A member of the Tamang tribal group, Nepal's largest, Parshu Ram Tamang is organizing an umbrella association of the country's tribal peoples to press for significant new rights.
The New Idea
As Nepal's new multiparty political system and constitution emerges, many things that were previously unthinkable have suddenly become possible. Building an earlier work, Tamang and his associates have quickly moved to put the interests of Nepal's tribal peoples squarely on the country's new agenda.He took a lead in organizing the Nepal Federation of Nationalities. Its members in turn are a number of associations representing the different tribal or linguistic groups in the country. Tamang, for example, is the general secretary of and represents the Tamang Ghedung, an association that champions the interests of the Tamang community. The federation helps its member associations formulate common policies and coordinate their efforts in pursuit of those policies.Tamang and his associates are seeking fundamental changes. First, he wants "to increase the receiving capacity" of the disadvantaged communities he represents. Doing so involves organizing from the grassroots on up, slogging development work ranging from education to creating small businesses, and seeking changes in government policies to facilitate his internal strengthening.Some of his proposed policy changes are difficult, others controversial. Reallocating more resources to help these poorer parts of society, e.g., through increased credit availability, will be difficult.One of Tamang's most controversial proposals is to press the government to provide services to Nepal's many different peoples in the languages they speak and understand. "Many people can't express themselves in Nepali. Even in Kathmandu many of the Newars don't understand Nepali. How can government programs benefit or work for people who don't understand what those responsible for these programs say?" Those who have been pressing to integrate this small but often geographically cut-off--and therefore historically exceptionally divided--country will be reluctant to see any such weakening of the drive to spread Nepali as a unifying national language. Tamang and his colleagues also advocate speeding the process of oncoming the huge development gap between the dominant groups in society and the people he represents by reserving a minimum number of university and government positions for them. Such positive dissemination, which has been in place in India since independence and has become increasingly a source of conflict, is likely also to be controversial.
Nepal began developing only in the 1950's and remains one of the world's half dozen poorest countries. Its geography and cultural diversity have long divided its people.This country of 17 million has 26 languages. There is great statistical debate over how many people belong to what group. Tamang says that the five largest groups he represents constitute over 11 million people: 4 million Tamangs, 2 million Gurungs, 2 million Magars, 1.8 million Kirants, and 1.5 million Tasus. The government, however, according to Tarang, counts only 700,000 Tamangs.Even if one errs towards smaller numbers, a very large proportion of Nepal's population belongs to these communities. Moreover, few would dispute that they are communities most of whose members are relatively ill-educated, poor, and disadvantaged. In some areas they lost control of much of the land to groups representing the centralizing power or better able to use its legal system. Ironically, the rapid introduction of new educational, legal, and economic arrangements has typically helped those most able to take advantage of them (and best connected), i.e., the already relatively advantaged and powerful elements in society.
Tamang and his colleagues are in important degree devising their approach month by month in the midst of Nepal's current earthquake. However, certain elements of their strategy is clear.First, since so much critical decision-making is taking place so fast at the rational level, and since it suddenly is open to them and to major issues that had been closed before, they must organize to be timely, effective players. This is especially so since this is a time of constitution-writing.To be effective they have to follow fast-moving, multi-faceted events closely, be clear and united about their central objectives, and be in communication with their diverse constituents. Hence, the federation. The representatives of the different groups meet under its umbrella regularly to keep track of and decide how best cooperatively to intervene. Second, Tamang feels that strong action to right historical inequalities is essential if the people he represents are ever to catch up a prerequisite for Nepal's ultimate true modification. This is a goal worth the risks it requires.
Tamang, whose roots are in Bojpurn District, has taught mathematical economics at the university in Kathmandu since 1978."For ten years no one listened to me as I pressed these issues, but now suddenly these are issues people take seriously," Tamang commented recently. However, even though the going was slow, Tamang kept at it and by 1955 was beginning to have a serious impact.He played a significant role in creating (in 1966) and building up the Bojpurn Help Association. It brings together key people from Bojpurn living in Kathmandu to help the district both in the capital and, with others, at home. In 1988, in a book he edited for the association analyzing the district's history, economics, and prospects for development, he spelled out the many causes for its lack of development. This broad diagnosis which ranged from the lack of motorable roads through an unequal pattern of land distribution to very low productivity--helped him define important parts of the association's subsequent agenda and, to some degree, his current objectives.He also provided leadership for the Tamang language and Cultural Development Committee. In 1990, it merged into his new Tamang Ghednoo.As the place and prospects for the Tamangs, Gurungs, Magars, Tarus, Sherpas, and other historic communities of Nepal have suddenly become real issues with which the country is grappling. Tamang has reached the point in his own life when he's ready to champion these people.