Chepang in Nepal’s politicsTokenistic representation of indigenous communities only perpetuates injustice and inequality
Chepangs are a highly marginalised indigenous group in Nepal with an estimated 70,000 individuals spread across Chitwan, Makawanpur, Dhading and Gorkha districts. King Mahendra during Panchyat renamed Chepangs “Praja”, literally meaning ‘subjects’, which became a preferred last name within the community.
The Chepangs have long lived close to their forest homes, and practiced hunting, fishing, and foraging. But limited opportunities, subsistence farming and a donor-dependent livelihood have meant the people continue to live on the margins. Around 90% of the Chepang people live below the poverty line, earning just $50 per person a year, restricting their ability to seek education, healthcare and other basic necessities.
One way to empower this community is through their participation and representation in politics. The good news is there have been constitutional reforms to support, empower and uplift the disadvantaged and excluded segments of Nepali society.
Article 18 of the Constitution has a provision related to the right to equality while Article 42 speaks about the right in relation to social inclusion. Article 56 of the Constitution of Nepal 2015 has provisioned federal, provincial and local levels as key power structures of the country, and these three tiers of government can play a significant role in bringing the problems of Chepangs to the fore.
But despite major political changes in recent decades, there has been little improvement in the lives of indigenous people like the Chepang. The existing extractive national political eocnomy of Nepal has, in fact, become a mechanism for further marginalisation and exclusion for Chepangs, where members of the community are only considered vote banks while decision-making is exercised by socially and economically powerful actors.
On the other hand, a lack of critical awareness among larger section of Chepang members specially looking for short term benefit such as cash amounts, foods, relief materials in the lead up the polls will be advantageous to politicians in getting them elected to the office.
Political representation of an indigenous group is one of the pillars of our Constitution, yet the Chepang have not been able to use its provisions for their good. Even during the Panchayat, Jhyapuram Praja was a member of the district assembly in Chitwan for an extended period of time, but was unable to represent Chepang concerns. In the 2017 general polls, two Chepang lawmakers were elected, Gobinda Ram Chepang and Maya Chepang, but they too failed to bring the wider community issues to the rostrum.
Similarly, Santa Bahadur Praja served as Minister of State for Physical Infrastructure Development in Bagmati Province. But his responsibilities were constricted as the provinces were yet to formulate their sector laws under the Local Government operations Act 2017. In addition to this, clear functional demarcation among all government tiers for sector operations are not fully established, leading to confusion on executive powers granted to the provincial units by the constitution..
In the 2022 elections, Chepangs failed to secure even a single seat in Parliament. They are not even the chair or deputy in any of the municipalities in their home districts. Their political representation is limited to the ward level. Even then, only Chepangs nominated are those elected under the women's reservation quota.
There are currently 12 locally elected Chepangs but most do not know sufficiently about their roles, responsibilities and rights. Govinda Ram Chepang, a former member of the Constituent Assembly who is now a chair of the Nepal Chepang Association even requested job orientation training since most representatives had little or no prior job experience.
As such, none of the Chepang representatives are working to solve the larger issues of the community such as funding an undergraduate institution for youths to enroll. All existing colleges are away from their hometown and most are unable to afford a room in the city as well as increased expenses.
Similarly, access to easy health care especially for easily curable diseases and pregnancy complications should be the topmost priority as should be market-based employment opportunities for young people. Allowance for senior citizens, people with disabilities and others eligible for government support have to be facilitated.
Government apathy has reached such heights that the Chepangs do not have any expectations from the state. They do not know what to ask for, either. It is up to educated people to use various platforms including social media to demand actions from their leaders and in turn, make them accountable.
Ward leaders should make sure that the voices from the grassroots are heard in the municipality’s planning process. They should be as involved in decision-making, they are agents of change, after all. They cannot be mollified with the tokenistic model of representation which will only serve to strengthen persisting inequalities.
Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said inequality is sustained when the people most affected by it are unable to decode their social condition. It is high time to raise critical consciousness among larger Chepang members such that they are able to recognise all forms of injustice and take action against these systems.
Only then we can break the vicious cycle of inequality and social injustice.
Biswash Chepang is an MPhil Candidate at Kathmandu University. Bhawana Lamgade is a graduate of law