The national government of Nepal has traditionally had little involvement in local affairs other than collecting taxes (presumably in return for security). The provision of bridges and roads and school was never even thought of as an obligation of the government until the 1950s. Local communities were expected to provide these things.

This mentality still survives today, especially in remote parts of the country, of which there are many. Remote villages are often largely self-sufficient. The national government doesn’t do much to help local communities except for maybe provide a school or a poorly-equipped clinic staffed by midwives. Communities are generally too poor to help themselves much. Foreign aid helps here and there but sometimes does more to enrich the elite than helps large numbers of the needy.

The same hold true with law enforcement and justice. Local communities often have their own ways of settling disputes and meeting out justice, There is national criminal and civil code but it is either ignored or people don’t even know it exists.

Civil servants who work in the field are often strong walkers. Often that is only way they can reach many villages. They are often paid by the distance they log and sometimes walk 30 miles in a single day because they get paid more that way.

Local elections were held in three phases, ending in September 2017. These were the first local elections since 1997. They were halted during Nepal’s civil war with the Maoist rebels that ended in 2006. The 2017 elections were seen as a step toward implementing Nepal’s 2015 Constitution, which restructureed the country as a secular, federal republic and mandated that local, provincial, and federal elections be held by January 2018. [Source: Tricia Taormina, Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2017]

Administrative Divisions in Nepal

Administrative divisions: seven provinces: Gandaki Pradesh, Karnali Pradesh, Province No. One, Province No. Two, Province No. Three, Province No. Five, Sudurpashchim Pradesh. Administratively, the country is divided into 14 zones. There are 75 districts. One of the issues that delayed the drafting of the new constitution approved in 2015 was the name of name of the provinces. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Political subdivisions in 2009: 5 development regions, 14 zones, and 75 districts. Committees in 2009: 75 district development committees, 58 municipalities, 3,913 village development committees, and 36,023 ward committees. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]

Nepal’s largest administrative divisions are development regions, which are divided into zones. Zones are further divided into districts, which in turn are divided into nine to 17 “ilakas” that cover clusters of villages and municipalities led by municipality and village development committees (VDC).. Municipalities and villages are divided into wards, the smallest administrative unit, with villages containing nine wards and municipalities nine to 35 wards depending on population. Nepal has a total of five development regions, 14 zones, 75 districts, 58 municipalities, 3,915 villages, and 36,032 wards. Municipalities and villages are legally distinguished by population. Municipalities must have a minimum population of 20,000, except in mountain and hill areas, where the minimum population is 10,000. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]

Local and district-level administrators answer to national ministries that are guided by policies set by the bicameral legislature comprised of a House of Representatives and a National Council. In the early 2000s, a VDC consisted of nine wards and the municipalities consisted 9 to 35 wards. Municipalities and VDCs are directly elected. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007; “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Village-Level Governments

Village life have traditionally been led by a headmen or council of elders and managed by formal and informal village councils. The government has empowered headmen to collect taxes and meet out justice.

Hiroshi Ishii wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: For decades Nepal was administered under a “panchayat system, under which there are local administrative units called town panchayat and village panchayat with elected heads. Each Newar settlements comprises one or more panchayats or is combined with others to form one. In the Rana period from 1846 to 1951, the village head was appointed by the higher authority. One or two higher castes are usually dominant and tend to monopolize village leadership. [Source: Hiroshi Ishii, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Alfred Pach III wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “At the local level, villages have always been run by headmen and, often, a council of elders or influential men. The government had sanctioned the power of headmen by allowing them to collect taxes. The panchayat system, with its elected representatives at the ward and multivillage level, and the institution of government courts in administrative centers throughout the country have superseded, though not entirely replaced, this earlier system of political organization. |~|

“Village political life tends to follow its own dynamic, regardless of changes in the national political scene. Village affairs tend to be managed by formal or informal councils of village elders in which Brahmans and Chhetris, by virtue of their status as landholders and their relatively higher education, often play prominent roles. Nationally the king, whose ancestor unified the country in roughly its present form at the end of the eighteenth century, has always been a Thakuri, an aristocratic section of Chhetris. The Rana family, which provided all prime ministers from 1846 till 1950 and is still powerful in the government and army, is also Chhetri. The movement to overthrow the Ranas and subsequent political movements aimed at democratic or socialist reform have frequently been led by Brahmans and Chhetris.|~|

“Until 1963 Nepal's Mulki Ain (national code) explicitly stated which activities were proper for each caste group and prescribed penalties for infractions of the law. Since the code's revision in 1963, the Mulki Ain treats all citizens equally under the law. Those conflicts that cannot be settled through informal means at the village level are referred to the legal and judicial system of Nepal. |~|

Social Organization and Customs in Nepal

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “There are a number of caste and secular hierarchies in Nepal that have a functional meaning in the context of local settings. However, for more than two hundred years high-caste Hindu Nepali-speaking groups have dominated in many sociocultural and institutional settings because of their control of the country's political economy. This cultural dominance was consolidated in the Legal Codes of 1859, in which all groups were broadly cataloged and ranked roughly according to caste principles with, of course, Brahman Chhetri at the top. However, in 1964 the king ended the government's legislation of social practices based on caste. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

At the village level there are no formal mechanisms of social control, although many groups have lineage or local-descent groups of elders that decide the meaning of inappropriate behavior. Yet, in the event of crime or legal disputes, these groups do not have real power other than to institute forms of ostracism or contact district courts or police.

The diversity in Nepal in terms of ethnicity again makes room for various sets of customs. Most of these customs go back to the Hindu, Buddhist or other religious traditions. Among them, is division of pure and impure. “Jutho” referring to food or material touched by another’s mouth directly or indirectly, is considered impure by Nepalis. Nepalis consider cow dung to be pure for cleansing purposes. During menstruation women are considered impure and hence, are kept in seclusion until their fourth day purification bath. [Source: Nepal Tourism Board welcomenepal.com ]

Panchayat System

From 1962 to 1990 Nepal was governed through a four-tiered system of representative government called the “panchayat” system with elected representatives at the 1) multi-village level, 2) ward level, 3) district level and 4) national level council that were largely under the control of the king, who also had the power to directly appoint and dismiss the prime minister and the cabinet. The Panchayat system is established in 1962. A national referendum voted to support the Panchayat system in 1980.

In April 1962, King Mahendra (ruled 1955-1972) instituted the indirect, nonparty “panchayat” (village council) government. The system was ostensibly set up to be responsive to local needs and inputs, but local councils had little effective power and often served as sources of patronage for the king, who continued to retain both absolute authority and support from the military. King Mahendra cited alleged inefficiency and corruption in government as evidence that Nepal was not ready for Western-style democracy. He gave himself absolute power. He curbed freedoms of speech, assembly and press, and established a rubber-stamp government and parliament, made criticism of the monarchy a criminal offense. In 1967, the king, under Indian pressure, began gradually liberalizing his government. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]

The panchayat system was created by the 1962 constitution. At the local level, there were 4,000 village assemblies (gaun sabha) electing nine members of the village panchayat, who in turn elected a mayor (sabhapati). Each village panchayat sent a member to sit on one of seventy-five district (zilla) panchayat, representing from forty to seventy villages; one-third of the members of these assemblies were chosen by the town panchayat. Members of the district panchayat elected representatives to fourteen zone assemblies (anchal sabha) functioning as electoral colleges for the National Panchayat, or Rashtriya Panchayat, in Kathmandu. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In addition, there were class organizations at village, district, and zonal levels for peasants, youth, women, elders, laborers, and ex-soldiers, who elected their own representatives to assemblies. The National Panchayat of about ninety members could not criticize the royal government, debate the principles of partyless democracy, introduce budgetary bills without royal approval, or enact bills without approval of the king. Mahendra was supreme commander of the armed forces, appointed (and had the power to remove) members of the Supreme Court, appointed the Public Service Commission to oversee the civil service, and could change any judicial decision or amend the constitution at any time. To many of the unlettered citizens of the country, the king was a spiritual force as well, representing the god Vishnu upholding dharma on earth. Within a span of ten years, the king had, in effect, reclaimed the unlimited power exercised by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the eighteenth century. *

Organizations with the Panchayat System

Under the panchayat system, there were six government- sponsored class and professional organizations for peasants, laborers, students, women, former military personnel, and college graduates. These organizations were substitutes for the prohibited political parties and provided alternate channels for the articulation of group or class — rather than national — interests. The professional and class organizations were warned repeatedly against engaging in political activity; nevertheless, they offered the only political forum open to many Nepalese, and even some Nepali Congress Party and communist partisans considered them worthy of infiltration.*

The king also launched an independent national student association, the National Independent Student Council (Rashtriya Swatantra Vidyarthi Parishad), to control the political activities of the students. The association failed to gain support, and successful student agitation in 1979 forced the king not only to abolish it but also to initiate constitutional reforms leading to the national referendum of 1980. Also in 1980, a group of dissident pancha brought a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa on charges of bureaucratic corruption, food shortages, and lack of economic discipline. Surya Bahadur, however, was a perennial political survivor and was returned to office in 1981.*

King Birendra devised the Back-to-the-Village National Campaign (BVNC) in 1975. The BVNC was intended to circumvent the possibility of opposition within the panchayat and to create a loyal core of elites to select and endorse candidates for political office, thereby neutralizing the influence of underground political party organizers in the rural areas. Although it was envisioned as a means to mobilize the people for the implementation of development plans and projects, the shortlived BVNC — it was suspended in 1979 — was in reality an ideological campaign to reinforce the importance of the partyless system. The campaign stressed that the partyless system was appropriate to the ways of the Nepalese people; the party system was a divisive and culturally alien institution.*

Each zonal committee had a BVNC structure, with a secretary nominated by the king. The BVNC network was extended to the district and village levels so as to reinforce a national communication system. However inasmuch as the government paid the BVNC central and zonal committee members and restricted chances for popular participation, the committees carried out the same activities as the panchayat. In actuality, the BVNC was created by the king to ensure a loyal organization and circumvent active party members from gaining seats in the panchayat elections. The BVNC became an organization of centrally controlled loyal panchayat elites and an insurance policy for palace initiatives.*

Opposition to the Panchayat System

The only significant opposition to the monarchy came from the Nepali Congress Party, which operated from exile in India. Other parties either accepted and operated within the panchayat system on a supposedly nonpartisan basis or merged with the exiled Nepali Congress Party, polarizing politics over the issue of monarchical rule. Even the Communist Party of Nepal, divided on the tactical question of whether to seek the direct and immediate overthrow of the monarchical system or to work within it, had split into factions — a radical wing operated in India and a moderate wing underground in Nepal. Some party members, to gain tactical advantage over the Nepali Congress Party, entered the panchayat system with the tacit approval of the palace. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Ethnic plurality, income disparity, linguistic diversity, pervading regional loyalties, underdeveloped communications, and a paucity of written and electronic media also hindered party organization. The dominant high-caste political leaders were more interested in sharing or gaining access to power than in developing lasting foundations for party politics.*

Reportedly, before political organizations were banned, there were sixty-nine political parties, most of which were characteristically fluid in their membership and inconsistent in their loyalties. Personalities rather than ideologies brought individuals and groups under the nominal canopy of a party. Fragmentation, recombination, and alliances for convenience were the outstanding aspects of party behavior.*

In the polarized political climate, the monarchy looked at the panchayat system as its only dependable support base. The panchayat apparatus provided access for politically motivated individuals to form a new elite. Although the political leadership and following of the Nepali Congress Party initially stayed away from the panchayat system, over time, and in the absence of an outlet for political activities, some defections took place. Nevertheless, the lateral entry of some pro-Nepali Congress Party elements did not substantially change the character of the panchayat leadership, which was dominated by rural elites of the Hill Region rather than the urban Kathmandu and Terai Region elites who had been in the forefront of political activities. The system was designed so that the established parties would gradually shrink and lose their influence and control. Once the new panchayat leadership matured, however, some members became restive under the excessive control of the palace. This group of the panchayat elite opposed the system from within and overtly joined the prodemocracy movement.*

Reform of the Panchayat System

King Birendra (ruled 1972–2001) took the throne at the age of 27 after King Mahendra died suddenly in January 1972. He adopted a more liberal approach to government. Amid student demonstrations and anti-regime activities in 1979, King Birendra called for a national referendum to decide the nature of Nepal's government — either the continuation of the Panchayat system —a partyless political system of local governments under the direct rule of the king — with democratic reforms or the establishment of a multiparty system. The referendum national was held in May 1980. The king interpreted the narrow margin of support for the panchayat system (54.7 percent voted in favor) as a need for political change. The King carried out the promised reforms, including selection of the prime minister by the Rastriya Panchayat (the national legislature). [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009; Library of Congress, November 2005]

In 1975 the king appointed a seven-member Reform Commission to investigate making changes in the panchayat system, but during that year Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in her country, jailing members of the opposition and curtailing democracy there. In this climate, the recommendations of the Reform Commission in Nepal led to a 1975 constitutional amendment that made cosmetic changes in the panchayat system but only increased its rigidity. The changes included the establishment of five development regions to promote planning and the increase in membership of the National Panchayat from 90 to 134 persons. The king was to nominate 20 percent of its members. *

After violent protests in 1979 King Birendra promised further liberalization. The existing panchayat system was endorsed by 55 percent of the voters in May 1980 referendum. Reforms were made. The king agreed to allow direct elections to national assembly — but on a non-party basis. The king's constitutional amendments established direct elections and permitted the Panchayat, not the king, to choose the prime minister.

When it became apparent that the panchayat system was going to endure, B.P. Koirala and other political exiles began to tone down their revolutionary rhetoric and advocate a reconciliation with the king. On May 24, 1979, King Birendra announced on Radio Nepal that there would be a national referendum in the near future, during which the people could decide to support or reject the panchayat system of government. This referendum represented the first time in modern history that the monarch had publicly consulted his subjects. Political freedom was allowed to all citizens during the period of preparation for the referendum, and there was intense realignment of political factions inside and outside the panchayat system. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Finally, on May 2, 1980, out of a potential 7.2 million voters, 4.8 million cast their ballots. The outcome supported the panchayat system, with 54.7 percent for and 45.3 percent against it. Koirala and the Nepali Congress accepted the results. Although the referendum was a victory for the king, its narrow margin clearly indicated the need for change. Accordingly, the king quickly confirmed freedom of speech and political activity and announced the formation of an eleven-member Constitution Reforms Commission. The result, in December 1980, was the Third Amendment of the 1962 constitution, setting up direct elections to the National Panchayat, which would then submit a single candidate for prime minister to the king for approval. A Council of Ministers would thenceforth be responsible to the National Panchayat, not to the king.

In 1988, political parties began campaigning for the end of the panchayat system. After a period of strikes and violent demonstrations, foreign nations pressured King Birendra to allow democratic reforms. In April 1990, King Birendra dissolved the Panchayat system.

After the Panchayat System

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “In April 1990, the partyless panchayat system was abolished as a result of a people's movement organized by the Nepali Congress Party and several leftist parties. However, the country remained divided into 14 zones (headed by appointed commissioners) and 75 districts (under the charge of district officers responsible for law and order, collecting revenues, and setting development priorities). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

After the panchayat system was abolished oversight by the monarchy ended but many of the system’s structure’s remained. Government below the national level is complex, evolving, and a highly debated political topic. All administrative divisions have one or more governing bodies, and members are directly elected, indirectly elected, or appointed by the central government. The king appointed regional and zonal administrators, who are responsible for coordinating the functions of ministries and departments within their respective areas. After the monarchy was abolished in 2008, the central government took over that role. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Villages, municipalities, and districts each have two governing bodies that are composed of directly and indirectly elected members serving five-year terms, with some representatives serving simultaneously on two or more governing bodies. One governing body at each level meets once per month and is responsible for implementing central government policies but also has autonomous policy, revenues, and judicial authority. The other governing body at the same level meets once or twice per year to approve the corresponding body’s policies, budgets, and revenue methods. Wards have one governing body, a ward committee whose members also serve on municipal and village committees and councils. *

The central government has expressed interest in enhancing the provision of public services by enabling local bodies to have fiscal and policy-making capabilities to provide such services. However, many ministries have been criticized for not delegating relevant functions to local bodies, and critics contend that central government appointees that serve on district, village, and municipality bodies have compromised the autonomy of those bodies. Furthermore, local bodies are believed to be particularly weak in their mobilization and management of financial resources, with many depending on the central government for long-term investment. In addition, the functioning of local governments has been severely undermined by the lack of officials to serve on those bodies. King Gyanendra suspended district, village, and municipal elections in 2002, and many officials subsequently appointed to those bodies have resigned. In July 2005, Nepal’s Election Commission announced that municipal elections would be held in April 2006, but political parties had previously announced that they would boycott elections called by the king.

Maoist Rebel People’s Governments

During the Nepal civil war from 1996 to 2006, the Maoist rebels set up their own governments in some localities. As of 2002, the Maoist rebels had set up “people’s governments” in 22 of Nepal’s 75 districts. In areas they controlled, the rebels ran schools and set up courts. They collected taxes and appointed their own self-declared chiefs.

The Maoist rebels also built bridges and improved mountain trails, which was often more than the government did. The rebels led efforts to ban alcohol and hashish use so that husbands’s didn’t squander their family’s money getting drunk and high. The Maoist rebels punished agents who enticed young girls to India to work as prostitutes after they were promised good jobs.

"People's Courts" dispensed summary justice and paraded drunks through the streets, which pleased many women frustrated by drunken husbands and domestic violence. Armed militias guarded boundaries and said that "clearance" from the central command was necessary before entering. Some people were happy with the courts because decisions were made without bribes and wife beaters and rapists who would been able to escape justice in the ordinary government court system were brought to justice.

Maoists introduced their own curriculum to their schools. Students were forced to observe a moment of silence rather than singing. In some places the Maoists came to the schools at least once a month and took away students for days for indoctrination sessions. The teachers in these areas were still paid by the Nepalese government. The teachers were asked to pay the rebels 5 percent of their pay as a tax to the rebels. During “emergency fund-raising” drives the rebeks asked the teachers to fork over an entire month’s pay. Teacher were often threatened or intimidated by the rebels. Some were killed. Many quit and fled. As a result many rural schools closed.

Quotas Help Women in Local Government

In 1997, a royal decentralization ordinance was enacted that called for increased political participation by women. The ordinance prescribed that 20 percent of local government ward seats should be reserved for women. The 1997 local elections resulted in approximately 32,000 local government positions occupied by women. However, due to lack of skills and education needed to carry out the responsibilities of such position, there was push back against having such large quotas for women. During local elections in 2017 — the first local election since 1997 — there was again a quota for women. Afterwards 11,630 women held positions in local government bodies, according to Nepal’s Election Commission.

Tricia Taormina wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “The local elections are catapulting women into politics. These women, who range from activists and small business owners to laborers, homemakers, and teachers, want to reshape the social norms that have left their communities excluded for centuries. “At a recent victory rally for Parbati Bisunke, a Dalit woman elected to her ward committee in western Nepal, her own supporters from higher castes refused to dab the customary good-luck powder on her forehead, the Nepali Times reported. That would have required they touch her. [Source: Tricia Taormina, Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2017]

“When the last local elections were held, just 20 percent of the winners were women. In the first two rounds of elections this spring, that number has leapt to 41 percent. The quotas require political parties nominate at least one woman for chief or deputy chief at the district, municipal, and village levels. On local councils, called ward committees, two out of four seats are reserved for a woman and a Dalit woman. Election officials expect 2,678 more women to be elected during the final phase of the polls Sept. 18.

“Nepal’s political parties have nominated few women for mayors – a pattern many ascribe to sexism – and more frequently field female candidates for deputy mayors, who sit parallel to local judges and oversee mediations. On local councils, women have sway over development issues, like managing sanitation and health facilities.

“The women’s responsibilities, like deciding how to dispense money for development projects, could yield major changes for Dalits, says Kala Swarnakar, the president of Nepal’s Feminist Dalit Organization. “Dalit communities are left out because other castes never tell them these opportunities exist,” she says. “So if a Dalit woman is on the council, she can circulate information to her community.” Now in power, Ms. Bisunke, Basel, and other female politicians say they want to use their platforms to fight untouchability and gender discrimination. Laxmi Gautam, elected as deputy mayor of Itahari, has already set up a help desk for gender-based violence victims in her office. Since July, 45 girls and women have stopped by for information about where they can access services, she says.

“Drude Dahlerup, a professor at Stockholm University who studies gender quotas, believes capacity-building trainings are beneficial, but she usually starts her research with a different question. “When we ask, ‘Are women qualified?’ we should also ask, ‘Are men qualified?’” she says, highlighting a perceived double standard. In Nepal, political parties often question whether female politicians and women elected under quotas are competent enough to lead, adds Pranika Koyu, a feminist activist and poet. “What are we actually saying when we say women have to be ‘competent’?” she asks. “Is it experience? Is it education? Is it money? Is it family connections?”

“Dr. Dahlerup says that helping women build skills shouldn’t eclipse the need to address the discrimination they face in male-dominated institutions. It’s critical that political parties – “the gatekeepers” – learn ways they can be inclusive toward women and minority groups, she says. These measures involve looking at the way government bodies operate, like how they can be friendlier toward women’s work and family schedules. But it would also involve sensitivity trainings for political parties, an effort Dahlerup has yet to see any country embrace. She recounts the story of a Dalit woman elected to her village council in India who lingered outside the door of meetings for a year before joining. No one invited her into the room. “If we only educate women,” Dahlerup says, “we’re failing to change the structure and institutions.”

Quotas Help Dalits in Local Government

Quotas have also helped low-caste Dalit (Untouchables), especially Dalit women, and other underrepresented groups gain positions in local government in Nepal. Reporting from Gorkha district,Tricia Taormina wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “Inside an airy room overlooking the Himalayas, Pampha Basel squints at a map scrawled out for her on a sheet of paper. Villagers stream into the room and drag their chairs around her, their new deputy mayor, and comment on the drawing. It shows the hike they take each day to collect safe drinking water. [Source: Tricia Taormina, Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2017]

“They are Dalits, or “untouchables,” the lowest Hindu caste. For more than a decade, their water source was separate from that of higher-caste villages. They now use the same tap, but the women must trek to reach it, lugging jerry cans down a steep and slippery path cut through the mountain. The water is often speckled with dirt. The villagers hope Ms. Basel – a Dalit woman herself and one of more than 5,000 Dalit women recently elected to Nepal’s local government bodies under a new quota system – will use her clout to help them.

“Discrimination also persists against Dalits, although the practice of treating them as “untouchable” has been formally banned. Dalits, who comprise about 13 percent of the population, are often denied entry into temples and the homes of higher castes. For Dalit women, the discrimination is even more acute. Most are illiterate and only finish primary school. They also face staggering levels of violence, from human trafficking to witchcraft accusations, particularly in rural and remote areas.

“Each week in Lalitpur, Tulsi Pariyar, a Dalit woman who spends her days hawking vegetables on a dusty roadside, slides into a seat at her ward committee meetings. She listens to her fellow members debate the budget and scans the thick documents they pass her to read, frazzled over some words she doesn’t recognize. Sometimes they suggest ideas she disagrees with, but she says they also don’t ask her about her own, like using the budget surplus to start a sewing course for poor women in her neighborhood. “I haven’t spoken yet,” she says on a recent afternoon, perched on a bed in the room she shares with her husband and two sons in Kathmandu. “But I’m still learning.”

“Pampha Basel, a seasoned political activist with years of experience in the Maoist rebel movement, spotted a similar issue. At a crowded meeting, she stood up and introduced herself to a sea of other recently elected women. But many of the women flinched when asked to speak, mumbling out their own names and positions. Trainings will make them more assertive, she says. Her concerns echo those of Nepal’s leading women’s groups. Many are scrambling to fund leadership trainings focused on enhancing women’s public speaking skills and policy knowledge.

“This concern is pressing among Nepal’s Dalit women’s groups that say lower caste women face even more obstacles. Anjana Bishankhe, a former parliamentarian, says she and other Dalit women elected under quotas faced pushback from colleagues who said they didn’t deserve their positions. Only six out of 21 Dalit women elected to Nepal’s parliament said they spoke during sessions, according to interviews conducted by the Center for Dalit Women last year. “If parliamentarians can’t even speak on their own issues, can we imagine some community groups elected to local bodies will take part in discussions?” says Tajendra Lama, the executive director of the Center for Dalit Women in Kathmandu, referring to female and Dalit candidates.

Magar Politics and Local Governance

Magar are the third largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 7.1 percent of the population. They are a Hindu people who live in the middle Himalayas and Terai and west-central and southern Nepal.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Kihun Thum is divided into eight jurisdictions, each with its own hereditary headman (mukhiya ). Of the eight headmen, three are Brahmans, and five are Magars, one of whom is from Banyan Hill. In return for keeping the peace, acting as liaison officers between the government and the local people, and collecting taxes on unirrigated farmland, the eight headmen each receive 5 percent of what they collect. However, since taxes are extremely low, this form of income is not the major reward of the office. The real reward lies in the days of forced labor the headmen can claim from each household in their respective jurisdictions. Forced labor was legally abolished following the overturn of the extremely repressive Rana regime in 1951. Whether or not the abolition is observed depends, however, on the stature of the district's headman. In the 1960s, people continued to work as before for the exceptionally strong Banyan Hill headman Because they recognized him as an outstanding community benefactor. He had studied law and knew how to write legal documents. Individuals thus could come to him for help with their legal problems. He was also a source for loans of cash or grain, keeping careful records and charging no more interest than community custom allowed. He was something of a water engineer and had laid out a series of channels to make water for drinking and irrigation more accessible. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“The multifarious services expected of Kihun Thum's eight headmen contrast with what is expected of its two additional revenue collectors (jimwal ). Both are well-educated Brahmans whose sole responsibility and source of a Comparatively high income is to collect the taxes on irrigated rice-producing terraces. |~|

“During the course of his career as headman — an office that a member of his family has held for at least three generations — the Banyan Hill headman's major political opponents are neighborhood Brahmans. In the Religious sphere he challenges them by hiring a learned Brahman as his religious retainer. Under his guidance the headman performs two elaborate pujas every day, morning and evening. He also follows a strict dietary regime and does not accept food from a Brahman known to drink liquor. In this and other ways he is more Brahman than many Brahmans. |~|

Newari Political Organization

The Newars are an ethnic group associated with the Kathmandu Valley. Regarded by some as the earliest inhabitants of the valley, they are both Buddhists and Hindus. They speak a Tibetan language with many Sanskit and Nepali loan words. The word “Nepal” is believed by some to have been derived from word “Newar,” or possibly the other way around. The Newar are the sixth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 5 percent of the population of Nepal.

The Newars have their own caste system. with 64 clearly defined occupational castes with priests and confectioners near the top and sweepers and drum makers near the bottom. The relationships between castes is very complex and incorporates Buddhist Newars. Social organizations called Guthis play a major role in Newari society. They can be formed around everything from maintaining a temple to providing charity for needy people or tending a communal agricultural field. They serve an area for people to socialize and make business connections and provide the service the group was set up to provide. Sometimes entire extended families belong to a guthni and it is not unusual for an individual to belong to several guthis. A guthis is generally lead by its most senior member. Some act like village councils and settle dispute or punish members that break the rules.

Hiroshi Ishii wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Intercaste relationships are hierarchical and expressed in commensality, marriage, and other behavior as well as in the division of labor... A guthi often owns land and other property, and holds feasts, which are hosted in rotation by the members. Some priestly and artisan castes had or have guthis to cover one large area and control members' occupations, marriage, and conflicts. In many other castes, funeral associations control the caste members. They may extend beyond the settlement boundary, depending upon the demographic condition of the caste concerned. Castes tend to live in different quarters or wards (twa ), which among some castes are given specific names. A quarter usually houses plural lineages, which may form a corporate ritual unit. There are many guthis of restricted membership to carry out rituals among higher castes. Musical groups and voluntary dance or drama groups are widely found both as intra-and intercaste organizations. [Source: Hiroshi Ishii, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Newars are known for having a lot of rules and often requiring strict adherence to them. “A sense of conformity is pervasive. Violation of norms sometimes ends in ostracism. Each social group is led by elders who assume their seats according to seniority based on generation and age; but other members who have prestige and ability may emerge as practical leaders.

Sherpa Political Organization

Sherpas are a Tibetan Buddhist people that are essentially Tibetans who have lived in Nepal long enough to develop some of their own unique traits and characteristics. They are quite different from Hindu Nepalese. The Sherpas of the Khumbu valley near Mt. Everest are famous mountaineers and guides.

Sherpa society is divided into clans descended form an original founding family. Some clans have communal fields and communal property such as a mill. "Old Sherpas," members of the 18 traditional clans, have the highest status. Marriages within clans are not allowed. Those of lower status are mixed Sherpa-Nepalese families and immigrants from Tibet. There is some stratification based on wealth and people who can trace their ancestry to first settlers are of higher status but there are no real class distinctions and nothing that approaches a caste system found elsewhere in Nepal. Villages have headmen and social control is exerted mainly through religion.

Robert A. Paul wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Sherpas have never been organized into any coherent Political unit as such. Throughout their history in Nepal, local headmen have established themselves as authorities on the basis of wealth, personality, religious status, and alliance with non-Sherpa centers of power including the Nepali state. More recently, the Sherpa region has been incorporated within the administrative system of the contemporary Nepali government. [Source: Robert A. Paul, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“Hierarchical relations exist within Sherpa society between "big" people with wealth or descent Those threatened with poverty and debt have the option of going to Darjeeling or Kathmandu for wage labor. Patron-client relationships are established between Sherpas and the Nepali service castes who perform vital craft functions for them, but the Nepali are regarded as ritually impure and are viewed as occupying an inferior social position. |~|

“Religious authority and values, the power of local headmen, tradition, and public opinion constrain action, but there are few indigenous mechanisms for enforcing social control or adjudicating complaints. Mediation or arbitration by neighbors, relatives, headmen, or lamas settles most disputes. Others can now be taken to Nepali law courts, though this is infrequently done. Nonviolent Buddhist values have helped keep Sherpa society almost entirely free of war and homicide. High mobility makes flight or avoidance a viable solution to conflict.”

Nyinba Society and Political Organization

The Nyinda are a small Tibetan ethnic group that lives in Humal Karnali, a rugged area between 2,850 and 3,300 meters in elevation in Nepal near the Tibetan border. There are only a few thousand of them. They have traditionally raised high elevation crops like buckwheat and millet and were involved in the Tibetan salt trade. They are also known as Barthapalya (in Nepali), Bhotia, Bhutia and Tamang.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Nyinba are socially stratified, with the major distinction between a class of slaveowners and the descendants of their slaves, freed in 1926. Slaves traditionally married monogamously and uxorilocally and lived in nuclear-family households. This family structure dovetailed with and augmented the polyandrous households of their masters, many of whom suffered chronic shortages of female labor. Today the poorer slave descendants serve as a dependent labor force, supplemented by hired laborers from ethnic Nepali villages. There also are minor status distinctions within the former slaveowner stratum: the older, village-founding clans have greater status than members of more recently arrived clans. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“In the past, the Nyinba were ruled by petty Hindu chieftains of high caste, whose descendants remain politically influential today. In 1789, they became subjects of the Nepalese state, which interfered little in the area, beyond regulating land usage and taxation, until the 1950s. The effect of these regimes has been to undermine Nyinba unity and indigenous institutions of leadership. The fact that villages successfully coordinate economic activities and religious ceremonials is due to a traditional system of village organization. This is based upon cooperative action between households related by past partitions and by the rotation of offices holding responsibility for collective events. |~|

“Today villages are highly factionalized, and prominent Nyinba anchor their power by affiliations with the descendants of their former rulers, who now participate in the national political arena. Although in law, Nepalese of all castes and classes now have equal Political and legal rights, some elements of past inequality linger on. Thus slave descendants remain less powerful (as well as poorer) locally. |~|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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