French riots and Nepal’s ‘respectable’ casteismEveryone pretends that Dalits have been afforded unprecedented amounts of rights and privileges.
The violent unrest in France over the past few days, following the murder of a 17-year old Algerian-descent man, Nahel M, by a Parisian policeman on June 27, has shaken the country. There have been deadly clashes with the enforcement officials on the streets of Paris, Marseillie and many other cities and towns. Hundreds of protestors have been arrested and many shops and businesses vandalised or looted. A Parisian mayor’s family home was attacked and his family injured.
Similar to the 2020 uprising in the United States of America after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, in the city of Minneapolis, the French uprising has drawn global attention. Not many people would support this level of violence, but the spontaneous outpouring of rage by the underprivileged youth and their supporters deeply resonates with the feelings of many oppressed peoples in Europe and around the globe, including, of course, Nepali Dalits.
The United Nations has alluded that the French riots are a reaction to a deep culture of racial hatred and violence in society, including police brutality. It issued a statement urging France to recognise this reality and address its “deep issues” of racial hatred.
Indeed, many activists, scholars and journalists have also commented that the nation-wide disturbance is much more than an issue of law and order, although the government would be inclined to represent it as such. The flaring of the street violence is a form of fightback against persistent racial discrimination and police brutality mainly targeted at the immigrants and their descendants originally from North Africa.
On June 30, the French author, film director and activist Rokhaya Diallo wrote an angry commentary in The Guardian, where she held the state responsible for the destructive rioting on the streets. She observed, “France has ignored racist police violence for decades. This uprising is the price of that denial.”
Many published research papers and books demonstrate the endemic problem of racial profiling and violence in France. Above all, I found Jim Wolfrey’s 2017 book Republic of Islamophobia: The rise of respectable racism in France interesting and useful. An academic at the University College London, Wolfrey specialises in French history. In this remarkable book, he unveils how the French political class has systematically whitewashed racism in recent decades. I was particularly struck by Wolfrey’s novel concept of “respectable racism”. I believe this can be a useful lens to understand the dynamics of racism and similar issues in almost any country.
The author argues that racist policies have become widely accepted and “respectable” in French society in the past decades under the veneer of secularism and gender equality. The 2011 ban on full-face cover, for example, has been described as a step towards promoting female freedom amongst Muslim minorities. On the contrary, the policy has been a powerful tool to demonise and suppress minority religions and cultures, thereby promoting Islamophobia.
Through Wolfrey’s perspective, one can discern that Nepal, too, has been promoting what might be called “respectable casteism” over the past decades. The problem has become further entrenched, particularly since the fall of the Hindu monarchy in 2008.
Paradoxically, the end of the royal regime has led to the bolstering of Brahmanism. Whereas in the past, Brahmins were in charge of religious/moral authority and Chhetris of political authority, now Brahmins control both. Even the second tier of the social structure now feels alienated and disempowered. Forget about those at the bottom of the ladder.
Strengthened Brahmanism has inevitably led to further Hinduisation of politics (actively promoted by the BJP government across the border). So much so that Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who destroyed Hindu temples and slaughtered cows to feed Brahmins during the so-called People’s War, recently performed an elaborate six-hour puja at the Mahakaleshwar Temple in Ujjain, India. That too in a saffron suit, in Narendra Modi’s fashion.
This means greater intolerance towards minority religions (Christians, Muslims) and suppressed groups—particularly Janajatis and Dalits. The latter are religiously and culturally perceived as impure, inauspicious and polluted.
Much of the national federal and provincial budget is now spent on building or decorating Hindu temples and religious sites. But not a rupee is spent on steps necessary to enforce the new laws in favour of Dalit freedom. Everyone seems content with the false belief that Dalits have become free and equal under the veneer of constitutionalism, liberal democracy and secularism.
In the past, when autocratic Shah kings and Rana families ruled the land, caste discrimination was a clearly stated policy. The 1854 Muluki Ain introduced by Jung Bahadur Rana was so casteist that even penal laws were different for different castes, and the Dalits were officially treated worse than slaves. In contrast, the 2015 constitution of republican Nepal has guaranteed full civic and human rights to every cater, including Dalits. Caste discrimination has become a punishable crime.
These are great achievements, of course, which potentially open the gates of Dalit liberty. Of equality and humanity. But these letters in the law books seem toothless in the face of traditional Hindu laws or the code of Manu.
Violence against Dalits has gone up in recent years. Dalits attempt to exercise their rights as stated in the constitution, which becomes unacceptable for the so-called upper caste. The latter refuse to give up caste discrimination not only to preserve the traditional power structure, but also to avoid the potential wrath of their lineage and other deities.
All the parties and their leaderships understand too well that casteism has remained strong even today mainly due to the mismatch or contradiction between modern secular laws and the traditional Hindu laws. As Nepal is a Hindu majority country where most people are religious—or firmly spiritual—this becomes an intractable problem.
But, instead of dealing with this caste conundrum, governments and parties, and society in general, have chosen to deny the very existence of the problem. Everyone pretends that society is changing rapidly in a new republican setup and Dalits have been afforded unprecedented amounts of rights and privileges. With this culture of denial—the supposition that Nepal has moved to a post-caste society—comes the harassment of anyone trying to speak up for caste equality. This is seen in social media discourse, mainly on Facebook and TikTok.
The following are some of the false but popular understandings about Dalits: i) Contemporary Dalits enjoy too much freedom and privilege from the state, especially through the quota system; ii) If they want to enjoy state benefits as low castes, they should naturally expect to be treated as such; iii) State laws are squarely on Dalit’s side, at the expense of sacred laws and cultural traditions; iv) Dalits also exclude other castes from their homes and ritual performances; so why blame only the higher castes for bigotry and intolerance.
In other words, casteism has now become much more accepted and respectable in Nepali society. Unlike in the past, when fighting against the state, political parties don’t attack caste discrimination. The media and civil society aren’t bothered either. And, always led and indoctrinated by the upper castes, many Dalit activists themselves are confused; they lack the guts to speak up.