Who are Indigenous Peoples of Nepal?

Indigenous Peoples of Nepal are officially described as Indigenous Nationalities (Adivasi Janajati). They make up for 35.81 per cent of the country's total population (approximately 8.5 million out of the 26 million Nepalese). But, Indigenous People's Organizations claim that their population could be as high as 50 percent of the country's population. Despite constituting such a significant portion of the population, indigenous peoples have been marginalized in terms of language, culture and political as well economic opportunities throughout the history.

As per the 2011 census, Nepal has 126 castes and ethnic groups speaking as many as 123 languages. And 90 percent of these languages are spoken by Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples in Nepal have distinct cultures, languages and belief systems. They live across the country – the mountains, the hills and the plains. They are in majority in as many as 27 of the total 75 districts. Most of indigenous people live in remote and rural areas and make a living out of subsistence farming. 

Nepal is a rich country in terms of language, culture, religion, biodiversity and socio-cultural diversity. As many as 59 (previously 61) indigenous communities have been officially and legally recognized by the Nepal government under the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act-2002. However, in 2010, a high-level taskforce recommended an additional 22 ethnic and caste groups to be recognized as Indigenous Nationalities under the purview of the NFDIN Act. But, the government did not make any decision about that taskforce's recommendations. Instead, it recently formed a new taskforce for the same purpose.

Some of Nepal's indigenous peoples like Rautes are nomads while some are forest dwellers like Chepang and Bankariya. Most of them rely on agriculture. Only a few indigenous peoples are advanced and better off. However, in terms of ethnic identity, language, religion and culture, all advanced, not-so-advanced and backward indigenous peoples have fallen victims to discrimination at the hands of the dominant groups.

The 2007 Interim Constitution of Nepal promotes cultural diversity and talks about enhancing skills, knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples. But, the indigenous peoples in Nepal are waiting to see how these visions will be realized by the new constitution, which is still in the process of being promulgated through the second Constituent Assembly.

Definition of Indigenous Peoples of Nepal

The NFDIN Act-2002 defines indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajati) as distinct communities having their own mother tongues, traditional cultures, written and unwritten histories, traditional homeland and geographical areas, plus egalitarian social structures.

The act further says that each indigenous nationalities or Janajati has the following characteristics:

A distinct collective identity,

Own language, religion, tradition, culture and civilization,

Own traditional egalitarian social structure,

Traditional homeland or geographical area,

Written or oral history,

Having ´We´ feeling,

Has had no decisive role in the politics and government of modern Nepal,

Who are the indigenous or native peoples of Nepal, and

Who declares itself as ´Janajati´.

Prior to the NFDIN Act, Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), in consultation with indigenous scholars and leaders of Nepal and abroad, concluded that though "Indigenous peoples" and nationalities are not synonymous with each other but all the "nationalities" seem to be the "indigenous peoples" in the context of Nepal'. The consultative meeting defined "indigenous peoples" or "indigenous nationalities" to refer to those communities

1)which possess their own distinct tradition and original lingual and cultural traditions and whose religious faith is based on ancient animism (worshiper of ancestors, land, season, nature), or who do not claim "The Hinduism" enforced by the state, as their traditional and original religion.

2)those existing descendants of the peoples whose ancestors had established themselves as the first settlers or principal inhabitants the present territory of Nepal at the time when persons of different culture or ethnic origin arrived there and who have their own history (written or oral) and historical continuity.

3)which communities have been displaced from their own land for the last 4 centuries, particularly during the expansion and establishment of modern Hindu nation State and have been deprived of their traditional rights to own the natural resources (Kipat (communal land), cultivable land, water, minerals, trading points etc.).

4) who have been subjugated in the State's political power set-up (decision-making process), whose ancient culture, language and religion are non-dominant and social values neglected and humiliated;

5)whose society is traditionally erected on the principle of equality – rather than the hierarchic of the Indo-Aryan caste system and gender equality or rather women enjoying more advantaged positions) – rather than social, economic and religious subordination of woman, but whose social norms and values have been slighted by the state;

6)which formally or informally admit or claim to be "the indigenous peoples of Nepal" on the basis of aforementioned characteristics.

In 1996, the government formed Task Force which identified a total 61 different ethnic groups as indigenous nationalities of Nepal. But the draft bill for the establishment of National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN), which was approved by the parliament in 2002, listed 59 indigenous nationalities.

The taskforce defined Indigenous Peoples on the basis of the following characteristics:

those who have their own ethnic language other than Nepali;

those who have their own distinct traditional customs other than those of the ruling high castes;

those who espouse distinct culture other than Hindu culture of the dominant groups;

those who have distinct social structure that does not fall under hierarchical varna or caste system;

those who have written or oral history that trace their line of decent back to the period before  their territories were annexed into present Nepal;

those who are included in the list of adavasi/janajati as officially gazetted by the Government of Nepal.

Indigenous Peoples (Indigenous Nationalities) of Nepal




1. Bara Gaunle            7.   Lhomi (Shingsawa)                       13. Thakali

2. Bhutia                     8.   Lhopa                                14. Thudam

3. Byansi                     9.   Marphali Thakali               15. Tingaunle Thakali

4. Chhairotan              10. Mugali                               16. Topkegola

5. Dolpo                      11. Siyar                                  17. Sherpa

6. Larke                       12. Tangbe                              18. Wallung







1. Bankaria                  9.   Hayu                                 17. Newar

2. Baramo                    10. Hyolmo                             18. Pahari

3. Bhujel/Gharti          11. Jirel                                    19. Rai

4. Chepang                  12. Kushbadia                         20. Sunuwar

5. Chhantyal                13. Kusunda                            21. Surel

6. Dura                                    14. Lepcha                              22. Tamang

7. Fri                            15. Limbu                                23. Thami

8. Gurung                    16. Magar                                24. Yakkha



1. Bote                        4. Kumal                                 7. Raute

2. Danuwar                 5. Majhi

3. Darai                       6. Raji






1.      Dhanuk           6. Meche

2.      Dhimal            7. Rajbanshi (Koch)

3.      Gangai             8. Satar

4.      Jhangad           9. Tajpuria

5.      Kisan Santhal  10. Tharu

Source: Nepal Rajpatra (Nepal Gazette), February 7, 2002

Legislations concerning Indigenous Peoples in Nepal

Nepal voted Yes to the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) at the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007. Also, Nepal ratified the primary international legal instrument the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labour Organization (ILO, Convention no 169) on August 22, 2006 and deposited it at the ILO, Geneva on September 14, 2007 and it came into effect since September 14, 2008. Nepal is one of the 20 countries (and the only one in Asia) to have ratified the Convention. However, the provisions laid down in the Convention and Declaration are yet to be internalized into Nepal’s national laws, plans and polices with regards to asserting the Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Currently, Nepal is writing new constitution and Nepalese Indigenous Peoples are waiting to see how the 'new Constitution' will bring national laws into line with the provisions of ILO Convention 169 and UNDRIP.

Nepal also has a law related to indigenous nationalities since 2002. And, in recent years, there has been increased recognition of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural character of Nepali society and the need for respecting this diversity for political stability and social progress.

Similarly, there also have been revisions in Civil Service Act of 2007 which include the provision to reserve 45 percent of vacant posts to IPs (27 percent), women (33 percent), Madhesis (22 percent), Dalits (9 percent), disabled people (5 percent) and those from ‘backward’ regions (4 percent). It is regarded to be a remarkable step to making state-employment opportunities open to historically excluded groups, including Indigenous Peoples and making governance more inclusive.

Likewise, in line with the provision of 1990 Constitution and to the later Interim Constitution 2007, the National Planning Commission, especially from its ninth five-year plan initiated the socio-economic development program targeting IPs.

In the Ninth five-year Plan (1992- 1997), the Nepal government fully recognized the presence of indigenous nationalities. Subsequent plans the government included increasing commitments for their development and uplift.

In 1999, Local Self-Government Act made special quota provisions for indigenous people in elected local bodies. Representation of indigenous peoples in local bodies was significantly higher (29 percent) in comparison to other sectors (but local bodies were suspended in 2002).

In 2002, the National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) was established. NFDIN is an autonomous, a sole governmental body whose aim is to develop and empower the Indigenous Nationalities, in close co-operation with District Development Committees (DDCs), but has been defunct since 2002.

NFDIN has the following objectives:

1)      To promote the overall development of indigenous nationalities by formulating and implementing programs,

2)      To preserve and promote indigenous languages, script, culture, literature, arts, and history,

3)      To preserve and promote traditional indigenous knowledge, skills, and technology,

4)      To promote the participation of indigenous nationalities in overall national development by maintaining good relations, goodwill, and harmony between different indigenous nationalities, castes, tribes and communities.

Similarly, several NGOs and advocacy groups have also emerged in recent years. The Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella organization of organizations representing the 59 indigenous nationalities, works towards the upliftment and empowerment of indigenous communities.

The Constitution of 1990 declared Nepal as a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural country. But, several constitutional provisions were still widely perceived as discriminating against indigenous peoples (such as Constitution continued Nepal as Hindu kingdom, Nepali as official language).

In comparison, the Interim Constitution, 2007 included far-reaching provisions regarding the rights of indigenous peoples. Apart from declaring Nepal a secular Republic– a long-standing demand of many indigenous groups, the constitution also adopted a policy of proportional inclusion in all structures of the state.

The Fundamental Rights Section under Article 21 included a right to social justice which gives indigenous nationalities the right to participate in state structures on the basis of principles of proportional inclusion.

Under Article 33, the Responsibilities, Directive Principles and State policies section includes a state policy to uplift the economically and socially backward indigenous nationalities by making provisions for reservations in education, health, housing, food security and employment for a certain period of time as well as a policy of making special provision on the basis of positive discrimination. Similarly, Article 144 of the constitution provided that enlisting of indigenous nationalities and others into the armed forces on the basis of the principles of equality and inclusiveness shall be ensured by law.

In 2008, the Constituent Assembly (CA) itself had been formed on the basis of achieving a full representation of indigenous nationalities. The result was that around 218 of the 601 CA Members belong to indigenous nationalities were in the first CA, while 186, of the 601 CA members belonging to indigenous nationalities in the second CA.

Indigenous Peoples movement for International solidarity

Right after the UN declared 1993 the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the government formed the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples-1993 National Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. But sadly the government committee did not organize even a single program to mark the Indigenous People’s Year. Similarly, after the declaration of the Indigenous People’s Decade, the government formed yet another Committee chaired by the minister for education and culture. Like its predecessor, this committee also ended without undertaking any activity.

But, on the other hand, Indigenous Nationalities themselves also had formed a separate committee, and carried out various programs across the country during the Indigenous People’s Year and later during Indigenous People’s Decade (1994-2004) and subsequently in the second Indigenous Peoples Decade (2005-2015). Furthermore, they have also been observing Indigenous People’s Day on 9 August every year by organizing programs, rallies, and processions in Kathmandu and in various parts of the country.

The umbrella organization of Nepal’s indigenous nationalities, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), umbrella organization of Nepalese Indigenous women-- National Indigenous Women Federation (NIWF), Umbrella Organization of Non-governmental Organizations of Indigenous Nationalities in Nepal, NGO-Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Nationalities (NGO-FoNIN) and Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Journalists (FoNIJ) and other Indigenous Peoples Organizations have been playing enormous roles in organizing these activities.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedom of indigenous peoples, Prof. James Anaya, visited Nepal from November 24 to December 2, 2008, following the invitation from the government for the purpose of examining the human rights situation of Nepali IPs in the light of international standards and also to analyze the ongoing process of Constitution writing and political transition, as it relates to them.

Presenting his report entitled “On the Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Nepal” at the 12th session of the Human Rights Council held in September 2009, he noted that although the government of Nepal planned a number of positive measures for the socio-economic benefits of indigenous communities, IPs have been forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands, denied access to justice, excluded from political representation and decision-making, inter alia economic and educational opportunities and their distinct cultures and languages have been continuously threatened and so forth, and recommended the government to focus its actions on securing their survival within a genuine multicultural political and social order.

Likewise, UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (the Treaty Monitoring Body for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and one of nine International Human Rights Treaties within the UN system), Chairperson of CERD, Francisco Cali Tzay, (Mayan Kaqchikel indigenous community first IPs to reach UN top position from Quatemala) visited from 2015 February 22 to March 4, 2015.

Facts and figures about Nepalese Indigenous Peoples

  • Nepalese Indigenous People constitute 35.81 percent of the total population (26,494,504). But, Indigenous Peoples Organizations claim their number could be as high as 50 percent.
  •  An estimation puts that 65 percent of ancestral land of indigenous people are occupied by protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves. Protect areas have forced indigenous people out of their lands.
  • In the first Constituent Assembly (from 2008 to 2012), there were a total 218 members nominated from political parties, while in second Constituent Assembly (2014) there are a total 187 a total nominated by the political parties.  
  • Seven out of every 10 victims of trafficking in person are indigenous women and girls in Nepal.
  • Majority of school drop-out are indigenous students, indigenous youth make up the largest migrant workers and indigenous peoples in Nepal make up the largest number of prisoners, victims and being killed in the conflict.   

Status Classification of Indigenous Peoples of Nepal


Bankariya, Hayu, Kisan, Kusbadiya, Kusunda, Lepcha, Meche, Raji, Raute, Surel


Highly Marginalized

Bote, Baramu, Chepang, Danuwar, Dhanuk, Jhagar, Majhi, Santhal, Shiyar, Shingsawa, Thami, Thudam



Bhote, Bhujel, Darai, Dhimal, Dolpo, Dura, Gangai,  Kumal, Larke, Lhopa, Mugal,  Pahari, Phree, Rajbansi, Sunuwar, Tajpuriya, Tamang, Tharu, Topkegola, Walung



Baragaule Thakali, Byansi, Chhantyal, Chhairotan, Gurung, Jirel, Limbu, Magar, Marphali Thakali, Rai, Sherpa, Tangbe, Tingaule Thakali, Yakkha, Yolmo



Thakali, Newar


Source: NEFIN 2004

History of discrimination

The indigenous peoples of Nepal have been politically oppressed, economically exploited, culturally and socially discriminated against.

Since the second half of the 18th century, the formation of modern Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king of Gorkha, the indigenous people became the victims of discriminatory policies and practices adopted by the state.

In the quest of uniting small states and principalities, Indigenous Peoples did not only lose their land and territories but also the system of autonomous governance system (which was said to have participatory, consensual, just and inclusive).

Indigenous Peoples were treated inhumanly. The indigenous political and social institutions were systematically destroyed and replaced by the highly centralized system of governance, controlled by the hill high caste rulers at the centre. Indigenous peoples were systematically disempowered. They were forced to follow the Hindu code of conduct and culture of the ruling caste, which were alien to them. 

In 1854, Janga Bahadur Rana, promulgated an Act called “Muluki Ain (country code)”. The tenets of the Act were as per the precepts of Hindu religion which was based on caste hierarchy. The Code established political supremacy of Hindu castes such as Brahmin, Chhetri and Thakuri over indigenous peoples who were in majority in the country. As per the caste hierarchy, twice born castes or Tagadhari (Brahmin, Chhetri and Thakuri) were placed on the top, therefore entitled to rule. Most of the indigenous peoples were either classified as non-enslavable alcohol-drinkers (Namasinya Matawali) or enslavable alcohol-drinkers (Masinya Matawali) whose duty was to serve the ruling class.

For obvious reasons, the Muluki Ain placed Christians or Mlechha (beef eater) and Muslims at the bottom in the social hierarchy although they do not belong to Hindu caste system. The implementation of Muluki Ain for more than a century has changed the whole social and cultural landscape of the country. Current situation of deprivation and marginalization of the indigenous peoples of Nepal is the result of historical injustice inflicted upon them by the state and the abuse of power by dominant groups.

Nepal remained a theocratic Hindu state until May 2006.