Striking out on their ownRecent events show that Rajbanshis are as capable of organising themselves as any other group.
Recently, I received a voice message on Facebook Messenger from Malaysia. The message was in response to a Facebook video message that I had made in the Koch-Rajbanshi language, for the First International Koch Cultural Youth Seminar held on October 19 and 20 in Birtamod, Jhapa. The young man turned out to be the youngest of five brothers I knew from my village in eastern Nepal. The older three brothers had been my childhood playmates. I wrote a text message to him on Messenger and asked him to call me only mornings and evenings on weekends because of the time difference between Chicago and Malaysia.
Ordinarily, I don’t like to receive messages on Messenger. And when Facebook 'friends' send one, I usually don’t respond unless it’s important. But in this case, I was curious to know what the young man was doing whose two older brothers called me by my first name, and the younger ones called me daada (older brother). But he again sent a voice message. When we finally connected directly, he revealed that he didn’t know how to read or write; that’s why he didn’t respond in writing. I was shocked. How come somebody who grew up only a few years after me from my village can’t read or write? And then my mind went back in time to his grandfather’s days.
Although he was dead by the time I came of age, I had heard much about his land and wealth that his three sons had inherited. They even had a double-barrel shotgun, a status symbol of luxury, leisure and power of the rich who went hunting in the nearby forest. By the time I was old enough to notice things, his wealth was on the wane as a result of the pressures exercised by the state in its modernising effort to abolish zamindari, impose land ceiling, gradually clear the forest and systematically transfer population from the hills to the plains. Furthermore, the medieval oligarchy was then replaced by a modern autocracy that imposed a one language, one dress policy in the newly opened schools.
In the medieval oligarchy known as the Rana regime, revenue collection from the land and juridical matters were left to the local ethnic zamindars. Thus, in our area, there were a number of Rajbanshi zamindars to whom the local people spoke in their local languages, including Rajbanshi. This was true in all regions of the plains. The central government’s reach ended at the regional headquarters. But now the forest that provided wood for fuel, pillars for houses, leaves for feasts, manure for crops and fish for protein (I had broken my vow of vegetarianism on such a fish at age six) was gone. Their fellow ethnic zamindars were gone too, replaced by Nepali-speaking hill caste officials who didn’t know the local languages and the local people didn’t know Nepali to communicate and read the land or legal documents.
This inescapably increased the influence of the hill castes in the official world. Given the pervasive corruption in the official world and forest or near-forest habitation of these indigenous groups, the indigenous land became the biggest target for legal purchase by hill migrants who were gradually becoming wealthier, and illegal manipulation by corrupt officials working in collusion with unscrupulous settlers.
Thus, indigenous peoples of the Nepali plains found themselves on the frontline of hill-plains migration. Wherever they encountered hill high caste folks, they became losers. The Rajbanshis and other indigenous groups suffered from quadruple deprivations: They bore the brunt of the royal government’s planned migration; they couldn’t access the limitless cultural resources of India nor of the Nepali state nor, unlike many hill indigenous groups, of the British and Indian armies. Nevertheless, they were victims of the discriminatory structures, policies and practices of the state. This discrimination increased multifold after 1960 as the state made incursions into people’s lives through modernisation; it becoming a boon for some but a curse for others.
In the last 20 years since the advent of democracy, much change has occurred in Nepal. The discriminatory monarchy has gone, and the Maoist insurgency did much consciousness-raising among the marginalised. But structurally, the situation has remained more or less the same. Language, provincial demarcation and structural inclusion remain some of the biggest hurdles. However, all cultural groups, including the Rajbanshis, can fully express themselves now. Young Rajbanshis have made a number of films and many song-and-dance videos, and organised fashion shows, beauty pageants and multi-day reformist religious events of Maharshi Mehi of India.
In my childhood, outsiders laughed at and ridiculed Rajbanshi women’s off-the-shoulder dress called petani. Thus, many well-to-do Rajbanshi women began wearing sari, blouse and petticoat, imitating women from the dominant groups. I received a kind of shock when I first saw Hollywood female actors wearing off-the-shoulder gowns on the red carpet on Oscar night. All of them were wearing petani of sorts, albeit less colourful. But now in their fashion shows, the Rajbanshis rightly show off their pride in parading petani-wearing young women.
Otherwise weak in ethnic organisation matters in the past, these recent events of the past decade show that Rajbanshis are as capable of organising themselves as any other group. They have learnt to exploit the burgeoning global capitalism to raise funds. Internet has enabled them to connect with their fellow Koch ethnics in northeast India, Bengal and borderland Bihar—and in the diaspora. And overseas migrant employment for the youth in the Middle East and East and Southeast Asia has leveled the playing field among the lower middle classes of all ethnicities.
Besides, what the African-American thinker WEB Du Bois termed, the Talented Tenth among the Rajbanshis are now doctors, engineers, and US-, Japan- and Europe-educated finance professionals. Thus, it so happens that one of the persons who sent a video message of good wishes to the gathering was a young woman in her 20s who had been a SLC topper and now, after finishing her Master’s in economics from Tokyo, has joined a corporation. Another is an accountant in Australia. My own village brother (my aunt Fokcho’s son), a topper in the bachelor exams in Nepal, is a University of San Francisco-educated banker. One such youth, Avaya Rajbanshi, president of the Koch Gabhur Front, was the lead organiser of the international seminar. When he asked me if I would send a message, I readily agreed because I had grown up virtually as a Rajbanshi in my early years.
Outside forces, global or national, always exert pressure on vulnerable cultural groups, sometimes positive but most often negative. Outsiders as activists can advocate for the marginalised, but it is the cultural groups themselves that have to organise and unite for cultural survival, pressed as they are by both global and national forces to homogenise and disappear. Although my village brother in Malaysia is illiterate, his consciousness has been raised. He is smart enough now, aware enough, to send his six-year-old son to an English-medium school so that he may one day be more than a Talented Tenth.
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