Census or consensus?

Nepal's social demographic data reflects its diversity, but it's socio-political make-up is anything but

Nepal’s National Statistics Office finally published details about Nepal’s languages, religion and ethnicity last week. It had previously released the national report of the 12th National Population and Housing Census in March without including data on these three social demographic parameters.

The new data increases the total number of ethnic communities to 142, the total mother tongues spoken to 124, and major religions number 10, similar to the 2011 census.

There are now 17 more ethnic groups compared to data from the 2011 census. Twelve foreign languages from the previous census were removed, and 13 new languages added to the list of mother tongues spoken in Nepal. Only the number of major religions remains unchanged. 

The first modern census in 1952 recorded languages and religions for the first time in Nepal. A breakdown of the country’s ethnic communities was first recorded only in the 1991 census.

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Interestingly, the total number of ethnic communities in Nepal has increased in each consecutive census since 1991 because of better record-keeping and greater awareness. Every census since has been doing a better job showing Nepal’s ethnic heterogeneity.

But while the latest national census represents the ethnic and linguistic diversity of Nepalis, this diversity is reflected nowhere in the corridors of power.

Nepal’s founding king, Prithvi Narayan Shah, described the country he had unified as “a garden of many ethnicities and castes” and leaders since then have extolled Nepal’s “unity in diversity”. But political and socio-cultural representation and wealth is heavily skewed in favour of men from dominant caste groups. 

The representation of minority communities in Nepal’s legislature, government and civil service is only determined by a constitutionally mandated reservation system that has a quota system for women, indigenous people and Dalits.

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While affirmative action has meant better representation than before of marginalised groups, men in the highest rungs of power seem to believe that women and minorities are not qualified for direct elections or senior civil service positions. Indeed, indigenous and Dalit representation in politics, society and in the workforce (including the media) is tokenism at best.

This was reflected in local and federal elections last year when major parties snubbed women and minorities in direct elections, and most were elected to fill quotas under the proportional representation system.

Ethnicity bar

Marginalised communities continue to be excluded and persecuted, are victims of political and social violence while the men in power scramble to sweep such injustices under the rug. An emblematic case is the killing of Nabaraj BK and five of his friends in Rukum West three years ago because villagers discovered that he was going to elope with a ‘higher’ caste girl. Three years later, the perpetrators are still at large because of political protection.

Meanwhile, even as new languages are identified, Nepali consistently has the largest number of speakers by virtue of being the official language. There has been a small growth in the percentage speaking Nepal Bhasa, but it is a small increase. In fact, Nepal is at risk of completely losing some of its indigenous languages, with as many as 23 of them having less than 1,000 speakers in 2021.

Languages in Nepal
Languages in Nepal

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More than 81% of respondents in the census said they were Hindu, followed by Buddhists, Muslims, Kirat and Christians. Despite deep anxiety among Hindu-right groups in Nepal and India about proselytisation, the proportion of Christians has increased only slightly to 1.76% and Muslims to 3.1%. 

Parties lobbying against secularism have long speculated that there is a conspiracy to undercount the proportion of Christians in Nepal to lessen the chances of a national backlash. There is also a possibility that Christians tell enumerators they are Hindu just to be safe. 

Whatever the case, there are other hints of data discrepancy. In 2011, more than 61,000 people did not state their religion, but the 2021 census shows that not a single person refused to divulge their religion. And there were zero cases of respondents choosing ‘Other’ as an option for religion. This is highly improbable.

The census office had earlier said it was not possible to have a breakdown of religion and ethnicity because of ‘confusion’ among respondents who said they were from unlisted ethnicities or faiths. There was also speculation that the bureau was not issuing data deemed to be sensitive. So, the question arises: why was it suddenly possible to make the data public?

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Shristi Karki

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