Making and Un-making ‘Sukumbasi’: Contestations over Naming in Kathmandu’s Urban Politics
This paper examines the concerted erasure of the word ‘sukumbasi’ by governmental and nongovernmental agencies in the context of Kathmandu’s urban politics, linking it to a process of de-politicization of a land-rights based movement. This paper argues that sukumbasi identity and political agendas are deeply rooted in issues of land reform and ownership. ‘Sukumbasi’ refers to both a population of people as well as a recognized physical space claimed and inhabited by the group. Starting 1998, sukumbasi groups began to organize under an umbrella organization whose primary objective was to obtain titles (lalpurja) for its sukumbasi constituents. Their slogan – “Bhumisaahitko baas adhikar” articulated the radical politics of their movement in no uncertain terms.
Drawing upon ethnographic and archival research, this paper argues that as the sukumbasi movement intensified across the nation, the word ‘sukumbasi’ presented a particular challenge to governmental and nongovernmental agencies. On the one hand, governmental agencies were troubled by the sukumbasi movement’s demands for landrightsand titles. On the other hand, nongovernmental organizations too were anxious todistance themselves from overtly politicized land-rights issues. Building on insights frompolitical anthropology and the anthropology of development, this paper will argue thatthe re-casting of ‘sukumbasi’ as ‘informal settlements’, ‘urban poor’, ‘squatters/squattersettlements’, ‘slums/ slum-dwellers’, etc. by various involved agencies calls for anerosion of the radical demands of the sukumbasi movement. While marginalized urbangroups may contest certain dominant discourses that challenge their political agendas,they are compelled to accept certain organizing themes such as ‘housing/shelter rights’that frame their political interests. By seeking to control the meanings of such framingconcepts governmental and nongovernmental actors maneuver to actively depoliticizesukumbasi agendas, e.g. by rendering sukumbasis as populations in need of certainservices (e.g. housing services) rather than land-rights. While rapid urbanization continues to accelerate the transformation of physical, social,and political landscapes in Nepal, the benefits of and control over urbanization continueto be unevenly accrued by certain segments of society. By examining particular strugglesover naming and defining ‘sukumbasi’, this paper provides insight into the actualworkings of urban governance to show how certain groups maneuver to cope with andchallenge specific aspects of urban processes. Doing so this paper will reveal definite ways through which certain marginalized urban groups arrive at and contest specific understandings of government, local and national-level politics, and citizenship.