Withdrawal Of The Guthi Bill
The Kathmandu Valley is predominantly inhabited by the Newar community. The Valley is rich in ancient heritages like temples, monuments and historical places. These are tangible heritages. Besides these tangible heritages, the Valley is rich in intangible cultural heritages like festivals, religious dances and other religious practices, customs and rituals. Such intangible heritages have been perpetuated through the Guthi system.
The Guthi is a socio-economic institution that plays a crucial role in perpetuating social practices, customs and rituals as well as preserving traditions and cultures. Further, the Guthi preserves tangible heritages like temples, monuments, monasteries, shrines and other religious sites, and historical places by restoring them from time to time. It inculcates a sense of social service in people, thus contributing to religious and social tolerance and harmony. In a nutshell, the Guthi plays an important role in bringing about social cohesion, sans which no country can develop.
The Guthi system came into being during the Kirant era but developed during the Lichhavi era. During the Lichhavi era, the Guthi was called goshthi (meeting/gathering) and most social work used to be given to Guthis. In fact, the Guthi came into being with a sacrosanct aim of performing social work collectively. Money was needed to do such work. So righteous and generous people would donate land in the name of Guthis. From the revenue generated from the use of such land, the Guthi has operated to this day. In the Kathmandu Valley, religious festivals like Machhindranath Jatra, Indra Jatra and Bhoto Jatra have been preserved through the Guthi system. There are Guthis outside the Valley, too. But the nature of such Guthis differs from that of the Valley Guthis.
The Guthi Sansthan was set up in 1964 AD during the reign of King Mahendra to manage all land under the Guthi. The Sansthan generates income by leasing out Guthi land to individuals or companies or by constructing buildings or complexes for tenting purposes. The Sansthan also finances the celebration of festivals in the Valley but the money given for such purposes is paltry.
There are 2,355 public Guthis registered with the Guthi Sansthan. But there is no record of private Guthis. However, the number of such private Guthis is put at upwards of 5,000. In the Valley itself, the number of public and private Guthis is estimated at 7,000. The Guthi Sansthan has 1.45 million ropanis of land.
During the Rana regime, Guthi land was well preserved. However, during the Panchayat regime, Guthi land was allowed to be converted into private land by payment of a certain amount (25 per cent of the price of land fixed by the government). This provision, which ran from 2041 BS till 2064 BS, extensively brought about shrinkage in Guthi land. However, such conversion has been banned since 2064 BS.
The government presented the Guthi Bill to the National Assembly on April 29. The bill has, however, been withdrawn amid widespread protests. The bill was designed to consolidate all acts and amendments relating to the Guthi by establishing a powerful commission (National Guthi Authority) in place of the Guthi Sansthan as well as by regulating religious sites. The bill aimed at nationalising all Guthi land, including private Guthi land, and depriving the existing Guthi operators/trustees (Guthiyars) of all their rights and responsibilities.
The bill proposed appointing government employees to the Authority to manage the Guthi system. The bill also proposed nullifying Guthi property-related evidence, documents, past agreements and even court orders. Moreover, government approval was proposed to be mandatory to establish Guthis and religious sites. The proposed provision of nationalising all Guthi land and depriving the existing Guthi operators of their rights and responsibilities related to the Guthi violated the right of the people as encapsulated in the Constitution to operate and protect religious sites and Guthis. Also, private Guthis are exclusively for family or clan members who share the same lineage and outsiders are barred from their rituals.
If the bill were to be enacted into law, the ownership of Guthi land might be transferred in the name of individuals under tenancy claims. Further, the land remaining after such a transfer might be given to the same individuals on payment of a certain amount (25 per cent of the price of land fixed by the government). If Guthi land were given to individuals in this way, there would be no Guthi land in the future.
Besides, the proposed Guthi Authority to be manned by government employees cannot do the Guthi work the local communities have been doing for centuries. Some work such as Guthi work should be given to the local communities themselves. The local communities possess indigenous knowledge of and skills in preserving religious practices, customs, rituals and traditions as well as tangible assets like temples, stupas, monuments, monasteries, wells, stone water spouts, ponds and other heritages. So it would not be prudent to balk the local community in the Valley of the social obligations relating to the Guthi.
The UNESCO has several heritages of the country on the World Heritage Site List. The UNESCO has also kept records of intangible cultural heritages. Unfortunately, no such intangible heritage from the county has been recognised by the UNESCO so far. At a time when the country should be making efforts to register intangible heritages like the Guthi system with the UNESCO, the Guthi Bill was proposed. That is why, protests erupted in the Valley and adjoining areas like Banepa and Panauti against the proposed bill. The government announced the withdrawal of the bill from the National Assembly when the local community was demanding the revocation of the bill.
Anyway, the country’s identity is linked to both tangible and intangible heritages and it would be foolish to think that such heritages belong to a particular community or communities only. They are all national heritages, which must be preserved, as have been for centuries, for our posterity. It would be better for the government to draft a fresh Guthi bill in consultations with the concerned stakeholders and experts. It is also equally important to make provisions as per the nature of Guthis in and outside the Valley. The present Guthi Bill was a blanket bill relating to Guthis existing all over the country. After all, it is the duty of the government to preserve the Guthi system and other socio-cultural heritages forever.
(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000)