Between a rock and a hard place in Humla

Nepal's remote district has fallen into hard times because geopolitics has cut trade and cultural links with Tibet

The Karnali is the Nepal-China border at Hilsa. At left is Nepal and at right China. Photo: Nabraj Lama

Nepal’s northern border is demarcated by the main chain of the Himalaya, but west of Langtang the highest mountains like Manaslu, Annapurna, and Dhaulagiri are completely inside Nepal. In fact, nearly one-fifth of Nepal in the districts of Manang, Mustang, Dolpo, Mugu and Humla are actually beyond the mountains.

Year-round mobility from one side of the mountains to the other used to be difficult. But despite that, the indigenous people on both sides of the Himalaya have maintained trade and cultural links.

The religious, socio-cultural, political and economic relations between Nepal and Tibet are centuries old, but the context of these links have changed in both degree and scope. After monasteries in Tibet were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, many monks fled south and established replica shrines in Nepal and India.

Monasteries in Humla therefore have association with those in Khojarnath, Taklakot, Rakshas Tal, and Gyangdrak to the north of the border.

Ancient Tibet is divided into three parts by altitude, Mad Domad (Khamsum; Lower part), Par Utsang (Ruzhi; Middle part), and Tod Ngari (Kovsum; Higher part). The altitude of Humla and Tod Ngari being similar, their socio-cultural arrangements are also identical. The culture and traditional practices of the ancient Khas kingdom, Zhang Zhung kingdom, and Tibetan culture are still preserved in their ancient form in Humla.

Songs sung during festivals in Tibet are still practiced in their original form, and the traditional furniture and Chinese brocade are still intact in Humla. Similarly, Losar (New Year) celebrations of Humla and the Tod Ngari region of Tibet are held simultaneously.

Till three generations ago, the people of northern Humla used to depend upon Tibet's rulers for protection and justice and paid two types of taxes: Mi thral (people) and Sa thral (land). They paid the land tax to Nepal, and the people tax to Tibet.

The Tibetan government was called Dewa Zhung (the government of Peace and Good Governance). There was a system of Gowa (headmanship) and Chekyap, who collected taxes in Humla on behalf of the Tibetan authority from various regions of Humla. There is now no provision for sending tax from Humla to the Tibetan side.

Humla and the Karnali are today a far-flung region of Nepal, but it used to be a prosperous land till as recently as three generations ago. The Upper Humla people were primarily dependent on animal husbandry and used to take livestock to graze on the Tibetan Plateau every summer. Such seasonal migrations opened an opportunity for trade, and the large herds of sheep and goats provided the transport facilities for trade across the Himalayas. Such caravan trade fulfilled the basic needs of each side, increasing access to items and trade.

But a boundary protocol signed between Nepal and China on 23 January, 1963 was the beginning of the end of this crossborder use of pastureland. This drastically affected the livelihood of the communities in northern Humla.

Chhakka Bahadur Lama, Humla’s MP to Parliament says there were two provisions in the 1963 agreement that affected the people of Limi in Humla. People on the Nepal side needed to reduce the number of livestock gradually and develop grazing land within Nepal itself.

A crossborder grazing agreement with China ended in 1990, and was never renewed. Many herders sold their cattle and changed their profession, leading to the economic decline of the Humlis.

During and after the Maoist insurgency in which Humla was affected, border controls were tightened further because of Chinese fears that the insurgency in Nepal would influence the Tibetans. The Nepal government was also wary of possible arms smuggling for the Maoists from across the border. A permit system was introduced that limited the mobility of people in border districts to 30km on each side of the border. The duration of stay was also limited to a month. Other traditional trade routes between Nepal and China were also closed.

It has been 17 years since the end of the Maoist conflict, and the former revolutionaries have been in government several times to the present, but the border restrictions remain in place. Humla, for instance, continues to pay the price for this with the end of the traditional barter system and Nepal imports more than it exports.

Across Nepal’s Himalayan region the people are trapped between marginalisation and discrimination by Nepal and China, especially because of the sensitivities about Tibet. There have been instances in the past of people from Humla being regarded suspiciously in Lhasa if they speak Tibetan.

Nepalis in Humla speak Tibetan just like Nepalis in the Tarai speak Hindi. It is unjust to discriminate against Nepalis who have a different mother tongue that happens to be the same as the ones spoken on the other sides of the northern or southern borders.

Many people from Humla have changed their Tibetan names to Khas language while making their citizenship certificates. The real name of MP Chhakka Bahadur Lama himself is Tshewang Lama, but a government official told him ‘Tshewang’ was difficult to pronounce and changed his name in his citizenship certificate.

The Chinese authorities should also understand and distinguish between people with political links and local people of the Himalayan region of Nepal. Just because monasteries in Humla have a shared history with Tibet does not mean that they are associated with the Dalai Lama.

Nabraj Lama is a research scholar and his work focuses on geopolitics, indigenism, international affairs. [email protected]

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