Main languages: While Nepali is the national language, according to the 2011 Census only 44.6 per cent of the population speak it as their mother tongue. A total of 123 languages are spoken as mother tongues in Nepal, including Maithili (11.7 per cent), Bhojpuri (6 per cent), Tharu (5.8 per cent), Tamang (5.1 per cent), Newar (3.2 per cent), Bajjika (3 per cent), Magar (3 per cent), Doteli (3 per cent) and Urdu (2.6 per cent) (2011 Census).
Minority and indigenous communities: Nepal is an ethnically complex and diverse country with numerous indigenous and linguistic communities. Altogether 126 ethnic groups are reported in the 2011 Census, only 59 ethnic groups are officially listed as indigenous peoples or indigenous nationalities by the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act, 2002. The Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) classified these groups into five categories, based on socio-economic indicators: ‘Endangered’, ‘Highly marginalized’, ‘Marginalized’, ‘Disadvantaged’ and ‘Advantaged’. An additional 22 ethnic groups were recommended by the high-level taskforce to be included in the indigenous nationalities in 2010 under the scope of NFDIN Act: however, no decision was made about this and a new taskforce was formed to determine this.
The total population of indigenous nationalities was estimated in the 2011 Census at 8.5 million, comprising 36 per cent of the total population, though some indigenous organizations claim the actual size of the indigenous population is closer to 50 per cent. The total population of indigenous and other ethnic minority groups would certainly be higher than the official estimate if some currently unrecognized groups were also included. A number of indigenous peoples and other minority are not officially recognized. The estimated population of major indigenous peoples, such as Magar (7.1 per cent), Tharu (6.6 per cent), Tamang (5.8 per cent), Newar (5.0 per cent), Rai (2.3 per cent), Gurung (1.9 per cent), Limbu (1.4 per cent). There are 23 officially identified indigenous peoples such as Thakali, Bote, Raute, Hayu, Jirel, Kusunda whose population is less than 0.1 percent of the total population. Other minority groups include Kami (4.8 per cent), Muslim (4.4 per cent), Yadav (4.0 per cent), and Dalits such as Sarki, Pode, Damai, Badi, Lohar, Chamar, Sunar and Halkhar (the smallest Dalit group).
Major religions: Until Nepal was declared a secular state in 2008, Hinduism was the official religion: according to the 2011 Census, 81.3 per cent (21.55 million) of the population practice Hinduism. The Hindu religious community can be subdivided into Hill Hindus, comprising Bahuns or Brahmins, Thakuris, Chhettris and Newars, and Terai (southern-based) Hindus, comprising Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi linguistic communities among others. There are also Buddhists 2.39 million (9 per cent), Muslims 1.16 million (4.4 per cent), Kirat 807,169 (3.1 per cent), Christians 375,699 (1.4 per cent), Prakriti 121,982 (0.5 per cent), Bon (13,006), Jainism (3,214), Bahá’í (1,283) and Sikhs (609) (2011 Census).
Nepal has traditionally been dominated by Brahmins and Chhettris, and the language and culture projected from the centre have been those of the Hindu populations of the hill and Kathmandu valley regions. The hill peoples who speak Tibeto-Burman languages (Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Magar, Gurung and others) have been under-represented and marginalized in government, while the Terai population in the south, mainly Hindus and Madhesi language speakers, have also felt themselves to be poorly served in terms of the distribution of public resources.
Despite Nepal’s positive progress in recent years, including the passage of a new Constitution in 2015 that presented a much more inclusive framework for the country, the historical domination of majority groups over other communities, including indigenous peoples and minorities such as Dalits, Madhesis and Muslims, as well as persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+ communities, persists in many aspects of their lives. Despite being a signatory to a wide range of relevant international treaties and instruments, the government has yet to fully integrate the promotion and protection of minority and indigenous rights into domestic legislation. As a result, members of these marginalized communities continue to advocate for the realization of their rights. In Nepal’s patriarchal social context, women and girls from minority and indigenous communities frequently face multiple discrimination.
Social exclusion and discrimination in Nepal is mainly based on caste, socio-cultural divisions and the patriarchal system, with Dalits and indigenous nationalities (the Janajaties) particularly disadvantaged. A recurring issue is lack of representation in the country’s politics, government and civil service. There have been some measures in recent years to address this – for instance, in 2007 reservation policies were passed to guarantee 45 per cent of positions in the civil service for women, Dalits, indigenous nationalities, Madhesis, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups – but difficulties remain. While some communities have increased their representation since the policies were put in place, it is the case that long dominant groups such as Brahmins and Chhettris continue to secure a disproportionate number of these positions. For instance, during the 2018/19 year, of the 4,574 candidates put forward for government recruitment, 34.9 per cent had a Hill Brahmin background, despite making up just 12.2 per cent of the population in the 2011 Census. Tharus, on the other hand, a widely marginalized indigenous community who made up some 6.6 per cent of the total population, only comprised 3.9 per cent of civil service entrants during the same period.
Nepal’s history of autocracy, political instability and absence of democratic institutions, when aligned with its underdeveloped infrastructure, has led to many violations of individual and collective human rights. Every section of the community has been affected, but Nepal’s linguistic minorities have been particularly vulnerable and open to abuse. For example, the Private Forest Nationalization Act 1957 and subsequent legislation led the way for administration of the forests to be taken over by the state. This resulted in grave injustices, largely arising from corruption among Brahmin forest administrators.
Language issues have also centred on the status of Nepali as a national language, and suggestions have ranged from allowing other languages to enjoy the same status, such as the Madhesi language for the Terai population, to abolishing Nepali as a national language and turning Nepal into a federal state with each autonomous region having its own language. The Constitution of 1990 included the statement that ‘all the languages spoken as the mother tongue in various parts of Nepal are the national languages of Nepal’. Similarly, the 2015 Constitution has the provision that ‘All the mother tongues spoken in Nepal shall be the national language.’ However, it also stipulates that ‘The Nepali language written in Devanagiri script shall be the language of official business in Nepal’, though provincial governments can select one or more national languages spoken by a majority of people to be used as official language. In practice, the Nepali language continues to dominate official and non-official processes.
The issue of education in languages other than Nepali was long a source of contention among minorities and indigenous peoples, feeding into a broader pattern of assimilation and marginalization. The 2015 Constitution’s stipulation that all children have the right to basic education in their first language was in this regard a milestone for the country and its diverse linguistic communities, the majority of whom do not speak Nepali as their mother tongue. This reform has received widespread support and it is hoped will help improve the low literacy levels in Nepal, particularly among its minority and indigenous populations. Previous studies have highlighted the significant gaps in literacy, school attendance and other indicators of educational attainment between marginalized minorities and indigenous peoples and the more dominant groups in Nepali society.
Other prime areas of concern for minorities in Nepal have been landlessness, bonded labour, deforestation and and other environmental issues. Studies indicate that people of the Limbu, Chepang and Tharu linguistic communities have lost their land rights through a combination of abrupt changes in land tenure laws, the influx of Brahmin and Chhettri settlers and the communities’ lack of literacy and awareness of legal procedures. In this process, land once cultivated as common land comes gradually into the hands of migrant groups that are able to register land they initially cultivated as tenants. Land reform legislation appears to have hurt several linguistic minorities, as has the mismanagement of compulsory savings schemes, and their frequent lack of knowledge of legal and bureaucratic workings has made them vulnerable.
Large-scale development projects, especially in the Kathmandu Valley, are affecting indigenous and other local farming communities. Indigenous Newar have been protesting the appropriation of their land for a fast track expressway, a planned ‘smart’ or satellite city (one of four that have been proposed), and other infrastructure schemes in Khokana and neighbouring Bungamati, south of the capital city. Demonstrations in July 2020 led to over a dozen protestors and four police being injured. The communities were protesting the lack of participation and appropriate compensation. Their representatives have suggested alternative sites, but to no avail.
The dynamics of social exclusion vary between different marginalized groups: for instance, Dalits have had to contend with discrimination on the basis of ‘untouchability’ in the Hindu caste system. Dalits are considered among the most marginalized in Nepal and tend to live in remote, disaster-prone areas, where they often perform dangerous and low-skilled jobs. Nearly half of all Dalits live below the poverty line, compared to one quarter of the general population. Their discrimination was illustrated by the limited assistance they received after the devastating earthquake that hit parts of the country in April 2015: according to a report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), some 60 per cent of Dalits felt there had been intentional negligence in the provision of rescue and humanitarian assistance in the wake of the tragedy due to caste-based discrimination. The study found that a majority of affected Dalits remained homeless over a month after the disaster, when nearly 80 per cent of higher-caste communities had received tents or tarpaulins. Despite being legally prohibited, caste-based discrimination continues to impact on Dalits from an early age, including in schools. Educational disadvantage has a lasting impact on their lives, reflected in lower literacy levels: according to the National Social Inclusion Survey, conducted in 2012, only 52.4 per cent of Dalits were literate compared to a national average of 65.9 per cent. For Madhesi Dalits, however, the proportion was even less at 34.5 per cent.
Many indigenous Tharu in the Terai region have been enslaved under the debt bondage system. Kamaiya, a system of bonded agricultural labour, was abolished in 2000 and the Kamaiya (Labor) Prohibition Act was passed in 2002. Nevertheless, these inequities have persisted and the children of former kamaiya Tharu families risk becoming child labourers. The system took many other forms, notably the kamlari system of bonded domestic labour, that disproportionately affected Tharu women and girls, who faced exploitation and abuse at the henads of their employers, including sexual violence and trafficking. The government sought to eliminate this practice, when it officially abolished the system of bonded domestic slave labourers in June 2013: this decision was prompted in part by protests against the police for refusing to investigate the case of Srijana Chaudhary, a 12-year-old kamlari, who had died following burn injuries. Civil society groups working against bonded labour in Nepal have welcomed the abolition, but further implementation of existing laws and prosecution of those responsible will be crucial to ending the practice. In particular, as the discrimination and exclusion of young Tharu girls and women persists, they continue to face a high risk of exploitation and abuse. Consequently, the struggle for full emanicipation is ongoing.
Nepali women are still unable to pass on their citizenship to their children unless the father is also a citizen. Children born to Nepali mothers and foreign fathers are barred from holding a high political office as they can only obtain ‘naturalized citizenship’. This appears to be rooted in patriarchal notions of Hindu-based nationalism, which perceives women – especially from the marginalized Madhesi minority inhabiting the plains near the Indian border – as potential threats to national security. The policy has been defended by male politicians who claim that it is necessary to prevent men from neighbouring countries marrying Nepali women and creating undesirable population growth. As such, Nepali women have effectively been branded second-class citizens. Among the most severely affected are Madhesi women in the southern Terai region, where marriages across the Indian border are common. Lower-caste and socially marginalized minorities are likely to be hit the hardest, potentially fuelling statelessness in southern Nepal.
In addition, Nepal has hosted a large refugee population from neighbouring Bhutan, some of whom were living there in camps for decades. They were driven from their homes in Bhutan in 1990-1 through a combination of denial of citizenship and restrictive land laws: over 98 per cent of them were ethnically Nepali-speaking Hindus who are called ‘Lhotshampas’, (literally ‘those living in the south’), while the other 2 per cent were Buddhists. Denied their right to citizenship and systematically deprived of their property, these refugees had to subsist in poverty and squalor in the camps. Though there have been many rounds of talks between Nepal and Bhutan, little changed in their situation: while Nepal refused to grant citizenship to the refugees and claimed it was an issue between the Bhutanese government and the refugees, Bhutan argued that it was an issue between Bhutan and Nepal. Some 113,500 refugees have been resettled between 2007 and 2019, the majority in the United States as well as Australia, Canada and various European countries. Nepal’s refugee population now numbers 19,600: around a third (32 per cent) are Bhutanese and almost two thirds (64 per cent) Tibetan.
Nepal is surrounded by India on three sides and Tibet, to the north. Despite its small geographical coverage, it is rich in biodiversity and has a remarkably varied landscape. However, it is highly vulnerable to water-induced disasters and other extreme events such as floods, droughts, storms, landslides, forest fires, soil erosion and avalanches. These challenges are worsening as a result of climate change, as are other pressing environmental concerns such as water pollution. Nepal has eight of the world’s ten highest mountains, which includes Mount Everest (‘Sagarmatha’ in Nepali). Nepal’s capital is Kathmandu, which is also its largest city.
Nepal has a long and fascinating history. The spread of Buddhism, its displacement by Hinduism and the induction of the caste system are significant historical occurrences with major contemporary dimensions. The modern history of Nepal may be thought of as starting with the Gurkha ruler Pirthivi Narayan Shah’s conquest of Kathmandu valley in 1769, bringing under one rule the kingdoms of Patan, Bhkatpur and Kathmandu. The expansionist policies of Pirthivi Narayan Shah and his successors resulted in the borders of their empire stretching as far as the River Sutlej to the west, with significant inroads in the Gangetic plains in the South. This expansion, however, brought the Gurkhas – inhabitants of the small Gurkha hill state, now part of Nepal – into conflict with China, and their subsequent defeat in 1816 at the hands of the British resulted in a peace treaty which, with subsequent minor adjustments, represents the present borders of Nepal. The time span between 1816 to 1846 was a period of political strife and intrigue, which culminated in the seizure of power by Jung Bahadur, who adopted the prestigious title of Rana and proclaimed himself Prime Minster for life. The office of Rana was made hereditary, with Rana descendants ruling Nepal until the end of the Second World War, although the Shah dynasty continued subsequently to occupy the throne.
The British withdrawal from India in 1947 was of serious consequence to the Ranas, who were then faced with a number of movements for political reform. King Tribhuvan briefly fled into exile in India, lending his support to the anti-Rana movement. The Ranas finally yielded to India’s pressure, and King Tribhuvan returned in 1951 with full powers restored to the monarchy. He established a government comprising Ranas and members of the National Congress Party (NCP), but this coalition was short-lived. Tribhuvan’s son and successor, Mahendra, who succeeded in 1955, decided that partyless elections and the panchayat (an advisory body appointed by the King) system were the most suitable system of government. The King selected the cabinet and Prime Minister, and appointed a large segment of the National Assembly, thus retaining political power.
A wave of political unrest and dissatisfaction with the government culminated in the Jana Andolan I or Peoples Movement of 1990. King Birendra, who had reigned since 1972, conceded to the demands of democracy and accountability by dissolving the cabinet, lifting the ban on political parties and inviting opposition parties to form an interim government. By November 1990 a new Constitution guaranteeing free speech, human rights and a constitutional monarchy was in place. Under its provisions the King remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces but could not make executive decisions without consulting the Prime Minister and cabinet. The old panchayat was replaced by a Parliament consisting of a directly elected House of Representatives and a smaller National Assembly. From 1991, control of the government alternated between the NCP and the United Communist Party of Nepal.
Between 1996 and 2006, the country suffered a protracted civil conflict. The outbreak of a Maoist insurgency in western Nepal resulted in large-scale displacement and urban migration to cities such as Kathmandu or abroad. Though the exact numbers are unknown, official estimates suggest that 16,278 were killed and some 200,000 displaced as a result of the conflict. Further unrest and instability resulted from the massacre in 2001 of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and other members of the royal family. The King’s brother, Prince Gyanendra, was subsequently declared king. In the years that followed, the country underwent a period of political turbulence with a succession of prime ministers dismissed before Gyanendra declared a state of emergency in February 2005 and restored Nepal’s absolute monarchy. This period saw much unrest and political upheaval before, in the face of continued protests, parliament agreed unanimously in 2006 to curtail the king’s powers (the pro-democracy movement was also known as Jana Andolan II).
In December 2007, parliament agreed to abolish the monarchy. This was part of a peace deal with the Maoists, who had joined an interim government earlier that year following the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) agreed in 2006. On May 2008, the monarchy was abolished by the first constitutional assembly and Nepal declared a democratic republic. The post-conflict era has seen increasing visibility for the social movements of indigenous peoples, women and Madhesis from the Southern Terai Plains in Nepalese public life, though marginalized Dalit communities and other indigenous communities are still sidelined from mainstream politics.
The 2015 Constitution of Nepal, passed shortly after the devastating earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people and injured thousands more, emphasized the protection and promotion of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions, and an end to all forms of discrimination and oppression. Replacing the 2007 interim Constitution, it established Nepal as a federal democracy. Shortly after, in October 2015, Bidhya Devi Bhandari was elected as Nepal’s first female President.
Nepal’s new governance system has been established at the central, provincial and local level following the declaration of a federal government, under the new 2015 Constitution and with elected bodies in three tiers in 2017. The central level government is supported by seven federal provinces/states, their own chief ministers and legislative powers, with further divisions into districts and municipalities. A trend likely to be nurtured by the more democratic environment is the development of stronger group consciousness and demands for a greater share of political power and recognition, whether based on ethnicity, language or both.
The Civil Service Act of 2007 has been revised and amended with the provision of a 45 per cent reservation allotted to indigenous peoples/nationalities (27 per cent), women (33 per cent), Madhesis (22 per cent), Dalits (9 per cent), persons with disabilities (5 per cent) and people from ‘backward’ regions (4 per cent), to support inclusive development and employment opportunities for long excluded groups, including indigenous peoples and minorities. While this system aims to increase the participation of under-represented groups and communities in Nepal, it needs to be strictly monitored and followed in every sector. Regional discrimination also persists, particularly for poorer and remote communities, and there have also been cases of members of dominant groups misusing the reservation quotas. Some political parties and leaders, for instance, appoint indigenous women as representatives to fulfill the requirement for 33 per cent women without affording them any decision-making power. Consequently, the reservations alone are not enough to ensure effective and meaningful participation of indigenous peoples and minorities.
In the new federal government as defined by the 2015 Constitution, Nepal is an independent, sovereign, secular, inclusive and federal democratic republic with protection of fundamental rights including economic and socio-cultural rights, rights of women, Dalits, indigenous peoples and other minority groups. It further emphasizes anti-discriminatory actions to support poor, marginalized and socially disadvantaged communities through inclusive and effective participation of these communities in the governance structures. Moreover, the Constitution provides for the creation of independent constitutional commissions for women, Dalits, indigenous nationalities, Madhesis, Muslims and other communities, functioning alongside the National Human Right Commission and able to recommend positive legal and policy reforms to aid the communities in question.
The traditional concept of governance has been questioned for its ineffectiveness and inefficiency. The need for inclusive governance, incorporating the country’s variety of minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, is therefore particularly important in a country like Nepal, with its broad cultural, ethnic, geographical and climatic diversity. The political changes in 1990 and 2006/07, the election in 2017 and the reservation amendments to the Civil Service Act have brought momentum to the process of mainstreaming the country’s excluded communities into its governance system.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Community Empowerment and Social Justice (CEmSoJ) Network
Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN)
Kusunti, Lalitpur, Bagmati, Nepal
Tel: +977 1 555 5454
National Indigenous Womens’ Federation
Tel: +977 1 4784 192
National Indigenous Disabled Women Association-Nepal (NIDWAN)
Lalitpur Metropolitan, PoB 21535
Tel: +977 984 145 7270, +977 1 431 1423
Sources and further reading
Forests and Indigenous Peoples of Asia, MRG Report, 1999.
M. Hutt, (ed.), Nepal in the Nineties: Versions of the Past, Visions of the Future (London, Oxford University Press) 1994.
Lok Raj Baral, Election and Governance in Nepal (New Delhi, Manohar) 2005.
R. Manchanda, (ed.), The No-Nonsense Guide to Minority Rights in South Asia (New Dehli, South Asia Forum for Human Rights) 2006, 62-67.
N. Mishra, Nepal: Democracy in transition (Delhi, Authorspress) 2006).
J. Rehman and N. Roy in Minority Rights Group (eds.), World Directory of Minorities, (London, MRG), 1997, pp. 571-572.
J. Rehman, ‘South-Asia’ in R. Green (ed.), State of World Minorities (London: Minorities Rights Group) 2006, pp. 117-118.
H. Skar, ‘Nepal indigenous issues and civil rights: the plight of the Rana Tharu’, in R. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury (eds), Indigenous Peoples of Asia, (Ann Arbor, MI, Association for Asian Studies) 1993, pp.173-94.