History of Tharu
The Tharu people are an indigenous ethnic group who have lived in the lowlands of Nepal for centuries. Until recently, the region was covered by a thick malarial jungle that kept away outsiders and guaranteed the Tharus free but difficult lives. Their relative isolation led them to develop a distinct and self-sufficient society with their own language, religion, and culture differing from the hill people in the north.
The land in Nepali Tarai or plains is the rice basket of Nepal. It is most productive and sought after agricultural land. But is not much more than sixty years ago that the area was only sparsely cultivated. A hundred years ago the vast majority of the Tarai was still covered by thick, malarial jungle. At this time the area’s only full year residents were various indigenous groups, the largest of which was the Tharu. They tolerated the jungle’s malaria and wild animals, in return for which they had ample land off which to live. It was a time that old men still talk about, when a family entering a new settlement could have as much land as they could carve out of the jungle. In this environment, the Tharus developed largely self-sufficient communities in and around the jungle, with building styles, settlement patterns, religion and agricultural practices very distinctive from what is practiced in the hills or further south in the Gangetic Plains of northern India.
The Tharu communities had only seasonal contact with outsiders. Fear of malaria insured that people visited the plains only in the winter. Hill kings and later the Rana aristocracy who claimed legal ownership to parts of the land were not interested in actually living there. Instead, local village headmen, known as Chaudharys, collected revenue and passed it upwards. In practical terms, land was free to use. There were fe people, and always more jungle to cut down.
In the middle of 19th century the Rana rulers in Kathmandu made in an active economic policy to sell off the tall, straight sal trees of the jungle to the British railway in India and attempt to settle the Tarai. But it was not until the 1950s that large-scale population shifts happened it the region. It was then that the World Health Organisation WHO spared large parts of the jungle with DDT in a very successful anti malaria drive. All of the sudden the deadly anopheles mosquito, that long-time neighbour of the Tharus always troubling but also paradoxically protecting their livelihoods was decimated. The consequent destruction of the jungle and establishment of large scale settlements by hill people accelerated almost overnights. This however, resulted indirectly in the Tharus losing their traditional land. Hill people who were better educated, familiar with the political system and had connections in government organisations, quickly gained ownership of most of the farmland in the region. The Tharus were reduced to tenants working for landlords on land that had previously been their own. In society, they were looked down upon and discriminated against by the high-caste settlers. Their illiteracy and lack of representation in local government offices made it difficult for them to struggle against the new landlords. Many fell into debt and were forced to become bonded labourers, known as Kamaiyas (men) and Kamlaharis (women), who were bought and sold on a yearly basis for agriculture and housework. For two or three generations, tens of thousands of families have lived like this despite Nepal’s signature on UN international conventions against slavery.
A Comparative survey in Dang valley, one of the most heavily settled Tharu region, showed the extent of the transformation. In 1912, the great majority of landowners were Tharu. Fifty years later, in the late 1960s, the landowners were mostly settler from the hills. Eighty percent of the Tharu were tenants and 90% of the landlords they worked for were hith cast hill people (McDonaugh, 1999). Same initially accepted the reduction to tenant farmers perceiving it as continuation of the prior taxation systems. Only too late did they realize that the landlord could evict them if they were not legally registered as tenants. Some migrated west in search of what remained of the virgin jungle, only to find that similar developments taking place there. Despite the eventual land reform, most of th field sin the western Tarai legally disappeared from under the plows of those who worked them. Families spent lifetimes thereafter wandering form landlord to landlord.
And so in three generations, tens of thousands of Tharu cultivators became bonded labourers farming other people’s land. Wives became servants in landlords’ kitchens. And children work ed in others’ households until they were old enough to take over theri parents’ work. The grandparents’ loss of their land became the grand child’s cursed inheritance, the hole that no amount of borrowing would fill.
Fifty year later, freed Kamaiyas and landlords are coming to terms with this history of displacement. They are discovering that slavery is not just about the work the Kamaiyas do for the landlords, but about the relationship between them, about lower-hood and upper-ness. Not all landlords treat their Kamaiya cruelly. Some Kamaiyas stayed on even if they had no debts. But the Kamaiya/landlord relationship is always experienced as a relationship between inferiors and superiors. It is experienced this way on both sides, by both the Kamaiya and landlord, and the extent to which this socialist of slavery, has written “What was universal in the master-slave relation was the strong sense of honor the experience of master ship generated, and conversely, the dishonouring of the slave-condition.” (Patterson, 1982)