are viewed by many within the Tharu community as quite participatory and democratic.

As a traditional system it has its adherents, but in many communities in Bardiya and Dang districts other politically driven Tharu organisations and networks are winning over active participation of Tharu youth and seeking to represent the community. This could cause tensions between generations as some youth may be less respectful of barghar leadership or more linked to political or identity based groups. Competing Tharu political groups are also likely to try to strengthen their sway over the community by seeking support from existing barghars, while at the same time maintaining their supremacy in the political arena by establishing their rights to represent the community. Questions also remain about the relationship between barghars and non-Tharu people residing in the same village or community. It is not clear how this system would or does serve people living in the same village who are not Tharus and thus not directly involved in the process.

To some degree and in some areas barghars are participating in and influencing VDC planning and decision making. In recent years, barghars have sought official recognition by the Government as well as a greater role within Government structures. It has been argued that the barghar system is one mechanism that could serve to increase participation among Tharus in democratic processes and thereby increase democratic space during this transition phase in Nepal.

Traditionally, barghars are men
Generally, one barghar is appointed per 20-40 households and performs community leadership, justice and religious roles. Barghars are traditionally male except in a few cases. According to a barghar central committee member, there are currently 4,125barghars across six mostly Tarai districts6 of the Mid and Far Western regions, including 47 females.

Ten years before, only male heads of households participated in selecting barghars and in planning and decision-making processes. However, these days, a significant proportion of women also participate.

The Bhaura Tappa Manifesto 2010
The Barghar National Conference held on 17-19 December 2010 issued a manifesto outlining 19 demands. Key demands include that the new constitution acknowledge the barghar system, including their development coordination and implementation roles. The manifesto seeks to have barghars appointed as ex officio members in DDCs, Municipalities and VDCs based on their population.

The manifesto demands constitutional provisions for affirmative action such as competition for recruitment to be limited to Janjatis (indigenous groups) to ensure easier access to jobs within the security forces, administration, judiciary and education sectors for the marginalised Tharu community and bring them into the mainstream of national development. It also calls for Tharus to have proportional representation in government institutions.

The manifesto demands that a Tharu province be established acknowledging historical and cultural claims. However, the manifesto is mum on any structural framework for the province. It demands the GoN make public the status or whereabouts of Tharu people who went missing during the conflict and to provide compensation, education and employment opportunities to their families.

The manifesto includes demands to end the Kamlari system completely, to implement agreements signed between the GoN and freed Kamaiya regarding their rehabilitation, to allocate budget for the welfare of the Tharu community, and to make constitutional provisions to protect and promote Tharu culture. It calls for implementation of ILO Convention 169. It seeks for work on the Bardiya National Park extension to cease as the Tharus are primary users of the targeted forest land.

Similarly, the demands include to establish a Tharu university, provide free education to freed Kamaiya children up to the higher secondary level and to make provisions for teaching the Tharu language in schools where Tharus form a majority.

The manifesto warns that barghars will be forced to announce a parallel government if their demands are not addressed by the GoN.

A VDC Secretary interviewed in Kailali opined that the barghar system itself is very democratic. The barghar facilitates various events at community level. However, it is not recognised by the Government to date and they are not, therefore, invited officially to meetings or to participate in VDC level planning processes. He also noted that nothing is mentioned in the Local Self Governance Act (LSGA) 1999 regarding such traditional practices. The Secretary was not aware of any barghar demands.

In another case, a Khailad VDC staff member reported that barghars padlocked the VDC office and obstructed the VDC planning process for a week in 2009 demanding representation in the council. Later, the VDC included some of them in council meetings, not as barghars but as community leaders.

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