The Guthi Act amendment bill registered in the National Assembly has been met with sharp criticism from stakeholders and rightly so. The bill comes as a result of renewed political interest in Guthis. This was apparent when the Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada expressed the government’s plan to modernize the Guthi institution at the Guthi Sansthan’s 55th anniversary program. However, the true motive of this interest appears to be suspicious, and in effect, it may kill the true essence of the Guthi institution or end the institution altogether.
Guthis have been misinterpreted in scholarly literature with celebrated scholars like Mahesh Chandra Regmi opting to focus more on the land tenure aspect of Guthis rather than the socio-cultural aspects of the Newar Guthi. When the Newar state headed by the Malla kings was taken over, the Shahs and subsequently the Ranas did not dissolve the legacy of the former state but incorporated them into the state’s governmental framework. Jung Bahadur’s Muluki Ain had clear provisions for Guthis. Guthi land holdings were popular amongst the Ranas as they were mostly tax exempt and the state could not confiscate them under almost any circumstances. Thus Guthis became more about the land and not the organizations themselves. Moreover, the Ranas, with their feudalistic interpretation of the Guthis, used them to exploit peasant farmers who cultivated these lands. The later-formed Guthis became a means for the privileged class to gain religious merits as well as material benefits at the expense of exploited farmers. But, earlier Guthis among the Newars often belonged to the farmers themselves and the provisions were far from exploitative. Nevertheless, it needs to be acknowledged that with Shah and the Rana regime continuing to provide legitimacy to Guthis, the legacy of the Newar state continued to exist with several state functions still being provided by Guthis, especially in and around the capital.
The Gorkhali misinterpretation of Guthis introduced several aberrations to the Guthi institution. It is these aberrations of the Guthis that came during feudal Rana rule that gave Guthis a label of being exploitative towards tenant farmers. Later reforms that were introduced within the state legislation were the results of the aberration of Guthis; those that are seen to have been introduced during the Rana regime. Land Reform Act of 2021 B.S and Guthis Sansthan Act of 2033 B.S can be seen to have this element. Unfortunately, the older Guthis that were essential for upkeeping of the city infrastructures within the Newar city states were also affected by the introduced reforms as Guthis lost their source of income either partially or in full. Resultantly, several monasteries, temples and other public infrastructures like hiti, pati etc lost their custodial Guthis or had them weakened on the longer run.
If Guthis are discontinued in their current form and formed through bureaucratic or political appointments of new members based on technical ability, as per the proposed bill, Guthis will become like donor driven NGOs or technocratic semi-government agencies; neither of which will be as resilient or effective.
The Gorkha Earthquake of 2015 brought back the discussion of Guthis to mainstream media as it highlighted the fact that the dissolution of many Guthis had left traditional public infrastructures without a state framework to ensure their maintenance and reconstruction. The renewed interest is a positive as a Guthi is not just simply a legacy of the past but a unique historical institution that continues to have relevance in the contemporary context, the parallels of which are rarely found elsewhere in the world.
Guthis do have parallels with commons-oriented organization such as User Committees and Cooperatives but they also have some intrinsic characteristics which may not adhere to western standards, which seem to be the ideal model for modernization. Guthis are based on kinship and this is what makes them special. User Committees, cooperatives or NGOs lack this feature while it is the strength of Guthis. This aspect of Guthis gives them the ability to continue to function with minimum, or in some cases, even no state support. People participate in their Guthis because they have a feeling of accountability towards one’s own community. If Guthis are discontinued in their current form and formed through bureaucratic or political appointments of new members based on technical ability, as per the proposed bill, Guthis will become like donor driven NGOs or technocratic semi-government agencies; neither of which will be as resilient or effective.
There have already been opinions that the bill needs to be scrapped. But rather than being scrapped, the bill needs to be rewritten through consultation with the stakeholders, who are the Guthiyars themselves.
There are more serious flaws in the registered bill that can be pointed out which explains why there has been widespread criticism against it. The provision to allow selling of Guthi owned land is illogical if the act is aimed for the betterment of the Guthis. Previous reforms have shown that allowing Guthisyars to privatize and sell Guthi lands will only render the Guthis defunct. Yet the provisions in the new bill for selling of Guthi lands suggests that the claims of the bill facilitating the notorious “land-mafia” is most likely true. The bill also fails to take into consideration how deeply pervasive Guthis are within the Newar societal structure (this is not seen among other communities) and for that reason not all private Guthis can or should be subjected to intervention from a state authority. Moreover, the bill fails to adequately understand the overall features of Guthis and continues with the flawed state definition of Guthis being merely a religious trust or land tenure system. There have already been opinions that the bill needs to be scrapped. But rather than being scrapped, the bill needs to be rewritten through consultation with the stakeholders, who are the Guthiyars themselves.
It has to be pointed out that the step of the government has brought a fresh new round of discussions on the Guthi institution, and this can be taken as a silver lining. The younger generations were rapidly losing the sense of the importance of Guthis. Perhaps, this trend may now even take a u-turn; this will certainly be for the good of the Newar community, Kathmandu valley and Nepal in general. Guthi is a unique institution of governance which encompasses communities into the framework of state functions as active participants.
In the time where citizen participation is an aspect that is highly sought after for state governance in the most advanced states around the world, it is something special for Nepal to already have an institution that incorporates community units into the local governance framework. The Guthi institution of Nepal should not be seen as a relic of the past and it should see timely reforms. However, this should only be with thorough understanding of the institution and the implication of the introduced reforms.
Shobhit Shakya is a researcher at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, TalTech, Estonia.