Endogamy, hierarchy and violenceOnly a free flow of ideas can help society move its culture and traditions in sync with the times.
The present century began for Nepal with the royal massacre of June 1, 2001, in which nine senior and junior members of the country’s royal family were shot dead by the crown prince at a family gathering inside the royal palace in Kathmandu. It was the country’s 9/11. Two decades later in 2020, on May 24, four Dalit youths and their two friends were beaten to death and thrown into the Bheri river in mid-western Nepal by villagers of a so-called higher caste. What caused both incidents of horrendous violence, one at the apex of the religious, social and political structure in the heart of the capital city and the other at the bottom of the hierarchy, in a remote rural mid-hills outpost?
It was the ongoing love affair and insistence of marriage between the crown prince and a young woman of his rank and clan, caste and status but deemed not pure enough in blood and lineage. In the second case, it was the same ongoing unsanctioned love affair and insistence of marriage between a Dalit young man and a young Thakuri woman, the warrior caste that she belongs to supposedly being considered the second-highest.
Tolerance, not acceptance
In both cases, love occurred as an exercise of personal choice and agency in defiance of clan and caste. In the first case, the open-secret affair was tolerated by the crown prince’s family for a decade; in the second case, it was opposed by the girl’s family but the girl defied the family and society and visited the Dalit boy’s family across the river multiple times and spent her nights there. These not so secret exercises of personal choice were tolerated.
But when the crown prince wanted to marry his love at the age of 30, the family opposed it due to a combination of reasons—clan rivalry and caste and marital purity. The young woman’s family, a courtier class, was not perceived to have ‘pure’ lineage. In the case of the Dalit young man, his visit to the girl’s village had earlier been opposed by the girl’s parents. They even had him arrested because they had influence over the local police. In both cases, the young men found themselves just individuals struggling to convert their love into formalised marriages and get the formal sanctions of society and family.
In the ‘us and them’ structure, where one group thinks the other is inferior, establishing informal, clandestine relationships could be objectionable but nonetheless tolerated if it doesn’t threaten the permanent structure. However, the formalisation of such relationships threatens the established architecture of the hierarchy of the caste and clan system.
So, in the case of the royal family, the crown prince—denied his choice of love and threatened to be stripped of the crown and royal privileges that he had all along assumed was his by right—chose to wipe out his whole family. In the more recent case, when the young man and his entourage went to his girlfriend’s village at her invitation (because she said her family was forcing her to marry somebody else), the village felt its upper-caste status and sense of prestige under attack. The Ward Chairman gathered his villagers, hunted down the young men and hit them with rocks, sticks and knives and threw them into a nearby river.
Violence, as is clear, turns into an ultimate weapon to safeguard the identity boundaries. But it also becomes a weapon, as in the crown prince’s case, to destroy obstacles in the path of breaking the ‘us versus them’ structure. In one case, the holder of the ‘us’ status perpetrated violence; in another, the crown prince, in his inflated and injured rage, killed the members of his family—members who presided over the fossilised hierarchy.
But while the royal massacre weakened the monarchy, irrevocably paving the way for its abolition after the people’s movement of 2006, will the recent killings stop young people from marrying across caste divides, including between Dalits and non-Dalits?
Much remains the same
In a column in the Nepali Times in 2001, just after the incident, I said that the royal massacre shows that ‘a society cannot have a democratic polity while remaining culturally feudal’. But 20 years later, despite the district where the Dalit murders occurred being a previous hotbed of the Maoist insurgency, the culture remains feudal in this outpost. Maoist revolutionary violence has reincarnated as caste-induced violence to preserve the status quo.
Violence has caused accidents and destruction in both cases, but it cannot eradicate the breaking of caste boundaries. This is because society is constantly being propelled forward by local and global forces, changing culture. People’s deep-held beliefs, however, remain unpredictable at best and fossilised at worst. Thus, the royal family remained backwards in comparison to the country’s march forward in the political sphere, and a western hill district in 2020 remains regressive. The Maoist insurgency came and went—as a form of avant garde violent action rather than an agent of durable social transformation. The discrepancy between people’s cultural beliefs and external events in both cases, 20 years apart, has produced these massacres.
Upon close historical examination, neither the Nepali royal family nor the people at the outpost possessed pure caste and clan lineage. But how can such ideas sink in people’s consciousness?
Given democratic politics is turning increasingly into majoritarianism, politicians would pander to group voters’ baser instincts to get votes, not challenge them to shed their anachronistic beliefs. Therefore, in city or village, in the patrons or plebs, a constant flow of deeper ideological counterpoint (flow of discourse) needs to circulate through society via multiple media, to transform people’s cultural beliefs. Law books by themselves haven’t been enough because enforcers of the law are people from the same society. It’s the intellectuals and the flow of ideas through the media that can help society move its culture in sync with the times.