An intriguing example of how the inheritors of a powerful ancient empire and the creators of the Nepali language have been abjectly neglected, exploited and marginalized by the modern Nepali state.
by Dor Bahadur Bista in Himal May/June 1995
You wouldn’t know it when you meet them today, but the Khas people of Jumla District are descendants of proud rulers of an empire that once stretched all the way from here to Kashmir, and from the Tibetan plateau to the inner tarai. The Khas are the progenitors of the Thakuri-Chhetri and of some of the hill Bahuns who traveled eastward to conquer the lands that would ultimately form the Kingdom on Nepal. The Nepali language, once known as Khas-kura, owes its origin to them, and the Khas also lent their style of adopting Thakuri and Chhetri titles to other ethnic groups of the Nepali hills.
Despite the accomplished past with which they are associated, this once-proud people today survive as a docile and unaware class relegated to an undeveloped corner of the country, exploited by those who know better, and burdened by an identity crisis that is unique in all Nepal.
In northwest Nepal lives a group that is economically backward, socially oppressed, and psychologically pressured. The Khas of Jumla are a group that fell through the cracks of history.
As an anthropologist who has studied and written about the people of Nepal for four decades, I have over the past three years been doing ‘applied research’ amongst these Khas of Jumla. My work proceeds under the umbrella of the Karnali Institute, based in the Chaudabisa Valley, whose efforts have been geared to applying the theories of the social sciences and development studies to raise the social and economic conditions of the Khas community.
Working in Chaudabisa, it has become clear to me that sincere efforts to develop awareness, self-confidence and a sense of worth among backward populations immediately brings forth a reaction from the privileged classes. The more effective the development activity, the more virulent and reactionary is the response. For an academician who decided to try and practise what he preached, it came as a shock to learn that the political, economic and priestly forces are predetermined to join hands to prevent empowerment of the downtrodden. This happens because true development work has the effect of snatching away privileges and income that these forces have enjoyed without challenge for centuries.
The experience of the Karnali Institute will doubtless apply to other pockets that exist all over the Nepal Himalaya, where groups of people continue to suffer 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 powerful Khas 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 in many parts of present-day western Nepal. Their tribal character began to change from around the latter part of the 14thcentury when Brahmin pandits 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 unraveling 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
For a 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 SoluKhumbu, 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 work here 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 Chauda-bisa’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 to pay compensation to the former husband. 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 backgro-und 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 tagadhari (thread-wearing) Chhetirs treat the Khas as low caste shudra.
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 disqualifles 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 is at 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.
Mostly, the problems of the present-day Khas of Chaudabisa reflects the exploitative traditions maintained to this day by the upper caste people of Jumla town, also known as Khalanga, and of the surrounding hills. Jumla town and Sinja retain the vestiges of the former exploitative feudal structure perhaps more than do most other hill regions of Nepal. This explains why the people here remain so poor whereas the region itself has abundant economic potential.
Some members of the sixteenth century converts to high caste are still struggling to maintain and assert their caste and class status. This, by definition, means the mistreatment of the Chaudabisa population, “which is homogeneously Khas.”
The Bahuns of Jumla continue to collect their dues of blankets, rugs, calves, goats, shanks of mutton, and cereal grains once a year from every household in Chaudabisa valley that has a death, a debilitating illness, a birth, or a marriage. They collect without having to provide any of the ritual services of a priest. Wedding, funeral,birth or illness, meanwhile, go on without the appearance of a priest. The Bahuns arrive in Chaudabisa at their convenience during fair weather. They visit their clients, collect the goods, and make them carry them to their homes in and around Jumla town.
Having lost this self-confidence and self-esteem over the course of centuries, the Chaudabisa Khas is willing to submit to this kind of exploitation. Having sunk to the lowest rung of the economic, cultural, religious and social hierarchy, there is little self-respect left. To the Jumla people, these are the barbarious Khas, “khaspavai”- a term that is still in use.
In Chaudabisa, it is common to hear the locals go on and on: “hami garib, hami dukhi, hami murkha” (we are poor, we are hopeless, we are ignorant) .Part and parcel of accepting their lowly position, they continue to wear filthy rags, and maintain dirty habits. It is this syndrome of absolute apathy that the Institute hopes to attack.
The fatalistic philosophy is insidious because it destroys optimism and the ability to take the initiative. Fate is blamed for anything that they do not get, even though they may not have worked for it. The locals do not want to work beyond the absolute minimum required. With the practice of the government providing money for all kinds of development work, Chaudabisa’s people have found it easy to sit back and show even less initiative.
Chaudabisa does not represent an isolated pocket of exploitation: its situation is multiplied many times over in other Khas valleys of the Karnali region. Among this population, fatalism generates the view that one’s entire life is a continuous present and is fated to be what it is. Instead, if the people could be persuaded to accept only the past as an important educator to provide guidance for future, and treat the so-called present as the flicker of the moment that continuously moves along with the progression of our lives, we could probably have a healthy, future-oriented society led by optimistic political and cultural leaders. This, at any case, is the goal set by the Karnali Institute for itself in Chaudabisa.
At Cross Purposes
When the Institute landed in the midst of this caste- and class-ridden exploitative structure, it began work by trying to help the Chaudabisa Khas to learn to help themselves. The existing high school was expanded, health services were made regular, and training of locals began with carpentery and Stonework classes. Two micro-hydropower stations were installed in the valley.
The Institute is spearheading efforts to help local people to become optimistic and look into a possibly prosperous future. Besides helping raise the living standards and educational level, the Institute also hopes to cleanse them of the ways of child marriage, cow worship coupled with cow starvation (and no milk at all!), and ill-treatment of women including the selling of wives.
Perhaps inevitably, the Institute and who will call the “Jumlalords” are working at cross purposes. The Institute is treated as a rival not only by these lords, but also some politicians who style themselves as progressive leftists. The Institute has had to face continuous attack from these forces, who feed contrived stories to population and do not miss an opportunity to put things in a bad light. Quite a few of the Chaudabisa locals were themselves initially suspicious of the Institute’s motives, for they found it hard to comprehend why an outsider would want to help them without obvious benefit.
Those who do not wish the Chaudabisa Khas well can be categorised into three groups. Firstly, there are the political leaders who are concerned that they might lose their influence in the area. Politics providing the fastest route to influence; it remains the most appealing vocation for many. Because I was seen as a ‘democrat’, both the extreme left and extreme right decided that they would lose their vote bank if the Institute’s work became popular.
Secondly, there are the economic leaders who feel that their base of economic exploitation will be pulled away by any activity aimed at developing self-awareness in Chaudabisa. Thirdly, are the priests whose role in Chaudabisa society would rapidly diminish if the people were to be educated. The priests, on the whole, work the most insidiously to undo the process of positive change.
Various strategems have been used to poison the minds of the Chaudabisa locals against the Institute, including the spreading of a rumour that the research work was only a cover for propagating Christianity. The canard is also doing the rounds that the Institute will exploit and hurt the population because it favours a specific political ideology. One political candidate during the general elections in November campaigned to throw the Institute and its founder out of the Valley (he lost). Jumla’s inhabitants are know all over to be avid litigants, and two cases have been filed in the courts against the Institute. One of them has been won by the Institute and the other is still being heard.
Things will not remain static in Jumla district forever, however. The Karnali Institute, plus several other organisations are committed to widening the horizons the people of Chaudabisa. The economic lords who used to exploit the labour and the valuable herbal resource of the region are watching intensely over a processing factory that has just been completed in Chaudabisa by the Agricultural Development Bank’s Small Farmers Development Programme.
The two micro-hydropower units that have been set up will change lifestyles and expand horizons as children begin to read in the evening, as mothers begin to use electric cookers, and as fathers get engaged in producing craft items at home.
Enrolment in the Chaudabisa schools has doubled over the last three years, and the number of girls attending classes is also up considerably. Plan International is supporting adult literacy classes at the high school during off hours. The Chaudabisa population is beginning to wake up to the possibilities that are open to them.
The overt and covert opposition of the Jumla lords notwithstanding, the Khas of Chaudabisa will have their day in the sun.