The Guthi bill and future of Newar civilization

Festival of Bungadyo (Rato Machhindranath) at Patan (photo from Internet)

Razen Manandhar


Newars are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, the present-day capital of the Federal Republic of Nepal. The valley occupies only a small portion of the country’s geography; and the people are also not big in number. Still, they have the richest art, culture and series of festivals in the whole country. Guthi is one of the typical characteristics of Newar culture.

Guthi is now a typical word that must have been derived from Sanskrit “gosthi” which generally means an organization. In Newar social context, guthi means a social organization, which works institutionally to regulate the socio-economic situation of the Newars, which is stood as the backbone of the cultural bond among the members, that is, the Newars for thousands of years.

It is said that the system of guthi came into operation as early as in the Lichhivi period. A stone inscription dated 6th century mentions the provision and management of guthis in the Kathmandu Valley. The guthis are added, modified and some might have also been extinct in the long run of time. Still, it has been a crucial part of Newar society till the date.

Guthi and society

Written or otherwise rules of the guthis run the families and society as a whole. The government bodies and their regulations remain secondary to the “primitive” mindsets made by the guthis.

Names, purposes, scopes and strengths of the guthis may vary. Some guthis are made to manage the dead bodies for cremation, some are made just to donate water in festivals, some are made to clean grasses and shrubs around the temple, some organize people to conduct chariot processions and some are responsible to renovate temples or to run processions. That is to say, some are family, some are social and some are purely religious in nature. Some were instituted by the kings, while some were by society and some were totally personal contributions. They are independent bodies, constituted in such a way, that the government neither has to bear the responsibility nor does it have to go through auditing of such organizations.

Guthi and land property

What is the secret of the strengths of the guthis? How can the institutions make such can conduct annual ventures without government aid? In fact, this is probably a unique and indigenous system in Nepal, the Newars set up guthi for certain purpose and buy big land property behind for the guthi members to carry on the given tasks in the future. The land is cultivated by rented or arranged farmers (called mohi), who take some part of the yield for themselves and all the rest is given to the trust owners, which make a genuine source of income for running the festivals. The trustees only have to think about the objective of the trust and to execute the job they are assigned to every year.

The land properties of the guthis were donated either by the kings or the common people. Donation of land to the guthi was a matter of punya (merit-making) and also a symbol of status in the society. Selling, earning money out of or taking advantage of the land of guthi is considered a heinous sin or crime. The guthi land is known as devaswa (part of the god). And this is the reason, guthi land was never destroyed in past centuries (now the situation is just opposite).

Times passed, the political system changed but the Newars remained Newars. They changed the whole world with their art and entrepreneurship but their guthis remained unchanged for hundreds or even thousands of years. No matter how much money a man earned or gained political height, once he is thrown out of the guthi he belongs to, he is sure to live a life of a hell. This is how each Newar is bound to his or her social prestige and cultural obligations. So to say, it is difficult to understand Newars, and it is even more challenging to understand the complications of the guthi system.

The new kings and governments had lesser interests in the establishment of the guthis. Even after taking over the throne of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, King Prithvi Narayan Shah was cautious not to touch the land property of the guthis of the Newars. But later a whimsy king Rana Bahadur Shah, forcefully took away the land property in the year 1862 BS. And this eventually became one of the causes of his downfall. According to historians, at that time, the state captured land property that could yield 774,000 muri of rice.

Guthi and Guthi Sansthan

Quite later, in 2021 BS, King Mahendra, with an objective to capture guthi property institutionally, set up a Guthi Sansthan. It was said that the objectives of the Sansthan were to continue festivals, heritage and culture of the people. But, the consequences turned just opposite of its objectives.

Thus, the state systematically attacked the age-old independence of the guthis. The Sansthan indirectly forced the guthi members to sell off the land property, handover the cash to the Samsthan and made the people run the festivals at the mercy of the Sansthan staffers. Still, the Sansthan now owns approximately about 1.45 million ropanis of guthi land all over the country and it collects revenue by selling off the land or leasing out all the possible land with religious and cultural value.

Proposed Guthi bill and the controversial provisions

Under these circumstances, the two-third majority government of the Communist Party of Nepal has recently introduced a bill to manage the land property of guthi in Nepal. On April 29th, 2019, the Minister of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation Padam Kumari Aryal tabled a bill at the Upper House to “consolidate all acts and amendments related to guthis”. It was a step to constitute a powerful commission to replace the Guthi Sansthan and to nationalize all remaining guthi property, including all religious sites. In short, this bill sees guthi as only land property, without considering its relation with cultural heritage of the people. That is why it came through the ministry of land management and minister of culture remains suspiciously silent. Ironically, the Article 26 (2) of the constitution states that all religious denominations shall have the right to operate and protect its religious sites and religious guthi but in this bill, the government intends to appoint government commissioner to own and to execute state power over the people-owned guthis.

It is said that the bill was first brought in 2058 BS by the then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was also heading the ministry of land reform. This shows that whichever party comes in power, they see guthis as only possessing valued land property. Now, even this time, it did not come overnight. We can imagine it was a workout of years or months. And we also know that the Newar lawmakers did help the government to make the maximum of provisions to snatch out the property from the hands of the trusts. The guthi activists have raised questions over four of the provisions, while according to legal experts, it is objectionable over 19 provisions.

It will be easier to discuss shortly over some of the major regressive and possessive provisions of the guthi bill, which are determined to bring guthi system in particular and Newar civilization in general to a state of peril.

Section 3 : Section 3 authorizes a government body to acquire, consume or even sell off property of the guthis.

Section 4 (6) : Section 4 (6) of the bill proposes nationalizing and regulating all “niji” (private) guthis. Those trusts which have been surviving, facing all the troubles and hindrances for centuries now came in the eyes of the Communist government, which never sees the importance of cultural heritage and responsibility to promote the activities of the guthis and now want to nationalize the property.

Section 18 : Section 18 makes provisions to set up a fixed fund from the sum of money the government collects by selling of “Tainathi” land of the trusts. That means the government opens door for the land developers to buy guthi land in low price and close doors to religious activities.

Section 22 : Section 22 makes it obligatory for the people to seek permission from the state to establish new guthi, or to construct new religious sites. The government will seek sources of income of the devotees. This is going to create a burden over the religious-minded people to do any sort of religious activities in the future.

Sections 23 : Section 23 of the bill allows a certain proposed commission to take over all rights and responsibilities of the guthi, including all trustee rights. That means the bill will take superpower over all other rights, documents and past agreements, even court orders related to the guthis and operation of them. This is sure to put all the religious activities spontaneously being conducted by people to an end.

Section 24 : Section 24 terminates rights of the guthi members in the operation of the guthis. Instead, some unknown, unrelated or perhaps uncultured people will come to the take over the guthis preserved by the guthi members for centuries. And nobody knows if those people will have the same devotion to the religion or even basic knowledge of the principle of running the guthis independently. Besides, the government will also turn all documents related to making of guthi dormant or meaningless.

Section 25. Section 25 of the bill makes all the people obligatory to provide information about the income and property of the guthi as well as expenses of rituals and festivals to the government within 6 months of activation of the bill. There are quite a lot of religious proceedings which are still secret to unknown or “ungraduated” people even though they belong to the same guthi. And now, should the learned people of the guthi give all the details of the guthis to the government officials who have never studied the basics of the religion?

Section 27. Section 27 of the bill authorizes the government officials to “categorize” the temples. Could there be any categorizations of gods, deities, religions and devotions? For sure, those government staffers see guthis only as movable and immovable property to be sold and to be leased for immediate benefits.

Section 31. Section 31 allows the government to run filing as well as the opening of company, firm or industries in and around the religious sites. We have already seen the business complex on religious lands. More will be on the line in the future and it will just erase out the religious environment in Kathmandu.

Section 31 (i). Section 31(i) makes it punishable to name one’s company, firm or industries similar to that of any religious sites without taking the permission of the government. Obviously, the religious locals feel proud to name their firms from the heritage they have been taking care of. The government now disassociates people and the heritage they own.

Section 56. Section 56 can give farmer’s right over the land, who comes come with ownership as a farmer. This section transfers the ownership of the land from the tenant or the guthi members to the mohi (hired farmer). This provision terminates the land ownership of the guthi. That means the guthis will be deprived of its assets and obviously, the festivals and preservation of the temples will also be terminated.

Section 73. Section 73 authorities the government body to exchange guthi land for other lands in the name of managing defragmentation the land. This means most of the guthi lands in Kathmandu with high commercial value will be exchanged with those of any unproductive and valueless land of villages (this has already started in past decades). And the guthis will no more be receiving annual crops for conducting the festivals.

These are only some of the controversial provisions the government has introduced in the bill. There could be many more provisions which have hidden meanings to snatch away guthi land property and to make the guthi culture of Kathmandu Valley washed up.

Future of Guthi bill

The reaction was obvious. As people were noticed about the provisions, the fire of protest became visible. Many of people spontaneously took to the street, burned the copies of the proposed bill and protest on social media was rampant. It was in a way historic that those Newars who have, so to say, stopped showing their participation in political protest programmes, are seen actively raising their voice against this bill.

A mass protest in Kathmandu was inhumanly quelled down by the state. Riot police resorted to the use of batons and water cannons, and dispersed the protesters at the Maitighar Mandala. It injured about a dozen demonstrators. This incident caught good media coverage and drew public attention.

The concerned Minister Padma Aryal, as well as some lawmakers, were attacking the Newars by making irritating comments in the media, while the voice of protest went loud and louder. The minister eventually withdrew the bill by issuing a suspicious and unsigned press release.

The government was forced to withdraw the bill on Tuesday evening as the protests that began on 9 June snowballed with more groups and activists joining in. But protesters are calling for the termination of the bill; those conservationists suspect collusion between the government and real-estate mafia to take over property owned by community trusts all over the countries.

Still, hundreds of thousands of people from Kathmandu and other surrounding districts took on the streets to protest against demanding the controversial Guthi Bill to be scrapped. The mainstream media, which seldom shows support to voice of the Newars also agreed that the mass protest was historic. It was not called by one person or organization but the mass, from all walks of life, made it historic. Yes, the reaction of the apolitical Newa denizens was unexpectedly alarming.

The issue made interruptions of the proceedings for some time in the House. Yes, it made some points for the opposition to raise some issue this time. It was indeed supportive to the civil society’s movement against the guthi bill.

It is clear that the government, or the minister, or the top-level bureaucrats did not consult the stakeholders at the time of drafting it. Or, they took help of just some Newar leaders to add the provision so that the state would be eligible to capture the guthi property or to appoint party workers in the mechanism. Rather, the government is seen committed to bulldoze it through the parliament on the strength of its two-thirds majority; the minister was sure that she would get what she needed.

People’s protest against the proposed Guthi bill (photo : Internet)

Some might say, as the minister was saying, and one political party of Bhaktapur was insisting, the bill will manage some of the irregularities now prevailing in the guthi administration. But, looking at the provisions, it is clear that the chances of destroying the guthi system and all the festivals and other religious as well as cultural phenomena are greater.

Everybody knows that culture is the backbone of the unity of the Newars. This very incident of protest against the bill also has proved it. In this context, it cannot be denied that some element in the present government is still active which is planning to destroy bond between the people and the religious institutions, which, they might have thought, would be a step to defragment and thus weaken Newars in their indigenous land. This might be, we can just guess, merely a plan of the immigrants to rule over this valley of historic monuments and cultural heritage.

People’s protest against the proposed Guthi bill (photo: Internet)

The government has not yet abandoned the evil idea of reintroducing the bill and capturing the guthi land. The minister has already said that the bill will be tabled again after it will go through some amendments.

Here, the leadership among the Newars is in a big crisis. This could have been a chance for some capable Newar leaders to come up and show some vigour and unite the whole community, at least for the sake of preserving the guthi and the land. But hardly anything positive is seen more than setting up a gigantic committee and staying back. On top of it, some Newar organizations are indirectly supporting the government in providing some lines of amendments and green signals for the next inning. It is equally suspicious that Newar leaders in the ruling party are brazenly silent in public gatherings over this issue.

We all know that people cannot go against the government law, once the bill is passed, the Newar will have no other option than handing over thousands of historic monuments, rituals and the land property to the Communist government and its unrelated and uncultured party-workers. This is indeed a time of do or dies situation; only united Newers and support from other ethnic communities as well as the Newars living broad can save the living Newar civilization.

A summary of this article is published in DABOO, NEPA PASA PUCHA AMERIKAYE (2020, Noveember)

A writer, a journalist, an Esperantist and a student of Buddhism; and works at Bodhi TV in Nepal.