Ties of tradition that bind and blindWithout more aggressive politicisation of the inclusive agenda, cultural divisions are unlikely to end.
Suga is a village pretending to be a township. Located in the middle of the Jaleshwar-Matihani section of the trans-border Mithila Madhyamiki Parikrama circuit, the settlement is said to sit close to one of the several holy sites in the Ganga plains where Sukhdev Rishi of Hindu lore is believed to have meditated.
Snuggling happily between the perennial Bighhi River in the east and torrential Rato in the west, the village has traditionally been safe from the fury of floods that periodically washes away dwellings and crops of neighbouring villages during the monsoon. Sukha means happiness.
Vegetable farming and cattle rearing on the riverbed during dry months is an alternative source of livelihood for the landless living along rivers. With no such option, there is little sukha for the poor in a village that bears the name.
With an altered pronunciation, Sukha also implies dryness. Being away from perennial streams has its pitfalls. Farmers have to be fully dependent on the vagaries of rains to irrigate their fields. Unlike life on the river banks, fishing can’t be a supplementary source of income.
Over a long period of mispronunciation, Sukha became Suga and came to be mistakenly associated with parrots. Perhaps in jest, village elders allege that the name refers to the Brahmin scholars of the village who used to parrot Hindu scriptures in the courts of various rulers of yore.
The settlement lost its rural status when a government diktat drastically reduced the number of local government bodies from around 4000 to 753 and it was merged into nearby Jaleshwar municipality. Its newfound status hasn’t changed either the character or the material condition of its residents.
Like most villages in the neighbourhood, almost every family is at least partly dependent on remittances. Agricultural practices continue to be traditional even though tractors have largely replaced ox-drawn ploughs. The ancient system of irrigation, through a network of ponds and paini (channels), has collapsed while modern canals haven’t materialised.
Farmers anxiously wait for the rainy season and then stay awake through the night when the overflow from waterlogged streets begin to inundate their dwellings. Remittance beneficiaries sit atop their newly-built concrete roofs as pumping sets whirl continuously to clear submerged courtyards.
Fear of Covid-19 appears to have dissipated and everyone seems to have discarded their face masks. There is slightly less crowd in the bazaars, but that may have less to do with viral transmission fears and more due to the lower purchasing power induced by long lockdowns and repeated prohibitory orders.
Predictably, heated discussions at local teashops invariably turn towards politics. Despite being the constituency of Mahantha Thakur, there is little excitement about games being played in the federal capital. However, calculations of caste blocks have begun to be made for forthcoming local elections. It is said that Indian voters don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste instead. That is equally true in most of Madhes.
Contrary to the once-powerful argument that modernity and secularity go together, it has been seen that uncertainties brought about by the pace of modernisation increase anxiety and strengthen religiosity.
Where sacred trees and earthen mounds on the four corners of the village once served as customary shrines for devotees, Suga now boasts of at least two half-built temples. The mosque along the road in Dhobi Tola towers over its surroundings. Not to be outdone, the Jolaha Tole too has upgraded its old mosque. These two groups once defined the outer limits of the village.
Believed to be converts from the caste of Tattama weavers, Jolahas diversified into trade and occupation early on. They have been sending their children to formal schools for much longer. That has ceased to offer a competitive advantage for the labour markets abroad. Longer years of schooling is superfluous for dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs in West Asia.
The mosque of Dhobi Tola looks fancier than Jolaha Tole, but the neighbourhood sends fewer workers outside. Overwhelmingly landless, washing clothes for families of patrons continue to be the main occupation of most Dhobis.
Most children of Dhobis, as well as Jolahas, are still dependent upon local madrasas for basic education. Allegations of Hindutva forces have resulted in throttling of funding that could have helped such Islamic seminaries upgrade into proper schools. The government of Province 2 did try to improve the functioning of madrasas through regulated funding, but it met with stiff resistance.
Upwardly mobile Muslims in Madhes like to claim that the material condition of their community is better than Hindu Dalits, which appears to be true on the surface. Part of the explanation may lie in the higher literacy among Muslims due to the pioneering role of Maulavis.
Unlike Islamic or Christian preachers, Hindu priests and pundits don’t even venture, let alone volunteer, in Dalit settlements. But the Dalit question has become acceptable in the mainstream discourse. In order to counter the Hindutva propaganda, Muslims have learnt to play the role of the ‘ideal minority’ and go the extent of occasionally supporting the Hindu Rashtra theory.
Christians are the invisible minority of Madhes but the sole convert of Suga is recognised by his name. Unlike Muslims, Christians spark instant animosity among most Hindus. The first recorded case of Hindutva terrorism in Nepal in May 2009 was targeted against Christians.
The disgust at the mob attacks against Muslim establishments in Kathmandu in the wake of the Iraq executions in September 2004 was remarkable. But the condemnable bombing of the church in Lalitpur was received with widespread silence. Muslim Nepalis have largely accepted their marginality while Christians assert themselves and attract revilement.
There may be another reason behind the differential treatment of two religious minorities. Cases of conversion into Islam are relatively rare and happens for personal reasons. Hindu zealots feel threatened by the awakening that Christianity seems to have caused among less Hinduised Janajatis and the opportunities that the evangelists offer to ‘upper caste’ converts.
Across the road from the Dhobi Tola mosque, the Chamartoli of traditional midwives and cleaners of animal carcasses continues to be mired in poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. Triply disadvantaged due to the lack of cultural, social and financial capital, the Chamars have failed to benefit from opportunities offered by foreign employment. The Dalit consciousness is higher among Dusadhs a few blocks away, but Chamars seem resigned to their ‘outcaste’ status in the Hindu hierarchy.
Rupa Sunar’s act of resistance in Kathmandu has merely lifted the veil of respectability from the faces of some Newa activists that want to straddle two horses of Hindu identity and Janajati dignity simultaneously. Madhesi Dalits still lack the political capital to create the uproar that their Pahadi counterparts seem to able to incite among self-professed progressives.
The power of conferring any caste below itself and bestowing sacred threads upon those capable of bearing the cost have allowed Brahmins through the ages to ‘Hindu-ise’ Janajatis, amalgamate various groups into the four varnas and co-opt neo-elites as Kshatriyas. Policies of inclusion challenge the religious authority of the Hindu caste system.
That could be the reason some ‘upper caste’ and upper-class Madhesis appear ambivalent about inclusive policies. But without even more aggressive politicisation of inclusive agenda, social ties that deepen cultural divisions and widen economic disparities are unlikely to end.