The Tharus of Chitwan: Ethnicity, Class and the State in Nepal

Guneratne, Upali Arjun

     This dissertation is a study of the development of ethnic consciousness among the Tharus of Chitwan and its relation to class stratification, processes of state building and the cultural and socio-economic transformation of the Chitwan valley that has followed on the success of the Malaria Eradication Program. I argue that Tharu identity is defined in contrast to that of the dominant Brahmin-Chhetri caste groups, which have settled widely in the Tarai since the 1950's. It has developed in dialectical relationship with the activities of a modernizing, centralizing state and through interaction with other ethnic groups which have immigrated to the Tarai. The nineteenth century state laid the basis for Tharu identity by reifying in law the category Tharu, which had been collectively applied to groups with very different traditions, customs and languages living in the Tarai. This identity is thus not something primordial but very much an artifact of modern times.
     The descendants of nineteenth century revenue collectors known as jimidars are the core of the Tharu elite which today plays an important role in the shaping of Tharu ethnic consciousness. I am concerned with understanding the genesis of this elite, the nature of its contemporary power and its role in Tharu society, how it sees itself, and how it is viewed by Tharus in general.
     This dissertation accomplishes three things. First, it is the first extensive ethnography in any Western language to be available on the Tharus of Chitwan. Secondly, it addresses a question that has been neglected in the literature on rural migration and development in Nepal by discussing the impact of that migration on the indigenous population. Finally, it is a contribution to a growing body of literature in Nepal which has revised the way we view the country's many named ethnic groups, which were once assumed to be primordial and enduring. It contributes to our understanding of them as having been constituted in modern times as self-conscious entities; as ethnic groups, they are the result of state formation and nation-building.
     Ethnicity is a fluid, dynamic process. I have attempted in this study to describe that process and clarify the historical circumstances that have shaped the identity of Tharus in Nepal. While the content of ethnicity is cultural, the processes that shape it and give it force are rooted in the way societies and states organize to reproduce themselves and their institutions.