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Dor Bahadur Bista Prize for the Best Graduate Student Paper

The Dor Bahadur Bista Prize honors the life, career, and service of Dor Bahadur Bista, Nepal’s first anthropologist and former Honorary President of the ANHS predecessor organization, the Nepal Studies Association (NSA). The purpose of the prize is to recognize outstanding scholarship by students whose research focuses on the areas of Himalayas. Submissions from all academic disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and arts will be accepted.

Past Winners

2019 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The winner of the 2019 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize is Stefan Lüder, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin. Lüder’s paper, “Beyond the ‘Historical Island’: Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh and Himalayan Humanism in the Early 20th Century,” explores the life and work of the now-forgotten Himalayan intellectual, Jaya Prithvi Bahdur Singh, and demonstrates his presence at the European centers of humanistic debate and advocacy on the post-WWI world stage. In so doing, the paper makes a significant contribution to Himalayan Studies while simultaneously demonstrating the relevance of Himalayan actors and agencies to Global History and scholarship beyond national and regional boundaries.

Lüder’s paper was one of five strong submissions that the committee considered this year. The applicants represented four different disciplines (Anthropology, Asian and African Area Studies, Development Studies, and History), and are enrolled at universities in Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Stefan Lüder’s Abstract:

A natural, almost insurmountable border between the Tibetan plateau and the subcontinent of South Asia, to this day the Himalayan region is perceived as isolated and remote. In academic debates the region is always finds itself at the periphery of discursively defined sub-divisions of Asia, i.e. between South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Meanwhile, historiography and historical research in the Himalaya remains largely within national narratives, thereby, largely ignoring historical interconnections, entanglements and interdependencies transcending imagined – and often politically motivated – regional and national boundaries. As a result, paraphrasing Michael A. Bernardo’s (2011) assessment, the Himalaya continues to be understood as a historical island surrounded by a sea of historical activity. In an attempt to address this historiographical desiderate, my paper follows the life and works of a Himalayan intellectual by the name Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh. Today, Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh as well as most of his work and ideas are almost completely forgotten in Himalayan historiography while scholars of Global History have never heard of him. To counter this phenomenon, my paper seeks to address the following research questions: Who was Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh and why is his life and work relevant to dismantle hegemonic national narratives of the past in Asia? I propose the hypothesis that Jaya Prithvi’s specific way of thinking about humanity constitutes a philosophical approach in its own right, which I will, therefore, coin Himalayan Humanism. Moreover, I will argue that the exploration and analysis Jaya Prithvi’s life and work has great potential to contribute to overcome the insular perspective and perception of Himalayan history and historiography, render translocal, transregional and even global historical entanglements of the region with the rest of the world visible and, finally, enrich broader issues and debates that animate scholarship beyond Asia, e.g. Global Intellectual History.

The Dor Bahadur Bista Prize is awarded annually to a paper authored by a current graduate student in any of the academic disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. The prize honors the life, career, and service of Dor Bahadur Bista, Nepal’s first anthropologist and former Honorary President of the ANHS predecessor organization, the Nepal Studies Association (NSA). The purpose of the Prize is to recognize outstanding scholarship by students whose research focuses on the areas of High Asia (Hindu Kush – Karakoram – Himalaya – Tibetan Plateau) that comprise the principal interests of ANHS.

2018 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The winner of the 2018 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize for Best Graduate Student Paper is Pearly Wong, for her paper titled, “A Missed Opportunity for Transformation? – An Analysis of Official Climate Change Discourse and Adaptation Strategy in Nepal.” Pearly is a student in a joint PhD program in the Department of Anthropology and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This year’s competition had three strong submissions from three different countries (the US, Canada, and Germany) and three different disciplines (Anthropology, Language & Literary Education, and South Asian Studies).

Pearly Wong’s Abstract:

Despite the highly political process of international climate change negotiations, most efforts in climate change adaptation assume an apolitical, technical policy process (Tanner and Alloche, 2011). The paper examines the different climate justice discourses as well as critical approaches to climate change adaptation, followed by a case study of Nepal, to examine their translation into its national and sub-national policy framework. I conducted qualitative analysis on eight major climate-change related documents by the country, chosen based on availability online, language, and their broader scope of applicability. The result shows that Nepal has adhered to the ‘vulnerability’ and ‘transition’ discourses, which serve as important tools to advocate for support from the international climate change regime. Driven primarily by international processes and guidelines, the climate change policies and documents in Nepal project a heavily technocratic approach with little socio-cultural considerations. Vulnerability is understood as a static property and assessed based on sectors and geographic area, while adaptation is understood as series of actions to be implemented. Overall, the policies demonstrate an apparent lack of political ecology and anthropological perspectives, with the risk of perpetuating the existing systemic ills, as well as impeding imaginaries to pursue more radical socio-political and cultural change as effective adaptation measures.

Keywords: Nepal, climate justice, adaptation, climate change policy, vulnerability

2017 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The winner of the 2017 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize for best graduate student paper is Samuele Poletti, for his paper titled, “Horoscopic knowledge and existential narratives: Predetermination and freedom in the Sinja Valley of Jumla District, Nepal”. Samuele is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. This year’s competition yielded five strong papers in five different fields (Social Sciences, Linguistic Anthropology, Social Anthropology, Developmental Studies, and, for the first time as far as we know, Art History), and came from near and far (1 US, 1 Canada, 1 India, and 2 Europe).

Samuele Poletti’s Abstract:

Nepalese people are rarely satisfied by pure coincidence, and astrological divination aims precisely at providing access to the “hidden motifs” attained to determine life events. This brings to the fore a rough account of someone’s future personality, along with the major events that will characterise that particular life. Moreover, it expands the individual drama by assuring the existence of a cosmological design behind the apparently random unfolding of existence. Hindu astrology appears therefore as a form sense-making, taming the wilderness of the world and the irreducibility of the experience in it by providing existential narratives. Conveying yet a beacon of hope to act upon what is initially approached as a hopeless fate, astrological divination forwards the perception that troubling events apparently out of control are liable not only to be endured but also to be acted upon, revealing thus a permanent tension between “determinism” and “freedom”. From an existential perspective, this is a form of resistance against the simple unfolding of life, which here takes the form of an attempt to gain partial control upon the obscure machinations of fate. In light of that, an absolutistic rendering of fatalism in Nepal will not do justice to its people, for, at a closer look, few are those who entirely surrender to their fate. Consequently, divinatory practices may be seen as a sort of “freedom in disguise”.

2016 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The winner of the 2016 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize for best graduate student paper is Shae Frydenlund, a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her paper, “Labor Racialization and Territory in Nepal’s Indigenous Nationalities Discourse: moving beyond “tribal” vs “peasant” categories,” introduces material that is theoretically and ethnographically new and engaging. Frydenlund’s was one of five submissions considered in this year’s competition. In addition to Geography, the applicants (1 Masters student, 4 PhD students) represented the fields of Anthropology, Ethnomusicology, and International Development Studies, and are enrolled at universities in the US and the Netherlands. The applicants included one Nepali, one South Korean, and three American students.

Shae Frydenlund’s Abstract

In Nepal, Khaling indigenous nationalities discourse draws our attention to the way tribal and peasant categories blur in articulations of indigeneity, rather than working as separate strategies for gaining greater political rights. Through their oral histories, territorial claims, and most importantly their stories about labor in the Khumbu, activists within the Khaling indigenous nationalities movement advocate for government recognition and fuller political rights. While labor is often left out of definitions of indigeneity, Khaling activists make claims to being indigenous people with their own territory specifically because of their position in the mountain labor hierarchy. This paper examines the emergence of a distinct Khaling indigeneity in the context of broader historical, political and economic processes, specifically Nepal’s racialized ethnic hierarchies, to disrupt bifurcated understandings of “tribal” vs “peasant” trajectories of activism. In understanding the contextual formation of Khaling land claims and indigenous identity, this research sheds new light on the role of racialized labor hierarchies in shaping local and regional articulations of indigeneity, and offers a fresh perspective on indigeneity as concept and political practice in Nepal and elsewhere.

2015 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The winner of the 2015 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize for best graduate student paper is Uma Pradhan, a PhD candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her paper, “The New Languages of Schooling: Ethnicity, Education and Equality in Nepal,” is an original, well written, and timely piece on the current dynamics of mother tongue education in Nepal that is based on recent ethnographic research. Pradhan’s was one of five submissions considered in this year’s competition. In addition to International Development, the applicants (2 MA students, 3 PhD students) represented the fields of Political Science, Geography, Sociology, and Environment and Business, and are enrolled at universities in the US (3), Canada (1), and England (1). All but one of the applicants was a Nepali national.

Uma Pradhan’s Abstract

Mother-tongue education has remained a controversial issue in Nepal. Scholars, activists and policy-makers have, on the one hand, favored mother-tongue education from the standpoint of social justice. Against these views, others have identified this as predominantly groupist in its orientation and not helpful in an imagination of a unified national community. Taking this contention as a point of inquiry, this paper aims to explore the contested space of mother-tongue education to understand the ways in which people position themselves within the polarizing debates of ethnicity-based claims on education in Nepal. Drawing from the ethnographic fieldwork in mother-tongue education school, in this paper, I illustrate that the students made meaning in their everyday world by maintaining the multilingual repertoire that included their mother tongue, Nepali and some English; multilingualism was used as a strategy for mother-tongue education. I propose a notion of simultaneity to explain this attempt to seek membership into multiple groups and display of apparently contradictory dynamics. The practices in these schools, on the one hand, display inward-looking characteristics through the everyday use of mother tongue, the construction of unified ethnic identity and cultural practices. On the other hand, there were outward-looking dynamics of making claims in the universal spaces of national education and public places. The salience of these processes is the simultaneous membership to multiple groups, claims over public spaces and in the spaces of nationalism, hitherto associated with Nepali. This paper illustrates that contrary to the essentialist categories espoused in both nationalist discourse and ethnic activism, students in these school display affiliation to multiple languages and identities that were seen as neither incompatible nor binary opposites.

2014 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The 2014 winner of the Dor Bahadur Bista Prize was Jacob Rinck. Jacob’s innovative paper uses historical and archival material to examine changing political practices around land in the Tarai since 1950. Jacob is a PhD student at Yale University in Anthropology. More information about his research can be found at his webpage.

Jacob Rinck’s abstract

This paper examines aspects of Nepal’s changing political economy by tracing the relationship between political elites and agrarian structures in the central Tarai since the first democratic revolution in 1950. Based on a review of existing literature on land reform and land distribution, as well as ethnographic material from Dhanusha district gathered during 2013 summer research, it tentatively argues that the political importance of land decreased significantly over the three decades of Panchayat rule between 1960 and 1990. In the 1940s and 1950s, land was the major economic and political resource; all top political leaders at the time came from landlord families. After the introduction of a land ceiling in 1964, however, access to patronage resources distributed through the royal palace, and later the democratic government, in Kathmandu seems to have become much more important. This change manifests itself in the social background of national level leaders from Dhanusha in the 1990s, as leaders from middle-caste, middle-peasant backgrounds started successfully challenging candidates from older elites in elections. These observations challenge interpretations of Nepal’s 1964 land reform as unsuccessful; re-distributive effects in the short run may have been limited, but it does seem to have led to a significant decline of the value of land as form of political capital, and may have contributed to the opening up of political space in the long run.

2013 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

The competition this year received an unprecedented number of papers, the quality of which was remarkably high. Of the nine papers submitted, four were from the US, three from the UK, and one each from Canada and Australia. The papers covered an array of disciplines, including Anthropology (2), Geography, Social and Cultural Psychology, Linguistics, Second Language Studies, Public Policy, Cultural and Spatial Ecology, and International Development.

Pauline Limbu, PhD candidate in the Dept of Anthropology at Cornell University, has been awarded the 2013 Dor Bista Bahadur Prize for her paper entitled”From Kipat to Autonomy: Land and Territory in Today’s Limbuwan Movement.”

Pauline Limbu’s Abstract:

This paper is written in the context of current post-conflict transitional period in Nepal where expectations of justice and equality for historically marginalized communities are based, partly, on future state restructuring of the country. One of the major challenges around state restructuring in Nepal is to address the aspirations of movements demanding autonomy through identity-based federal states. This paper explores the Limbuwan movement, a political movement for greater autonomy in Eastern Nepal among an ethnic group who live in the East called Limbus. This paper uses the Limbuwan and Limbu example to shed light on how claims about proposed federal states are situated in a shared understanding of history linked to land and territory. I do this by examining how territorial history shaped the current Limbuwan movement and how those in the movement, in turn, use this history to legitimize their claims to attain their political goal of a federal autonomous state. I particularly focus on kipat lands which were ostensibly a historical form of communal land management but also, this paper argues, symbolic of much more for Limbus. I examine firstly the Limbus’ historical relation with their kipat lands and ancestral territory, and how the contemporary Limbuwan movement’s territorial claims are based on particular readings of this history. I secondly argue that kipat has provided an aspect of Limbu identity and belonging to their territory and, further, kipat has transformed or expanded beyond a system of land tenure and management to a developed notion of territoriality and autonomy for Limbus. This paper draws on written sources, interviews, ethnographic field work in Eastern Nepal as well as theoretical studies on land, territory, autonomy and identity.

2012 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

Mr. Christopher Butler’s paper titled “Since the Fighting Stopped: Changing Attitudes about Development in Rural Nepal” won the 2012 Dor Bahadur Prize. This work addresses the issue of bikas in Rukum District. It analyzes field-based data and dovetails empirical findings with deeply researched social and cultural factors. Mr. Butler has made a compelling theoretical contribution regarding a much discussed and debated topic in scholarship about Nepal – namely, bikas and what it signifies, why, how, and to whom. This paper contributed to our understanding of the transformations in social and political agency in post-Maoist Nepal.

2011 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

Sarah Besky, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Paper Title: Moral Economies of Land, Labor, and Justice on Darjeeling Tea Plantations

Abstract: This article explores how tea plantation laborers in Darjeeling, India understood their place in the circulation of an environmental commodity – fair trade and organic Darjeeling tea – and confronted the alienation of land, labor, and product. Moving beyond economically rooted theories of empowerment, I explore how, in an era in which environmental commodities are increasingly seen as material vehicles for social change, the universal concept of justice is made “practically effective” when people engage it in particular, place-based histories of cultural and economic encounter (Tsing 2005:8). I draw upon environmental history, linguistic and kinship analysis, and gendered narratives of identity to understand how workers in Darjeeling localized the universal concept of “justice” to comment on the conditions of life and tea production. Workers used “justice” to position themselves in postcolonial national and regional politics as well as a global environmental commodity chain. “Justice” grappled with tea’s place among Darjeeling’s “imperial ruins” (Stoler 2008), in which Nepali workers saw the remnants of a stable moral economy and productive tea industry. Workers believed that they could revitalize these ruins, not with organic certification schemes or fair trade premiums, but through the formation of a separate Indian state of Gorkhaland.

2010 Dor Bahadur Bista Prize Winner

Tejendra Pherali, Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom

Paper Title: Leadership in Peril: Managing School and Self during Nepal’s ‘People’s War’


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