Federalism was adopted in Nepal to address the issues of inclusion of indigenous and marginalised groups, most of whom have their own community governance systems and practices. However, these indigenous governance systems are also undergoing transformation with changes in socio-political landscape. This is a case study of one such transformation of community leadership/institution of the Tharu in western Tarai.

Historically and traditionally, Bhalmansa, a patriarchal figure, is a community leader with considerable influence and responsibilities for drafting, implementing and governing community relations independently through Badghar/Barghar, a unique Tharu institution. As community-recognised leaders, Bhalmansa assist in governing the community or village, resolving communal disputes, conserving their own cultures, managing the natural resources, among others. Also, the institutionalisation of the Badghar has been initiated since 2010/2011, with its national conference demanding formal shares within the state/government structures. However, the present federal set up of Nepal leaves minimal scope for traditional institutions like Badghar, necessitating interaction between formal and informal governance entities.

While the Badghar, as an institution, has pursued many paths into public life and politics and Tharu elite men have always been annually selected to this post, introduction of a democratic election process marks a notable departure from this long-standing practice, transitioning and transforming down to younger generations, women and even non-Tharu individuals. As a result, the community leadership has shifted to future generations, particularly Tharu women, which was previously extremely rare.

Nowadays, the individual and his or her tenure as Bhalmansa is entirely dependent on the support of every member of that community, resulting in the inclusion of women and some non-Tharu in leadership. Whether the non-Tharu settlers in Tarai also accept the Badghar, or if they have their own community leader and follow the same rules of community governance as the Tharus, is still an open question. Despite this, Badghar is evolving as an institution for gender empowerment through inclusive community leadership.

Nepal with the adoption of federalism for the devolution of authority to local levels with the stated aim of inclusion of indigenous and marginalised communities, however, practically leaves limited scope for such traditional and historical practices of community governance. The Badghar system and Bhalmansa is just a case. As a response, former senior Bhalmansa and Tharu leaders have time and again demanded a space within existing formal structures, initiating dialogues with state representatives to recognize their traditional roles and rights into the present governance framework. For example, recently, Tharu leaders and Bhalmansa in Kailali had a formal meeting with the CDO and initiated the institutionalisation of Badghar at the municipal level as well.

Drawing preliminary insights from Kailali district, this study employs qualitative methods, including informal dialogues with diverse Tharu community stakeholders such as Bhalmansa, representatives from the Tharu Commission, members of Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha and political figures. By examining their perspectives, this paper aims to uncover the relations of this power shift and leadership transition in the Tharu community and their constant dialogues with states for official recognition and greater roles at local level.