Lessons From The Guthi Movement 2019

Things suddenly heated up about a week before this otherwise maybe even a boringly academic meeting: Pucha secretary Bharat Jangam got a phone call from senior lawyer and Kangress MP Radheshyam Adhikari about a bill creating a new Guthi Authority brought before the Upper House suddenly and surreptitiously.

June 29, 2019, 10:18 a.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL 12 No.21, June 28 –18 July, 2019 (Ashad 13, 2076) Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

As this essay is being written, our two-thirds majority communist government is in the formal process of withdrawing the anti-tradition Guthi "usurpation"bill it tabled in parliament last month. It followed the wholly unnecessary use of force against peaceful demonstrators at Maitighar Mandala on 9th June (in which this writer too participated on behalf of Nepal Guthi Sanrakshan Pucha)that angered all who support preserving the Guthi institutions, and which they felt the bill was trying to destroy by nationalizing Guthi trust land as well as the institution itself.

Such was the level of distrust among the public towards the current government – especially with its past actions of violating agreements reached with doctors and educationists – that the planned June 19th demonstrations went ahead despite the government's announced withdrawal a day earlier. Withdrawal is not enough, they said: it needs to be scrapped in toto because of the malefic intentions embedded within its very genes. In terms of numbers, it is said that this was the largest gathering of demonstrators since the 2006 protests.

The concept of the Guthi has Lichhavi origins way back in early 5th CE as an egalitarian institution requiring consensual decisions to manage its commons, both natural and cultural. It is found all over Nepal but is strongly ingrained in Kathmandu Valley's Newar society where almost all social practices from birth to coming-of-age, marriage and death are managed by Guthi membership. In modern terms and without quibbling about legal and semantic differences, Guthis can be understood as modern day trusts or CBOs (citizen-based groups), the management of which either through Guthi Sansthan or through modern-day NGOs via the Association Registration Act 2034 has proven to be rather dismal.

Especially problematic were ancient Raj Guthis, temple and other religious trusts set up by kings of yore, which prime minister Chandra Sumshere tried to formalize in 1921 through the formation of the Guthi Sansthan. It survived the collapse of the Rana regime and worked well into the mid-Panchayat period because the rulers had a strong sense of Devashwa, i.e. that belonging to the Gods which could not be messed with or used for personal ends without incurring bad karma. However, an atheistic and anti-tradition/anti-history communist government did not shy away from meddling in it. It first tried to do so a decade earlier with the Indra Jatra festivals and rituals at the Pashupati temple but failed; but this time around, a once-burnt, skeptical public was not willing to give it any benefit of doubt.

For this writer, the June 19 movement had its origins a bit further back in time. Some 13 years ago, under the leadership of former TU VC Kedar Mathema and the support of Dwarika Hotel's Ambica Shrestha, some of us banded together to form the Nepal Guthi Sanrakshan Pucha. We believed that Nepal's cultural uniqueness ("Nepalipan") was impossible to maintain without this unique institution; but it also needed serious reforms to inspire modern Nepali youth mostly unaware of its crucial role in sustaining Nepalipan over the last two millennia.

Our achievements, other than just being there in an otherwise arid landscape of heritage preservation as forlorn sentinels, were very modest: given that most of us were busy with other campaigns (Kedarji with education reform, Bharat Jangam with anti-corruption and me with water and energy issues), we did manage to bring out a small book and some five years ago delivered a memorandum to the land reforms minister. In that memorandum we argued primarily that the Guthi Sansthan that was supposed to manage Guthi assets as a sacred trust was incapable of doing justice to that role, that Guthis be handed over to the Guthi trustees themselves to manage with some government monitoring mechanism to prevent misuse, and that Guthis be encouraged to go beyond religious rituals and also work towards running charitable hospitals for the poor and free educational establishments for deserving young talents.

Things lay dormant for our Pucha until last winter when, at a Social Science Baha meeting, Pratyoush Onta and I agreed to organize a discussion at Martin Chautari on the value of Guthis in helping generate new knowledge through support for research. It was a tall order and organizing a mutually agreed time was like herding cats: it kept getting delayed until it was finally fixed for June 5. Kedar Mathema, Bageshwor Rajopadhyay (a Pucha member and hereditary priest of the Laxmeshwar temple at Teku) and myself were to present our case before a discerning audience at Chautari. Things suddenly heated up about a week before this otherwise maybe even a boringly academic meeting: Pucha secretary Bharat Jangam got a phone call from senior lawyer and Kangress MP Radheshyam Adhikari about a bill creating a new Guthi Authority brought before the Upper House suddenly and surreptitiously. It looked bad but he was uncertain just how bad it could be and what kind of amendments needed to be tabled.

Pucha organized a hasty meeting on June 2 at Dwarika's hotel where we also invited Guthiyars that we knew. They came, much agitated and anxious, from several Guthis in the Valley: Matsyendra, Indra Jatra, Naradevi, Jyapu and others. As we began to go through the draft bill that most of us were seeing for the first time, the nature of the problem became obvious. First, it was a blatant attempt to legalize Guthi lands that the Maoists had illegally captured during the insurgency and to create a permanent vote bank for itself. These lands were mostly, but not exclusively, in west Nepal rich with trust lands of Swargadwari, Palpa's Bhaiav, Durga and other temples.

Second, in a fit of atheistic zealousness and suspected funding support of Evangelical fundamentalists as well as land speculators (strange bedfellows during the Maoist insurgency and now fairly entrenched within the current dispensation backed by "dozer" politics and Holy Wineism), the bill was designed not just to address problems of tenancy but to bring Guthis under total government control. It would give new Guthi Authority the right to unilaterally remove traditional trustees and replace them with, you guessed it, party hacks. Our conclusion was that things were beyond academic discussions and niceties that are completely ignored by those in power anyway, that the Guthiyars had to make their misgivings heard more effectively. The rest, as they say, was June 19 and history.

What is fundamentally wrong with the current approach to trusteeship management, as well as trust assets, is explained rather insightfully by Cultural Theory. Goods are basically of three types – private, public and common pool – and each of them is best managed separately by market individualism, bureaucratic hierarchism and civic egalitarianism respectively. The current approach is a "public-private (unholy) partnership"that excludes the civic voice completely. Moreover, each of these three styles of organizing is based around different values: profit motive exercising persuasive power through networking for market individualism, control motive through coercive power and use of legal proceduralism for state hierarchism, and values other than profit or control (e.g. spiritual, cultural, historical, aesthetic etc.) through moral volunteerism by civic bodies such as the Guthis. The latter, i.e. age old common cultural practices,are upheld not by legal coercion or seduction through the profit motive but some other higher values, which this government tried to steamroller, costing it its credibility.

This author is a member of one of the youngest Guthis of Nepal – the Gyawali Guthi. It was set up two decades ago by my late father who was worried that the modern professions of engineering and tourism that my cousins and I were part of would not allow us the time to do justice to Kul Puja or Durga Puja, which happened in the peak seasons of our respective professions. So, our domestic duties were "communitized" much as Durga Puja is in places like Kolkata; and these Pujas are now done jointly by the Guthi and its members in a much grander fashion than we could have in individual households. Our Newar neighbours in Patan helped in the initial days by providing space for this community practice, which is now done at the Bhubaneshwari premises of Balkhu where Gyawali Guthi helped in the construction of a small community hall. It is something all Newars should be proud of to see their Guthi communitarianism culture adopted by Bahuns overcoming their inherent individualism.

With the rapacious intent behind the proposed Guthi "usurpation" bill being the hallmarks of governance of the current political dispensation, would I be confident in endowing some of my earnings to the Gyawali Guthi in the present circumstances? Why would I do so? Just to see my hard-earned savings probably end up in the hands of some thieving party cadre? This is a question all Nepalis are currently asking, and unless the country quickly finds some good answers, and institutes some healthy reforms to protect our common pool goods, we can kiss Nepali renaissance good bye!

Dipak Gyawali.JPG

Dipak Gyawali

Gyawali is Pragya (Academician) of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and former minister of water resources.

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