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Nepal seeks to calm Guthi reform row

But opponents of a bill covering ancient trustee societies want it to be permanently scrapped

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Prakash Khadka, Kathmandu

Updated: June 26, 2019 03:46 AM GMT
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Nepal seeks to calm Guthi reform row

A Nepalese bride and groom are helped by a Hindu priest to perform their wedding rituals according to age-old traditions. (Photo by Devendra M. Singh/AFP)

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Rato Machindranath in Nepal is the God of Rain and a festival honoring the deity was held this month in historic Patan City.

Traditionally, secretive societies called Guthis have been responsible for organizing myriad such events and, more generally, protecting Nepalese customs and traditions.

Guthi leadership roles, and knowledge of unwritten rules, are passed down along male bloodlines.

Many Guthis in more remote parts of the mountainous nation have become defunct or mere shadows of a more glorious past.

But the tabling in parliament in April of the so-called Guthi bill spurred mass protests, most notably in the Kathmandu Valley where Patan, the third largest city in Nepal, is located along with capital Kathmandu.

Critics proclaimed that there had been inadequate consultations prior to the proposed new law being drafted. As well as Guthi leaders from the nation's Hindu majority, representatives of other faiths and community organizations and politicians joined the outcry.

Guthis are headed by men called Nayo and they can play key roles in areas such as regulating land ownership, with public policy impacts in relation to matters such as taxation.

Guthis have been part of the social system of the Newar traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley since the fifth century B.C. and this remains the case.

In the face of public demonstrations against legislation to impose controls on Guthi administration, the government used force against the Newar and other dissenters.

Initially, Guthi trustees known as Guthiyars only wanted amendments to the bill, but the clampdown on dissent contributed to a hardening of attitudes.

On June 18, the government said the bill would be withdrawn for the time being because vested interests were spreading misinformation to provoke unrest. However, rather than the bill being formally withdrawn in the nation’s parliament, there was merely a verbal announcement. This stirred suspicions that the bill could still be secretly passed into law without warning. Newar leaders pledged that protests would continue.

In many ways, I do admire our current strong and progressive government, which was formed with a two-thirds majority after a long period of political instability.

However, its handling of the Guthi protests filled me with a sense of foreboding about how the communists intended to treat practitioners of religion and deal with sensitive cultural issues.

The Guthi system

Guthis can have myriad roles, not least in maintaining temples, public shelters, water sources and public trails as well as the organizing of festivals. Guthis can also own communal land and businesses that generate revenue for local projects.

But there have been specific concerns — for example, about powerful vested interests encroaching on traditional Guthi property, causing both communal financial problems and threats to heritage conservation.

The existing Guthi Corporation is a government body responsible for coordinating the activities of Guthis, not least maintaining records in relation to more than 76,000 hectares of land owned by at least 2,082 publicly registered Guthis.

And there are thousands (some says 5,000) of other "private Guthis" operating as non-profit organizations to protect local historical and cultural sites.

Individuals are allowed to use or even build houses on Guthi land by paying certain fees, but ultimate ownership technically remains with the Guthi.

If the bill in its current form were to be passed, private Guthis would be subject to the control of an envisaged National Guthi Authority to replace the present Guthi Corporation. Critics say personnel working for the new body could well lack an understanding of local cultures and traditions.

New Guthi bill

Under changes proposed by the government, priests and other Guthi staff could act as new trustees and the private Guthis would be converted into public bodies. However, as existing private Guthis act in the exclusive interests of family members, this measure has been meeting with particularly strong resistance.

Another controversial provision would allow the privatizing of Guthi land already the subject of land use agreements. Some critics fear that more than half of Guthi land could be privatized if the bill eventually comes into force as law. They worry that there will not be adequate safeguards against some Hindu priests and others abusing their positions of trust.

Another issue relates to future provisions for land and other donations to Guthis made with conditions attached.

Further, there are implications of reform plans for the generating of revenue from Guthi properties used for the upkeep of temples and the holding of festivals.

The existing Guthi Corporation supervises at least 717 temples and 647 rest houses. Thousands more are managed by people locally. Many of the temples, particularly in the Kathmandu Valley, are large-scale tourist attractions as well as being religious sites.

Another side of the coin

While the biggest protests have been in Kathmandu, landless bonded laborers in the agriculturally productive southern Terai lowlands welcomed the proposed bill as an opportunity to obtain land they believe is rightfully theirs.

Supporters applauded the government's policy objective of curtailing aspects of the Guthi system that they believe abets a form of feudalism.

Critics of the status quo stress that it often lacks transparency and accountability.

Some opponents of the bill have claimed the would-be restrictions on Guthis stem from Christian propaganda because the nation's constitution says each faith has the right to operate and defend its religious sites.

But, in fact, the new law would limit membership of a proposed National Trust Authority and Religious Management Committee to representatives of Nepal’s Sanatan Dharma Hinduism.

Christian groups currently only have the option of registering as non-governmental organizations.

Wrong procedure

There are suspicions over the way the Guthi bill was covertly tabled in parliament and also over how some provisions are not consistent with Nepal’s constitutional guarantees.

There were no stakeholder consultations during the drafting phases, a concern shared by many cultural and heritage experts.

The bill was formulated to advance political interests rather than focus on delicate cultural and social issues, with many lawmakers lacking insights into the communal values of the ancient Guthi system.

Provincial governments, which have an understanding of how Guthis operate in specific regions, would be better placed to oversee them.

Few make the point that the controversial Guthi bill is focused only on Nepal’s Hindu faith, something that does not necessarily help Christians, Muslims and practitioners of other religions.

Guthis have long helped preserve the great heritage of the Kathmandu Valley. However, the Guthi system outside of the Kathmandu Valley has commonly been misused to exploit ordinary people.

Since the function and nature of Guthis can vary, the government should not put all Guthis in the same reform basket. Any new law should be drafted with widespread participation and input from people who stand to be most affected.

Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com. 

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