Identity is a fluid concept. There are no clear cut definitions or boundaries. Every person belongs to a minority in his own way. But politics of identity have found its roots in the country and flourished.
This booklet Nepalka Khas Jati [The Khas People of Nepal] authored by Dr. Bipin Adhikari provides a brief but illuminating insight into the long history of the Khas people namely the Chhetri, Bahun, Kami, Thakuri, Sarki, Sanyasi, Badi, Damai, Gharti Gaine and others, and their identity.
The author is not a historian by profession. Yet, this booklet provides a straightforward account of its subject matter based on almost all available historical sources. The significance of this work, however, lies in its attempts at debunking several myths and inaccurate perceptions about this ethnic group considered to be the dominant one in the multi-cultural country of Nepal. It has come to publication at a very relevant time, considering the current socio-political situation of the nation, where identity politics is almost paralyzing the country. This book cites many national and international reference materials including seminal works on Nepal's history written by noted scholars in the same pursuit. The net argument of the author is that the Khas people are as much indigenous to this country as the Kirant people, and there is little evidence to show who the first settlers out of these two communities are.
The first major contention of the author, who is a renowned constitutional expert of Nepal, is that the Khas people have lived in the Himalayan foothills for several millennia in an area stretching from Kashmir to Bhutan. The author has cited several sources in claiming that the Khas people were the early Caucasians who migrated into the Himalayas from Eurasia, at least over three thousand five hundred years ago. In doing so the author intends to debunk the popular perception that the Khas people had came over to the areas currently in Nepal to escape the Muslim invasion of India in the 10th to 12th century. He asserts that there is no tangible record or evidence supporting this theory.
Dr Adhikari has analysed plenty of references to prove his contention. Based on these references, he depicts the Khas and the Kirantis as two earliest tribes to settle in the Himalayan foothills. The epic Mahabharat is cited to show that the Khas and the Kirantis had participated in that war, fighting alongside the Kauravas. Several ancient scriptures discussed by the author also seem to suggest Khas people as historically non-Hindus and thus "impure" people in the eyes of devout Hindus in the plains of the South Asia.
The second major contention of the author is that there is a strong distinction between the Khas people and the Vedic Aryan people. He puts forth a bold claim that the arrival of the Khas people preceded the Aryan invasion of India. It is thus asserted that the Khas people arrived along the Hindu-Kush and Himalayan range as a nomadic race and settled in the foothills. This is in contrast to the Aryans who settled in the fertile plains of Punjab and further south, along the Indo-Gangetic plains. The author cites several cultural differences between the Vedic Aryans and the Khas, showing that the early culture of the Khas people was more compatible to that of the local tribal cultures. It is amazing to note the analytical, social anthropological skills of the author in this regard.
An important question that arises is - how and why did the Khas people adopt the cultural practices and societal structures of the Hindus? The author writes that the Khas people were in contact with both the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. So the Khas people started off with coating their own practices with Hindu faith but the Hindu influence continued to increase. The author cites an old practice of the Khas people of keeping a "Masta’ (similar to a clan deity or "kuldeuta") devoid of any form or idol. Such cultural practices were assimilated into the broader Hindu culture once the rulers started following Hindu traditions and claiming lineage from the influential old Kshatriya clans in the plains. It was basically done to get the recognition of the several powerful kingdoms in the plains.
The author maps the journey of the Khas people from a nomadic tribe to the Sanskritised dominant group of Nepal (although he does not use the word Sanskritization anywhere in the text. As it is known the Khas people have had a major contribution in the formation of Nepal. The turning point in Khas ethnicity as pointed by this booklet arrived due to the level of prestige attached to having Vedic/Aryan heritage which caused the Sanskritized rulers to abandon their true Khas ethnicity. This according to the book seems to have trickled down to the public who sought new roles in accordance with the Varna system. The enactment of the Muluki Ain by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana in 1854 helped the social reorganization under Hindu norms. The author has pointed out that in spite of the Sanskritization, the hill dwelling Khas people with the rare exception of the Shah and Rana rulers, have avoided inter-marriage with their Hindu counterparts from the plains.
The book has attempted to gather a fresh outlook on the ethnic relations in Nepal. It is written that the Khas people were in contact with many of the other ethnic groups existing in Nepal but maintained a close association with the Magars and both the ethnic groups have many common characteristics. Similarly the usage of Khas language (now known as Nepali) is claimed to have been the common inter-ethnic mode of communication used even by the Malla Kings of Kathmandu valley.
Overall this book takes the focus away from the history of the Kathmandu valley which dominates most of the academic exercises regarding the history of Nepal. Hopefully, this work will facilitate new discussions with regard to the ethnocultural history of Nepal that will help dispel misconceptions and have a positive impact upon the current socio-political trends.
Despite its sharp analysis and presentation, the booklet is still a difficult reading for people who have limited understanding of Nepal’s history. Its references at times look like short hand expression for people already familiar of Nepal’s archives and records. The author can consider further elaborating his work giving it the shape of a full-fledged book.
Nevertheless, it is still an important piece of work. It can make any ethno-activist community which claims indigenous status to it at the cost of Khasas shy of its claim. Although the author does not make the comparison, the Khasas may have much claim for such a status than any other group in Nepal who arrived to settle in this land a couple of millenniums later than the Khas people.
Bipin Adhikari, Nepalka Khas Jati (Biratnagar: New Nepal Research Centre, 2068/2011) (in Nepali)