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New Identity Politics and the 2012 Collapse of Nepal's Constituent Assembly: When the dominant becomes ‘other’*


This article explores the politicization of ethnicity in Nepal since 1990. In particular it looks at how ideas of indigeneity have become increasingly powerful, leading to Nepal becoming the first and—to date—only Asian country to have signed International Labour Organization Convention number 169 (hereafter ILO 169). The rise of ethnic politics, and in particular the reactive rise of a new kind of ethnicity on the part of the ‘dominant’ groups—Bahuns (Brahmans) and Chhetris (Kshatriyas)—is the key to understanding why the first Constituent Assembly in Nepal ran out of time and collapsed at the end of May 2012. This collapse occurred after four years and four extensions of time, despite historic and unprecedentedly inclusive elections in April 2008 and a successful peace process that put an end to a ten-year civil war.

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The authors thank the two anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies, as well as K. Hachhethu, D.P. Martinez, A. Snellinger, J. Pfaff-Czarnecka, J. Whelpton, J. Sharrock, D. Thapa, P. Onta, and K.-H. Krämer, whose comments materially strengthened this article. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund, grant 103/758 [2012–13], and the UK's ESRC, grant ES/L00240X/1 [2013–17].

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1 Kantipur, 2069 Jyestha 8 [21 May 2012] (translated from the Nepali). On the Raute, see Fortier, Jana. 2009. Kings of the Forest: The Cultural Resilience of Himalayan Hunter-Gatherers. Hawaii: University of Hawai‘i Press . On the performance of backwardness in the Nepali context, see Lecomte-Tilouine, Marie. 2009. ‘Ruling Social Groups—From Species to Nations: Reflections on Changing Conceptualizations of Caste and Ethnicity in Nepal’. In Gellner, D.N., ed. Ethnic Activism and Civil Society in South Asia. Delhi: Sage, especially pp. 318–20; and in neighbouring, ethnically Nepali, parts of India, see Shneiderman, Sara and Turin, Mark. 2006. ‘Seeking the Tribe: Ethno-politics in Sikkim and Darjeeling’. Himal South Asian 19 (2): pp. 54–8. On the evolving official usage of the terms jāt and jāti in Nepal, see Ishii, H., Gellner, D.N., and Nawa, K. 2007. ‘Introduction’. In Ishii, H. et al., eds. Nepalis Inside and Outside Nepal. Delhi: Manohar .

2 The full table (of 56 groups, with two not being found and one having merged with another), classified into ‘endangered’, ‘highly marginalized’, ‘marginalized’, ‘disadvantaged’, and ‘advantaged’, is available on the website of the NEFIN:, [accessed 10 November 2015]. See also Gellner, D.N. 2007. ‘Caste, Ethnicity and Inequality in Nepal’. Economic and Political Weekly 42 (20): pp. 1823–8.

3 As will become clear, almost everything about the institutionalization of federalism in Nepal is contested. Those who favour strong units call them ‘states’ (rājya); those who want only limited powers to be devolved from the centre tend to call them ‘provinces’ (pradesh). On federalism in Nepal there is a vast literature produced in Nepal itself. For a comprehensive analysis of the developments from different ethnic and political perspectives before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, see Sanghiyata Mathi Vimarsh [Special issue on Federalism]: Vichar Vishesh Quarterly Year 2 Issue 2–5, 2011. For a helpful introduction to the issues in English, see Shneiderman, Sara and Tillin, Louise. 2015. ‘Restructuring States, Restructuring Ethnicity: Looking Across Disciplinary Boundaries at Federal Futures in India and Nepal’. Modern Asian Studies 49: pp. 1–39. Before the Constituent Assembly itself came up with its different proposals in 2010 and 2012, individuals and organizations had put forward their own plans for a federal Nepal, many of which are helpfully summarized in Sharma, Pitamber and Khanal, Narendra with Tharu, Chaudhary, Subhas. 2009. Towards a Federal Nepal: An Assessment of Proposed Models. Kathmandu: Social Science Baha . See also Karki, Budhi and Edrisinha, Rohan, eds. 2014. The Federalism Debate in Nepal. Kathmandu: UNDP and SPCBN .

4 A preliminary narrative of these events can be found in Jha, Prashant. 2014. Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal. London: Hurst; Delhi: Aleph, pp. 316–34; and in Nepali, see Sharma, Sudhir. 2013. Prayogshala: Nepali Sankramanma Dilli, Darbar, ra Maobadi. [The Laboratory: The Role of Delhi, the Palace, and the Maoists in Nepal's Transition]. Kathmandu: Fine Print . Cf. Snellinger, Amanda. 2015. ‘The Production of Possibility through an Impossible Ideal: Consensus as a Political Ideal in Nepal's Constituent Assembly’. Constellations 22 (2): pp. 233–45.

5 For example, Hachhethu, Krishna. 2011. ‘Sanghiyata: Jatiya ki Loktantrik? [Federalism: Ethnic or Democratic?]’. Kantipur, 15 February. For a review of the history, see Hachhethu, K. 2014. ‘Balancing Identity and Viability: Restructuring Nepal into a Viable Federal State’. In Karki and Edrisinha, The Federalism Debate, pp. 35–74. See also Hachhethu, K. 2014. ‘A Middle Way’ (op-ed), Kathmandu Post, 4 November 2014,, [accessed 10 November 2015], on ‘identity-based non-ethnic federalism’, and Snellinger ‘The Production of Possibility’. The distinction is clearly outlined in the bilingual English/Nepali Federal Terminology through Citizen Dialogues published by the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance in 2014.

6 The confusions around the term ‘ethnic federalism’ are discussed by Deepak, Thapa in an op-ed, ‘Generalised Precision’, Kathmandu Post, 1 March 2012,, [accessed 10 November 2015].

7 Jha, Battles, p. 328.

8 In a press conference on 20 December 2013,, [accessed 10 November 2015]. See also Gellner, D.N. 2014. ‘The 2013 Elections in Nepal’. Asian Affairs 45 (2): pp. 243–61; available at ‘Khas-Arya’, the new term for Bahuns and Chhetris, is discussed further below.

9 For different perspectives on this, see Pigg, Stacey L. 1992. ‘Inventing Social Categories through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 34 (3): pp. 491513 , and Lawoti, Mahendra. 2005. Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Political Institutions for a Multicultural Society. Delhi: Sage . On the rejection of the dominant identity, see Hangen, Susan I. 2010. The Rise of Ethnic Politics in Nepal: Democracy in the Margins. London: Routledge , especially Chapter 6 ‘Becoming Not-Hindu’.

10 For an introduction to Nepal (with chapters on most major groups), see Gellner, David N., Pfaff-Czarnecka, Joanna, and Whelpton, John, eds. 1997. Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom. Amsterdam: Harwood . (Reissued in 2008 with a new introduction as Nationalism and Ethnicity in Nepal. Kathmandu: Vajra). For an attempt to reverse the scholarly emphasis on dominated minority groups, see Kaufman, Eric. 2004. ‘Dominant Ethnicity: From Background to Foreground’. In Kaufman, E., ed. Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities. London: Routledge .

11 Technically, the much smaller Thakuri (the ‘royal’ sub-caste) and Sanyasi (equivalent in status to Chhetri) groups should be included here; for brevity we refer to ‘Bahuns and Chhetris’ understood to include smaller aligned groups, just as Nepalis themselves frequently refer to them all as ‘Chhetri-Bahun’ or ‘Bahun-Chhetri’. Part of the point of our account here is that, though they do indeed come together as a single bloc under certain circumstances, there are significant differences—cultural, political, and historical—between them as well.

12 The standard study of this is Höfer, András. 1979. The Caste Hierarchy and the State in Nepal: A Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854. Innsbruck: Universitätsverlag Wagner . (Reissued in 2004 by Himal Books, Kathmandu.) See also Whelpton, John. 1991. Kings, Soldiers and Priests: Nepalese Politics and the Rise of Jang Bahadur Rana, 1830–57. New Delhi: Manohar, and Sever, Adrian . 1993. Nepal under the Ranas. Sittingbourne: Asia Publishing House.

13 On Jang Bahadur's trip to Britain and France, see Whelpton, John. 1983. Jang Bahadur in Europe: The First Nepalese Mission to the West. Kathmandu: Sahayogi ; in Nepali see Dixit, Kamal M. 2001 (1957). Janga Bahadurko Belayat Yatra. Kathmandu: Sajha Prakashan , and Adhikari, Krishna P. 2013. Belayatma Pahilo Nepali Motilal Singhko Rahasyamaya Jivan ra Unko Aitihasik Alekh (with Translation). Reading: Centre for Nepal Studies UK .

14 It was impossible to amalgamate the caste hierarchy of the Tarai (more or less identical with Indian distinctions over the border) with the hierarchy constructed for the hills of Nepal, but the same underlying principles of purity and varna were deployed there also.

15 See Biswokarma, J.B. 2012. ‘Vicious Cycle of Non-Representation: Electoral System and Dalit Representation in Nepal’. Policy Paper 2. Kathmandu: Samata Foundation.

16 For two examples, see Holmberg, David, March, Kathryn, Tamang, Suryaman, and Tamang elders. 1999. ‘Local Production/Local Knowledge: Forced Labor from Below’. Studies in Nepali History and Society 4 (1): pp. 564 , and Shneiderman, Sara. 2003. ‘Violent Histories and Political Consciousness: Reflections on Nepal's Maoist Movement from Piskar Village’. Himalaya 13: pp. 3948 .

17 Krauskopff describes how a cultural activist she knew in the 1980s turned out to be a leftist activist after 1990: Krauskopff, Gisèle. 2003. ‘An “Indigenous Minority” in a Border Area: Tharu Ethnic Associations, NGOs, and the Nepalese State’. In Gellner, D.N., ed. Resistance and the State: Nepalese Experiences. Delhi: Social Science Press . Cf. Lecomte-Tilouine, ‘Ruling Social Groups’, and Gellner, D.N. and Karki, M.B. 2007. ‘The Sociology of Activism in Nepal: Some Preliminary Considerations’. In Ishii, H. et al., eds. Political and Social Transformations in North India and Nepal. Delhi: Manohar, pp. 361–97. On the Panchayat ideology, see Joshi, Bhuvan L. and Rose, Leo. 1966. Democratic Innovations in Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press , and Whelpton, John. 2005. A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .

18 See Whelpton, History, and Hoftun, Martin, Raeper, William, and Whelpton, John. 1999. People, Politics and Ideology: Democracy and Social Change in Nepal. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point . On the events of 1990, see Ogura, Kiyoko. 2001. Kathmandu Spring: The People's Movement of 1990. Lalitpur: Himal Books .

19 The document produced by this committee does not appear to have been placed on the web; a substantial quotation arguing for the equivalence of Janajati and Adivasi is given in Gellner, D.N. ‘Introduction: Ethnicity and Nationalism in the World's Only Hindu State’. In Gellner et al. Nationalism and Ethnicity, pp. 20–1. The equation is not necessarily accepted by all Janajatis themselves, and disaggregating the two terms was, as described below, one of the key aims of the Khas-Arya movement.

20 On the rise of ethnic politics in Nepal, see Gellner et al. Nationalism and Ethnicity; Onta, Pratyoush. 2006. ‘The Growth of the Adivasi Janajati Movement in Nepal after 1990: The Non-Political Institutional Agents’. Studies in Nepali History and Society 11 (2): pp. 303–54; Hangen, The Rise of Ethnic Politics; Lawoti, Mahendra and Hangen, Susan, eds. 2012. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nepal: Identities and Mobilization after 1990. Routledge; Gellner and Karki ‘The Sociology of Activism’.

21 ‘Janajati’ may also have entered Nepali from Darjeeling and therefore through Bengali influence. It seems that in India—in contrast to Nepal—the word ‘janajati’, though used in some official contexts, never caught on in political discourse (‘Adivasi’ or ‘ST’ are used instead).

22 Despite its official recognition, the term ‘Dalit’ has remained controversial among Dalit intellectuals and in some political circles. See, for example, Cameron, Mary. 2007. ‘Considering Dalits and Political Identity in Imagining a New Nepal’. Himalaya 27(1–2): pp. 13–26. Another ‘macro’ ethnic category that became promiment after 1990 was ‘Madheshi’, as a name for Nepalis of Indian linguistic, cultural, and ethnic origin. This category, though not in itself new, is vaguer even than ‘Janajati’ because some groups belong only marginally to the category: some Tharus believe that they belong, others vehemently oppose belonging; Tarai-based Muslims are sometimes included, and sometimes excluded.

23 The figures for caste and profession were first collected and tabulated by Neupane, Govinda. 2000. Nepalko Jatiya Prasna (Nepal's Nationality Question). Kathmandu: Centre for Development Studies . His figures can also be accessed in Onta ‘The Growth of the Adivasi Janajati Movement’. In Lawoti, Towards a Democratic Nepal, and in Hachhethu, Krishna and Gellner, D.N. 2010. ‘Nepal: Trajectories of Democracy and Restructuring of the State’. In Brass, P., ed. Routledge Handbook of South Asian Politics. London: Routledge, pp. 131–46, see p. 138. The first person to draw attention in print to disproportionate representation of Bahuns and Chhetris was Gopal Gurung in Nepalka Adekha Saccai (translated as Hidden Facts in Nepalese Politics), self-published in 1985, for which he was sent to jail for three years: see Hangen, The Rise of Ethnic Politics, p. 63f. Other figures demonstrating Bahun over-representation are to be found in Maharjan, Pancha. 1999. ‘Problems of Democracy in Nepal’. European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 17: pp. 4168 , especially pp. 63–4.

24 Bista, Dor B. 1991. Fatalism and Development: Nepal's Struggle for Modernization. Hyderabad: Orient Longman .

25 On these Janajati writings, see Des Chene, Mary. 1996. ‘Ethnography in the Janajati-yug: Lessons from Reading Rodhi and other Tamu Writings’. Studies in Nepali History and Society 1 (1): pp. 97161 ; Schlemmer, Grégoire. 2003–04. ‘Inventing a Past for Inheriting a Future: New Visions of History among the Kirant Intellectuals of Nepal’. European Bulletin of Himalayan Studies 25/26: pp. 119–45; Tamang, Mukta. 2009. ‘Tamang Activism, History, and Territorial Consciousness’. In Gellner, Ethnic Activism, pp. 269–90; Krauskopff, Gisèle. 2009. ‘Intellectuals and Ethnic Activism: Writings on the Tharu Past’. In ibid., pp. 241–68; Lecomte-Tilouine ‘Ruling Social Groups’.

26 For details, see Hangen, The Rise of Ethnic Politics, p. 50f. See also footnote 2 above.

27, [accessed 30 November 2015]. National commissions for women and for Dalits were established a year earlier in 2001.

28 The penultimate and ante-penultimate criteria mean that the inclusion of the Newars, the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, is controversial (for some Newars, for other Janajatis, and among non-Janajatis).

29 See, for example,, [accessed 10 November 2015].

30 The reliance of the Nepali state on NGO formulations, including the five-fold classification of types of Janajati referred to in footnote 2, is a point well made by Middleton, Townsend and Shneiderman, Sara. 2008. ‘Reservations, Federalism and the Politics of Recognition in Nepal’. Economic and Political Weekly (May 10): pp. 39–45. They also describe how the division of Janajati into types has encouraged conflict within the Janajati movement.

31 MoLJPA (2007). Civil Service Act, 2049 (1993) (Second Amendment 2007). Kathmandu: Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs .

32 There are also allowances for single women over 60, widows, and children under five from Dalit families or from the Karnali zone. MoFALD (2013). Samajik Suraksha Sanchalan Karyavidhi [Social Security Programme Operational Guidelines]. Kathmandu: Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development . The monthly pension was due to rise to Rs 1,000 per month from 2015.

33 The funding for NEFIN ended abruptly in May 2011, following its support for a Nepal-wide band (strike) the previous month.

34 During the 10 years 2004–14 NEFIN's central office received 350 million rupees in foreign aid. For details and analysis of foreign funding for Nepal's ethnic organizations, see Gurung, Hasta and Bishwakarma, Baburam. 2014. ‘Pahichan Maitri Lagani’ [Identity-friendly Investment]. Kantipur Daily. 7 July 2014. For a discussion of the relationship between Janajati activists and Department for International Development funding, see Shneiderman, Sara 2013. ‘Developing a Culture of Marginality: Nepal's Current Classificatory Moment’. Focaal 65: pp. 4255 .

35 See, for example, Minami, Mio. 2007. ‘From tika to kata? Ethnic Movements among the Magars in an Age of Globalization’. In Ishii et al., eds. Nepalis Inside and Outside Nepal, pp. 443–66.

36 On Maoism in Nepal, there is a growing literature: Thapa, Deepak. 2004. A Kingdom under Siege: Nepal's Maoist Insurgency, 1996–2004. London: Zed ; Hutt, Michael, ed. 2004. Himalayan ‘People's War’: Nepal's Maoist Rebellion. London: Hurst ; Ogura, Kiyoko. 2008. Seeking State Power: The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Germany: Berghof ; Lecomte-Tilouine, Marie, ed. 2013. Revolution in Nepal: An Anthropological and Historical Approach to the People's War. Delhi: Oxford University Press ; Pettigrew, Judy. 2013. Maoists at the Hearth. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press ; Adhikari, Aditya. 2014. The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal's Maoist Revolution. London: Verso . See also Gellner, Resistance and the State. For an online bibliography, see Simkhada, Shambhu Ram and Oliva, Fabio. 2005. The Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography. Geneva/Kathmandu: PSIO . Among many Nepali publications, see Sharma, Prayogshala.

37 See Ogura, Kiyoko. 2008. ‘Maoist People's Governments, 2001–05: The Power in Wartime’. In Gellner, D.N. and Hachhethu, K., eds. Local Democracy in South Asia. Delhi: Sage, pp. 175231 , especially 216–17.

38 On the extraordinary sequence of events which drove the Maoists and the political parties to combine against King Gyanendra in this way, leading to the end of the monarchy, see Jha, Battles, p. 94f.

39 See Jones, Peris and Langford, Malcolm. 2011. ‘Between Demos and Ethnos: The Nepal Constitution and Indigenous Rights’. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 18: pp. 369–86.

40 See Snellinger, ‘The Production of Possibility’, p. 141–2.

41 One Chhetri organization, the Khas-Kshatri Ekata Samaj-Adibasi Janajati (KKUS-IN), based in eastern Nepal has followed this line, which is flatly rejected by other Chhetri organizations, and itself later split over the issue.

42 Political parties putting forward proportional representation lists of 100 or fewer candidates only had to satisfy the 50 per cent female requirement, a concession to the Madheshi parties.

43 This is a classic strategy of ‘normative inversion’ in the terminology of Wimmer, Andreas. 2008. ‘The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory’. American Journal of Sociology 113 (4): pp. 9701022 .

44 On the Gaur massacre, see Jha, Battles, pp. 200–2,. On the Madhesh movement, see also Gautam, Bhaskar, ed. 2012. Madhes Bidrohko Nalibeli. Kathmandu: Martin Chautari .

45 Mainali entered the 2008 Constituent Assembly but was later expelled from the Party and formed the Chure-Bhawar Rastriya Party.

46 See Whelpton, John. 2013. ‘Political Violence in Nepal from Unification to Janandolan I: The Background to “People's War”’. In Lecomte-Tilouine, Revolution in Nepal, especially pp. 48–51; Caplan, Lionel. 1970. Land and Social Change in East Nepal. London: RKP ; Pradhan, Kumar. 1991. The Gorkha Conquests. Calcutta: Oxford University Press .

47 See blogposting by BBC journalist Narayan Shrestha. Sajha Sawal Gardaka Darjan Ghatana:, 21 August 2012, [accessed 10 November 2015]. He reports that in March 2009 he heard for the first time in a mass meeting a similar slogan (Bahunko nāk kātinchha, allo ragat chātinchha). He also saw a pamphlet—issued in the name of Pallo Kirant Limbuwan Rastriya Manch—threatening death to anyone who spoke against Limbuwan. On tensions (but also attempts to mediate), see also ‘The Carter Center's Observations on Identity-based Political Activity and Mobilizations in Nepal’,, [accessed 10 November 2015].

48 The International Crisis Group reported in 2011: ‘In Taplejung there is open hostility from Limbus towards their Brahmin neighbours; there have been threats and physical assaults. In several VDCs [Village Development Committees] in Taplejung, either all or the vast majority of Brahmins left after 2000, when the war started in the eastern hills. In one VDC for example, none of the 50 Brahmin households which existed in 1990 remains today, and most of their land is now owned by Limbus.’ Nepal: Identity Politics and Federalism, Asia Report 199, January 2011, ICG, p. 15. A Carter Center team in eastern Nepal disputed these reports, suggesting that in fact most of these departures were inspired by economic reasons (personal communication, James Sharrock).

49 Narayan Adhikari, interview, 10 February 2012.

50 See footnote 41 above.

51 See ‘Perspectives on Chhetri Identity and How these Relate to Confrontations over Federalism’. Field Bulletin Issue 46, September 2012,, [accessed 10 November 2015]. Consistent with its position, the political party of the KKUS-IN, the Khas Samabesi Rastriya Party, merged with the parties of Ashok Rai and Upendra Yadav in June 2015 to form the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal.

53 For details on the protests for and against ethnic identity-based federalism in April and May 2012, see ‘Confrontation over Federalism: Emerging Dynamics of Identity-based Conflict and Violence’. Field Bulletin Issue 41, May 2012,, [accessed 10 November 2015].

55 Jha, Battles, p. xi.

56 Jha, Battles, p. 331.

57 Pradhan, Rajendra. 1994. ‘A Native by Any Other Name…’. Himal 7 (1): pp. 41, 43–45, p. 45.

58 Bhattachan, Krishna B. 1995. ‘Ethnopolitics and Ethnodevelopment: An Emerging Paradigm in Nepal’. In Kumar, Dhruba, ed. State, Leadership and Politics in Nepal. Kathmandu: CNAS, p. 135 .

59 UCPN(M) election manifesto 2013, posted at, [accessed 10 November 2015].

60 The term ‘multiple-identity-based federalism’ came into use towards the end of the first Constituent Assembly as an alternative to the single (ethnic) identity agenda in the formation of the federal states. See Snellinger, ‘The Production of Possibility’.

61 Bell, Tom. 2014. Kathmandu. Delhi: Vintage/Random, p. 398 .

62 For an analysis that is closer to the third, longue durée type, see Mishra, Chaitanya. 2015. What Led to the 2006 Democratic Revolution in Nepal. Kathmandu: Social Science Baha and Himal Books (

63 Muslims are an exception here; their construction of a pan-Nepali politico-religious identity depends, in most cases, on a claim not to be indigenous. See Sijapati, Megan Adamson. 2011. Islamic Revival in Nepal: Religion and a New Nation. London and New York: Routledge .

64 Kompier, Coen. 2005. ‘ILO Convention 169 as a Tool for Development’. In Webster, S. and Gurung, O., eds. ILO Convention 169 and Peace Building in Nepal. Kathmandu: NEFIN and ILO Nepal, p. 10 .

65 See Shneiderman and Turin ‘Seeking the Tribe’, and Karlsson, Bengt G. 2013. ‘The Social Life of Categories: Affirmative Action and Trajectories of the Indigenous’. Focaal 65: pp. 3341 .

* The authors thank the two anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies, as well as K. Hachhethu, D.P. Martinez, A. Snellinger, J. Pfaff-Czarnecka, J. Whelpton, J. Sharrock, D. Thapa, P. Onta, and K.-H. Krämer, whose comments materially strengthened this article. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund, grant 103/758 [2012–13], and the UK's ESRC, grant ES/L00240X/1 [2013–17].

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