Monday, September 3, 2012

The identity battle

Rana Tharus in their traditional attire (c) Facebook/Tharu Community
By Bikram Rana
Courtesy: Republica

Rana Tharus in India mostly reside in Udham Singh Nagar district of Uttarakhand and Kheeri as well as in Pilibhit and Gonda, districts of Uttar Pradesh. They are recognized as a scheduled tribe by the government of India. The Indian constitution gives several special social, educational and economic benefits to those categorized as the scheduled tribes.

In Nepal, Rana Tharus have been native residents of Kailali and Kanchanpur since the 16th century and are, in fact, the first settlers of the two districts. The four districts, namely Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur, were under British administration from 1816 to 1860 and were included in Nepal by the British before they left India. Prior to the inclusion of Kanchanpur and Kailali in Nepal as ‘naya muluk’, the settlers in these two districts were Ranas and Katharias followed by Tharus from Dang and later by others.

Being natives of two districts, Rana Tharus were prosperous land owners with big houses and livestock. They were old land lords (who owned or held land before the introduction of the land reforms in 1964) of both the districts. Though the Rana community was economically and socially powerful, the literacy rate among them was low, a condition that prevails even today. However, their native places were gradually encroached upon by other groups and even by the Panchayat in the name of rehabilitation (punarvaas) and by the democratic government in the name of sanctuary broadening (aarachhya bistaar).

In 1854 Jung Bahadur, the first Rana Prime Minister of Nepal, developed Muluki Ain, a codification of Nepal’s indigenous legal system which divided the society into a system of castes. The Tharus of Nepal were placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy, just above the ‘untouchables’. During this period, the Rana Tharus of Kailali and Kanchanpur were under the British administration (1816 to 1860). After the inclusion of these four districts in Nepal, anthropologists and experts have been largely biased against the Rana Tharus as well as other Tharu groups.

This injustice was further perpetuated by the government of Nepal which placed Rana Tharu in the same category of Tharus as in the previous census, even though they claim to be very different in reality. This reminds me of what famous American anthropologist Ralph Linton had said, “The way of life of people is one thing, what we study and write about, is another dimension of culture. The former is reality, the latter our understanding of the same. If the former is to be culture, then the latter may be called only culture construct.”

Although physically the Rana Tharus are similar to other Tharu people in the area, they speak their own language. Rana Tharus differ from other Dangaura and Chaudhari Tharus in most respects, including language, attire and culture. According to sociology, “Indigenous group is any ethnic group originating and remaining in an area subject to colonization and have retained their distinctive identities. Such groups often appear to go through a sequence of defeat, despair, and regeneration, if they have not been exterminated or their culture completely destroyed by the external or colonial power.” This supports the theory that Rana Tharus have a different identity, which has survived for years and cannot be erased at the peak of political transition when every group is fighting for its identity.

The functionalists who are trying to maintain their strategic advantage and the utopians in their endeavor to usurp the rights of others are using different tools to obfuscate the main debate surrounding self respect and unique identity of minor groups. This makes the federalism process contradictory.

Few leaders who enjoy the facilities of both hill and Tarai regions fear losing their strategic advantage with growing demands for Tharuhat because the inclusion of two districts, Kailali and Kanchapur, in proposed Tharuhat has resulted in a counter protest for a ‘united Far-West’. This is an attempt to maintain status quo in the region so that there is no change in the condition of communities who have been deprived of any stake in power and governance. Ramesh Lekhak, one of the CA members has said that Rana Tharu, Dangaura Tharu and hill people in Kailali and Kanchanpur have been living in harmony. On the surface, there is harmony in the sense that there have been no violent clashes between the hill and Tarai inhabitants; but if you plunge deeper, both the Rana and Dangaura Tharu have felt slighted since the hill people have been enjoying strategic advantage in terms of authority, power and caste superiority.

Tharus have been rarely included in the societies and bodies formed in the name of the ‘Far-west’. These societies have merely highlighted cultural traits of the hills, while ignoring the Tharu culture. For instance, no Rana or Dangaura music has been played on Kantipur radio programme touted as the ‘voice of Far-West’. Leaders from the hills who belong to major political parties get the opportunity of picking constituencies both in the hills and Tarai while Tharus who have this option only in Kailali and Kanchanpur struggle to get candidacy even in these districts.

The reluctance to consider Rana Tharus as a different group and recognise its independent identity has now put the community in danger of becoming extinct. Failure to acknowledge and respect the separate identity of Ranas is likely to affect the community and the future of the proposed Tharuhat.

In the past, being more economically comfortable, Rana Tharus felt less suppressed and were satisfied with their land holding and did not feel the need to educate their children. However, the other Tharu groups have felt strong discrimination ever since the promulgation of ‘Muluki Ain’ in 1854 and have placed comparatively more emphasis on education while participating more in the politics of Nepal.

Now with the implementation of positive discrimination policies, the census classifying the Rana Tharus as Tharus, Tharuhat obstructing the recognition of a separate Rana Tharu identity and the ‘united Far-west’ acting as a functionalist, the Ranas feel their very identity is under threat. Thus, organisations like Rana Tharu Sangharsh Samitee, Rana Tharu Welfare Forum and Nepal Rana Tharu Samaaj are raising their voice for a separate Rana Tharu identity.

Geographical delineation alone cannot determine a federal state unless adequate space is created for all, while ensuring a fair distribution of power and authority. The solution is to create what could be a ‘win-win situation’ for Rana Tharus, Dangaura Tharus and the hill people. This requires some give and take by politicians from the hills who enjoy the strategic advantage as residents of both Tarai and the hills.

The author is the founder president of the Rana Tharu Welfare Forum, Kanchanpur and can be contacted at   

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