22 MIN READ
When he was 19, Asman Majhi used to think to himself, “This thing called sarkhar really enjoys a perengo full of asala maachha.” And why wouldn’t he? He would often follow his father to the addaa where the sarkhar — the government — lived with a perengo full of fish. Little did he know that the sarkhar that so enjoyed the fish from the fishermen would one day end up swallowing the Majhi themselves.
You don’t have to go too far to see the sarkhar eat up the fishermen, just a little over 60 kilometers from Kathmandu to Sindhupalchok and a fishing village called Bodgaun. Come, listen now to the tale of Bodgaun — the village that the sarkhar ate.
Towards the end of December last year, when I got to Bodgaun, the sun had already made its way to the other side of the Indrawati river. Walking down the Nawalpur hills, Bodgaun resembled a painting on canvas. Perched on a hillock by the banks of the Indrawati, Bodgaun looked like a quietly lit base camp at the foot of the mountains the night before the climb.
But the inside story of Bodgaun is not as beautiful as it appears on the outside. You can barely hear the Indrawati sing anymore; instead, there is the coarse roar of a crusher — an excavator. Birds no longer swarm the empty skies above the Indrawati; instead, it is the dust rising from the crusher that now clogs the air.
Asman Majhi is quietly perched on the porch of his house, his mouth and nose covered with a mask. He rubs his hands with sanitizer and quips, “I can’t believe I will be turning a hundred soon.”
Asman is the living history of this fishing village. He spent his entire life by the banks of the Indrawati. Whatever is left of his life, he wishes to spend it by the river.
In 1926, when Asman was born, the Ranas were in power. His parents operated a boat to make a living. That is how they brought up Asman. By the time Asman entered his teens, his hands were already adept at guiding the boat through the waters of the Indrawati. Those who came to the village, and those who left, Asman helped them all cross the Indrawati. Some who crossed the Indrawati set shop in Chautara. Others made their way to ‘Nepal’ — Kathmandu.
Fishing, boating, preparing marcha to ferment alcohol, planting rice on the riverbanks, growing potatoes, and arranging a yearly pooja to please the Koshi River — these consisted of the everyday fabric that held Bodgaun together. To put it in another way, the Majhis of Bodgaun shared both tears of sorrow and joys of laughter with the Indrawati.
“We used to charge a suka for crossing the river. Some would pay us in grain,” Asman remembers.
As Asman grew up on the banks of the Indrawati, Rana rule grew old and fragile. Eventually, the nation bid farewell to the Ranas, and democracy arrived. No matter what political changes took place, the rituals and rhythms of people like Asman remained the same — boating and fishing.
But time doesn’t stand still. As the rhetoric of bikas — development — and sambriddhi — prosperity — began to create waves, the fishing village of Bodgaun began its downward spiral into poverty. The more time passed, the more the number of days that Bodgaun had to go hungry increased. Why did this happen? Before we get to the realities of Asman’s life and the story of Bodgaun, let us take a detour to history.
They didn’t know who Prithvi Narayan Shah was
In the process of expanding his kingdom from east to west, Prithvi Narayan Shah was unceremoniously converting the people into ‘subjects’. There were, however, one or two communities that somehow escaped Shah’s fancy. The minority Majhi and their traditional ways of life on the riverbanks were of no immediate interest to Prithvi Narayan. And to the Majhi, who was Prithvi Narayan Shah? What was ‘asali Hindustan’? They didn’t care.
But that did not stop Prithvi Narayan from seeking help from the Majhi.
Writer and intellectual Dhan Bahadur Majhi, who was first to write a book about the culture and tradition of the Majhi, recounts, “When Prithvi Narayan Shah attacked Nuwakot, he did so by crossing the Shuvaghat road. There are notes in history that explain how the Majhis helped the Shah army cross the river.”
It, however, did not take the rulers long to grow envious of the self-sufficient and contented Majhi life. Dhan Bahadur writes, “Once Prithvi Nayaran learned of the quiet life of the Majhi, the evil gaze of the rulers turned upon them.” Shah first brought the Majhi land under the kipat — a system where land is communally managed. Dhan Bahadur further writes, “The Majhi were already managing their land but the rulers acted as if they were benevolently granting kipat to the Majhi in order to mark their presence.”
As time went by, the rulers’ encroachment of the Majhi land rose. Those who crossed the river gradually gained in power while those who helped them cross the river grew weak. Dhan Bahadur further explains, “Initially, the rulers pretended to ‘grant’ the Majhi their own land as kipat. Later, the land began to be quickly distributed to the hangers-on of the rulers as birta.”
In his book, Culture and Tradition of the Majhi Community, Dhan Bahadur writes, “It was the Majhi way of life that maintained the fertility of the riparian land and made it richer over time. Not too long after, outsiders began to cast their envious gaze on the Majhi land. In 1905, the rulers went a step further. They aggressively captured the indigenous land and gave away large parcels of it to their family, relatives, and the mainstream middle and upper-middle-class as land grants, to build temples and as Guthi land in the name of the gods. The little that was left became raikar. The rulers left almost nothing for the Majhi to live on as kipat.”
Dhan Bahadur asserts that even the lalmohars, the legal document for the ownership of the Majhi kipat land, were seized by the cunning mainstream classes. When some from the Majhi communities began to inquire about their kipat, they would sometimes be sent to the archeology department or to the land office. In the end, they were told that the records were lost and they were all sent back empty-handed.
Once the Majhis lost their lands, even their ghats started to get parceled off. This started during the Panchayat era. Asman says, “Sometimes the Ranas stole our ancestral land, sometimes it was others’. They stole our ghats and even our boats. We were left all alone.”
The history of indigenous struggle in Nepal is replete with similar accounts of dispossession and displacement. Look to Chitwan, about which researcher Somat Ghimire writes in his book Nepal ma Garibi ko Bahas, “…national parks alienated people from nature. The indigenous, poor, and weak suddenly became the demons destroying nature…fishing in the Rapti and Riu rivers was the traditional source of livelihood for the indigenous Botey-Majhi and Darai communities. In 1992, nearly three decades after the Chitwan National Park was established, the government eventually banned the indigenous from fishing in these rivers.”
Bodgaun is considered the largest Majhi settlement in Nepal. Locals claim that Bodgaun’s original name was ‘Badkhagaun’. ‘Badkha’ in the Majhi language means large. Over time, ‘Badkha’ became ‘Bodgaun’.
There is no written account of how many generations of Majhi have lived in Bodgaun. Asman claims that the land on the banks of the Indrawati was granted to them as kipat by Prithvi Narayan Shah. He recalls, “The land belonged to our ancestors from the time of Prithvi Narayan. There were 60 Majhi households who lived here when I was growing up. Now, there are about 350.”
Mahendra’s rule was on the rise. In 1956, he introduced the five-year plan to purportedly overturn Nepal’s fortunes. Soon after, the Majhi were mandated to pay taxes for fishing and for helping people cross the river on their boats. The birta system was eliminated in 1959, followed by land reform in 1965. These government policies did not hurt the Majhi yet. Despite the elite capture of their land and riparian resources, the Majhi were still able to make ends meet. Alongside farming, they continued to rely on traditional means of livelihood.
But how long could the Majhi remain untouched by the onslaught of Mahedra’s bikas? In nearby Dhand Khola, a concrete bridge was constructed in the early 1970s. It was the bridge that ultimately brought catastrophe to the Majhis in Bodgaun. Asman remembers, “After the bridge was built, they told us to hand over our boats to the government. We had no other option but to oblige.”
And just like that, the Majhi lost all their boats.
The angry river
After their boats were taken away, the Majhis became more reliant on farming. They were somehow able to make a living, even if life was no longer the same.
Highways were constructed across the country. The Araniko Highway was built as was the BP Highway. In Kathmandu, concrete houses started to mushroom. As bikas bulldozed its way through towns and cities in the wake of the 1990 People’s Movement, a crusher quietly entered the Indrawati near Bodgaun. It belonged to one Raj Bhakta Shrestha, a businessman from Banepa.
Gradually, the crusher began to feed on the Indrawati — its gravel and sand. But as the feeding became relentless, the river grew angry. It began to change its course, furiously cutting to the west sometimes and sometimes to the east. And just like that, the fertile paddy fields near the riverbanks began to turn into sandy beaches. Not two or three ropanis, not 20 or 30 ropanis, 800 ropanis of Bodgaun farmland were reduced to sand.
Elsewhere, the highways kept expanding while concrete houses grew taller. In Bodgaun, the farmland continued to shrink even as families expanded. As rice paddies turned into sand, poverty crept into Bodgaun but for the crusher owners, sand was lucre. Asman says, “When the crusher began to dig up the river, the resulting floods fed on our farmland. Afterward, we had no option but to purchase rice to feed ourselves.”
The Majhi had the land title, but stone and gravel from the land-turned-sandbank belonged to the crusher owners. The Majhi continued paying their land taxes while the contractors continued excavating their land. This made the river angry. An angry river was the Majhi’s nightmare. To the contractors, it simply meant more wealth.
According to the Indrawati Rural Municipality administration, “Every year, the river brings stone. If the stone is left like that, they will pile up, which will destroy the local environment. That is why, to prevent this destruction, the stones have to be excavated.” The administration claims that they only allow excavation after approval from environment and geology experts. This makes Asman smile. “When the gravel is extracted, the river dives deeper. As the river dives deeper, it begins to cut to the left and right, anxious to reclaim its natural path. And when the river is unable to find its path, it will grow angry. This is what is happening now,” he said. But who is to listen to Asman Majhi and find wisdom in his words? This body of knowledge, in tune with the river’s language, is neither taught in universities nor shared in posh seminars.
Financial records from the rural municipality show that over 60 million rupees were generated in revenue from river-based extraction and excavation in the 2019/20 fiscal year. Banshilal Tamang, chairperson of the rural municipality, claims, “Five percent of the revenue generated from the crushers, we give away to the locals.”
Asman retorts, “What revenue? We haven’t received a single paisa.”
Nepal was finally declared a federal democratic republic in 2006. The Majhi thought that now, the crushers would be driven away. They thought the dozers would stop gouging the river and the land would be green again. With this hope, the Majhis voted during the elections and took to the streets during rallies. They even planted party flags on their property. Nothing happened.
But the new republic didn’t chase away the crushers; it instead brought more. The crushers were everywhere, like insects swarming all over the Indrawati. Just around Bodgaun, five crushers fed on the river night and day. The Majhi could feel the river’s rising anger. “The fields had already been stripped away so we were worried that it was only a matter of time before the Indrawati swept away the entire village,” remarks Mane Majhi, chairperson of the rural municipality's ward 11, with sadness.
Gone were the days of contentment and laughter. Poverty deepened. They met with politicians to share their grievances. Some appeared to sympathize and donated nets to the Majhi. The nets were meant to work as barriers to keep the river from entering the village. No politicians promised to remove the crushers. The Majhi filled the nets with gravel and stone and stacked them in the river. But they were hardly able to tame the river’s rage. The cuts that the crushers had inflicted on the river were far too deep. The monsoon floods swept the nets far away. One local confesses, “No one knew how to use the nets. So the river took them away.”
The Majhi would visit government offices from time to time with a demand letter in hand, asking for their land to be returned. They also demanded that the crushers return to where they came from. The Majhi would sometimes gather together and try to stop the crushers from exploiting their farmlands. But no one listened to them.
Asman laments, “Who will listen to our story? The wind lifts our story and takes it far away.”
The crusher owners would respond sharply, “We pay taxes to the government. Go make your noise with the government.”
The Majhi quietly returned home. Sitting on the banks, they watched the plumes of dust kicked up by the crusher. From the edge of the river, Asman never stopped bellowing, “Please don’t mess with the river. Leave its gravel alone. Only then will the river run its course. Only then will we be able to till our land again.” But who would listen to Asman? The world outside Bodgaun feeds on its gravel. The gravel fills the lorries. And the lorries storm off to the city, to feed the city, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
A few households made a little money by renting out their land as parking for the crushers. But those whose fields are being harvested for gravel and sand, they received nothing. Now, the Majhi are not even allowed to fish in the river.
“When our grandchildren go to the river to fish, the police chase them away,” says Asman.
On one side, the Indrawati is eating away at its banks, advancing towards the village. On the other, crusher owners are attempting to convince the Majhi to sell their lands. “We will pay you lakhs. You can build a house in the city,” they say. Some non-Majhi by the riverbank have already sold the land. There is no shortage of buyers if there is a Majhi selling their land.
“They try hard to convince us, but the Majhi have yet to relent,” says Mane Majhi, the ward chairperson. “But those who are having difficulties making a living have leased out their land.”
Bodgaun’s history says that before the crushers came, there was no scarcity. Potatoes, rice, sesame, and lentils grew in abundance, says Asman. They had enough to sell. All has vanished now. “The Majhi don’t even have a fistful of rice to offer to those who’ve died,” says Asman.
A village of 1,800 households, Bodgaun has found itself in a downward spiral of poverty. Their ancestral profession was snatched away. Their farmlands were snatched away. They needed permission from the government to go into the Indrawati. A large river flows nearby but the village has a shortage of drinking water.
The young of Bodgaun flock to the Middle East. They work in Kathmandu as laborers. But there is little interest in going to school. There must be many who cannot get an education, despite having the desire to do so. According to the ward chairperson, there are probably no more than five in Bodgaun who have completed their intermediate-level education. Even the number that attends primary school is very small. In Bodgaun, grade 8 is where education stops. A majority drop out of school. There is not a single individual from Bodgaun in government. The chairperson complains, “Whenever there is an opening in the police, I tell the young people to apply. They never do. There is zero interest in applying for governmental positions.”
Despite mounting adversities, the Majhi refuse to migrate. Scholar Dhan Bahadur Majhi explains that the Majhi are not the kind to migrate. “The river and riverbanks are home to the Majhi,” he writes. “They need the fish and waters to survive. Every single Majhi ritual, from birth to death, is incomplete without the river and the fish.” But Mane Majhi worries, “Now that there is a shortage of food, the Majhi may have no choice than to leave their village.”
The chair of the rural municipality, however, claims that employment has increased since the crushers came to Bodgaun. The village is now capable of absorbing the local labor force, he says. But Mane Majhi responds, “The Majhi youth are not literate. They don’t know how to operate machinery. All that they are capable of doing is unskilled labor. And that too is only possible after requests to those we know. Just around five to seven are employed as laborers.”
Goat farming is Bodgaun’s new lifeline. Each family rears five to 25 goats. Some have opted for buffaloes. Others have formally registered pig farms.
ILO Convention 169 states that indigenous people “shall have the right to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects their lives, beliefs, institutions, and spiritual well-being and the lands they occupy or otherwise use, and to exercise control, to the extent possible, over their own economic, social and cultural development.” The convention also mandates that prior to the use of resources from indigenous land, thorough documentation of its potential effects on the communities in question must be conducted. The government of Nepali ratified the convention on August 21, 2007. But this convention does not appear to apply to Bodgaun.
Likewise, Clause 10 of the government-issued ‘Standards related to stone, gravel, sand excavation, sale and management, 2020’ clearly states that extraction or collection of river-based natural resources is strictly disallowed within 500 meters of a densely populated settlement, a kilometer downstream from a bridge, and 500 meters upstream. But right next to the 2,000-population Bodgaun, crushers run amok.
In Indrawati rural municipality’s annual budget, there are no plans for the Majhi. Tamang, the chairperson, claims that the crushers were allowed to operate only after the approval of the locals. But Asman disagrees. “We warned them that if the crushers came, our farmlands would not remain. But no one listened to us.”
The ‘anti-development’ Majhi
Displacing the indigenous from their lands in the name of development is not new practice. The history of Latin American countries such as Bolivia is replete with the capitalist politics of dispossession and displacement — exploiting indigenous resources, alienating the indigenous from their land, and ultimately turning them into slaves in their own land. In Central American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, large American companies have captured land to operate fruit factories, unceremoniously continuing the endless cycle of accumulation by dispossession. In the early half of the 20th century, multinational companies declared war on natives in order to harvest the Amazon forest in South America for rubber. Even now, the natives of the Amazon are being displaced on various pretexts. More recently, in March 2020, an indigenous activist guarding their territory in the Amazon basin was shot dead.
The Majhi too want factories and trains to run across the length and breadth of the land. They want schools and colleges, hospitals that provide affordable care. All they’re asking for is to not be chased away from the riverbanks. “We cannot survive anywhere except for the riverbanks,” says Asman.
Categorized as ‘maasinya matwali’ — enslavable alcohol drinkers — by Jang Bahadur Rana’s Muluki Ain in 1854, there are altogether 83,700 Majhis in Nepal, as per the 2011 census. The Majhi belong to the ‘extremely marginalized’ population category. Dhan Bahadur says, “Every time the government introduces new projects that require the construction of dams and embankments, I end up having sleepless nights. I think of the Majhi by the river. I wake up the next day and go to the village. I remind them that, once again, the government is attempting to chase us away.” There is not a single Majhi village that Dhan Bahadur has not been to.
An ‘anti-development’ agent in the eyes of the Nepali state, Dhan Bahadur is no longer able to get up in the morning and visit Majhi villages. He passed on the responsibility to the younger generation and left this earth a few months ago.
In his book Sabai Jaat ko Fulbaari, anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista writes, “For thousands of years, we have struggled alongside the wild beings, the tigers, the bears, the elephants, the rhinos, the cobras, the malaria, and turned the forests and the riverbanks into a secure shelter to inhabit. But the workings of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ have taken us by surprise and have left us desolate. They have placed our very survival under threat.”
To escape from the whirlpool of poverty, the locals have a few demands. The crusher has to leave. The farmland-turned-desert has to be returned. They also demand that Majhi rituals have to govern Majhi society, just like in the past. Mane Majhi says, “We need the kinds of factories that run sustainably on limited land and limited resources. That way, the Majhi are not evicted from their own land.” He says, just like other local produce, there can be a market for the alcohol that the Majhi brew at home. There is another escape route from poverty that he shares, “Our livelihoods would improve if we were able to have fish ponds by the river.”
The rural municipality provides a few nets every year. But it also provides crushers with the freedom to exploit the river. The ward chair says, “To control the overflow of the river, the rural municipality has provided Rs 25 lakh and the provincial government, Rs 50 lakh. Maybe now the river will be tamed.” But a local responds in anger, “We keep filling the nets and the crushers keep digging up the river. How is this going to work?”
These days, when the Indrawati runs amok, the Majhi stand on the edge of the river and watch. They do it for two reasons. First, they nervously watch the waves that threaten to enter their village. Second, they squint at spots in the river where whirlpools form. The Majhi know the rhythm of the river — where there is a whirlpool, there is sand. Disregarding the strong currents, young people walk into the unquiet river with a bamboo pole in their hands. They plant the pole right in the heart of the whirlpool. The pole that stands in the middle of the river is now their lifeline. Once the river gets quieter, they extract sand from the spot where the bamboo pole stands. They, however, do not want the crusher owners to learn this local trick. To survive and sustain, the Majhi sell the sand. They leave the stone and the gravel intact. The crusher owners, however, empty the river of all its stone and gravel.
The Majhi care for the river. They have no anger towards the river. It is the crusher owners they are in conflict with and the Nepali state that is allowing the crushers to destroy the river, all in the name of development.
A sojourn into the Majhi village on a chilly January evening brings to light a cold truth: a pandemic entered the Majhi village a long time ago. The Majhi are in crisis. The able hands of the Majhi, so adept at fishing, are now in need of friends. The Majhi, whose boat carried many-a-people across the river for generations on end, now need those very people to carry the Majhi in their thoughts. Will they now stand arm-in-arm with the Majhi of Bodgaun?
When it was time to say goodbye, Asman Majhi was staring fixedly, lost in his thoughts. He seemed to want to say something but he did not. It was as though his eyes wanted to say, “Our entire lives, we carried you in our boats across the river. Today, we are the ones drowning. Where has our boat gone? We are waiting for our boat to return. Will you join us in our fight to reclaim our stolen boat?”
This article has been translated from the Nepali by Sabin Ninglekhu and The Record.
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