Shooting their mouths offThose with a public presence have a greater responsibility in their choice of words.
It was nothing remarkable, but 30 years on, I still remember the grievance I heard over the radio on a Nawalparasi hilltop. Having persevered up the climb from Dumkibas on our cross-country cycling trip, we were enjoying a much-needed breather at a Daunne teashop. Giving us company was Radio Nepal with a call-in programme. One of the callers was what sounded like an elderly man with a particular grouse against the use of the common staples in Nepali songs—dai/daju and bahini. He whined that the relationship between a brother and a sister is a sacrosanct one “in our culture”, not to be sullied by the flirtation with clear sexual overtones that goes on in the name of music.
That was, of course, the bad old days when the immense social and cultural diversity of the country was yet to be recognised—let alone celebrated. Besides the fact that dai/daju and bahini are everyday terms of address for any and everyone one meets at random and has nothing to do with the condition of being related, the caller simply assumed that his culture was a universal one applicable to the more than 100 different social groups that call Nepal home.
Of genes and crime
Decades later, and despite everything we have been through to transform ours into a more inclusive society, that kind of mentality still prevails. The latest prominent example came on national TV a couple of months ago through one Bhagwati Pandey, a practising lawyer. Apparently a singer of some renown as well, in the course of the conversation, the interviewer decides to change track and delve into Pandey’s profession. Asked to comment on crime and genetics, Pandey launches into some kind of mumbo-jumbo exposition about the supposed link between genetics and crime. Despite admitting the absence of any evidence, she throws the full weight of her criminal lawyer background to basically say that because among communities like Muslims, Magars and Tamangs marriage takes place between brothers and sisters, it gives rise to some kind of genetic disorder that makes them more prone to criminality.
It was clear that Pandey was equating cousins with brothers and sisters in the parlance mainly of the Hindu caste groups, but her choice of words was quite unfortunate. She did try to defend herself in a subsequent interview that cross cousins (that is, the offspring of a parent’s sibling of the opposite sex) are “called daju-bhai, didi-bahini in our [society]” and that she had earlier meant to use “brother” and “sister” in that sense. The best course of action would have been to acknowledge her (perhaps inadvertent) error and apologise instead of engaging in convoluted explanations. She just did not have the guts to own up to her mistake.
The surprising part was that in the ensuing uproar, the focus was wholly on one aspect of Pandey’s statement—the supposed sibling incest. Condemnable as that may sound, for me, more disturbing was the premise she so confidently laid out: Muslims, Magars, Tamangs and the like are likely to be more criminally minded, full stop. Her reference to the marriage practices among these groups was only by way of explaining the “science” behind their “criminal behaviour”.
Not long afterwards, as an explainer, anthropologist Mukta Singh Tamang published a highly erudite but measured article on cross-cousin marriage, its prevalence in the world, and also how it has historically been demeaned over the centuries, including by that racist pseudo-science called eugenics. Tamang does not dignify Pandey’s statement by referring to her or to the furore she had caused. Perhaps rightly so, but neither does he take issue with her assertion that marriage among cross cousins will produce criminal kids.
The search for a criminal gene has a long history, and while most attempts to prove its existence have been debunked, new research has identified something akin to it. In all the cases, however, there has been a clearly demonstrated effect of the environment on who turns to violent crime, including “poverty, poor nurturing, poor diet, high social inequality levels, low educational attainment, low self-esteem, and impulsivity”. Nowhere is there any mention of such genetic mutation through marriage among close relations.
Pandey seems to be quite unaware that cross-cousin marriage has been traditionally practised by almost all Janajati groups in Nepal. There are communities that allow only matrilateral cross-cousin unions, that is, marriage of a male with the mother’s brother’s daughter, while patrilateral, that is, with the father’s sister’s daughter, and bilateral cross-cousin marriages are also quite common. Pandey seems to have conveniently overlooked the fact that matrilateral cross-cousin marriage is also followed by Thakuris. Or perhaps she chose to ignore it in order to posit her abhorrent thesis of criminality among social groups other than her own kind.
Pity the Other
Pandey’s is a classic example of what is called the “animalisation” of the Other. That is the narrative long-favoured by white supremacists in the United States to justify the brutalisation of blacks and could possibly have been in Pandey’s mind as well. The other side of that same coin is “infantilisation”, whereby certain groups are treated as kids without the capacity for rational thought implicit among those who are “civilised”. Infantilisation can be manifest in different forms and sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
Take the example from a few days ago of KP Sharma Oli. In his inimitable style, he thundered against the government for supposedly selectively targeting Yeti World, the conglomerate that owns Yeti Airlines, among other ventures, and Min Bahadur Gurung, the proprietor of the Bhatbhateni chain of supermarkets. It is hard to believe but this is what Oli had to say of the Yeti group, whose links with Oli has come under considerable criticism: “One Sherpa from Solu used to work as a porter, reportedly since childhood. That person now runs an airline, has a tourism business…” Of Gurung, now implicated in the Lalita Niwas scandal, Oli said: “That Gurung who used to carry loads, used to walk around barefoot, now has become a capitalist through Bhatbhateni…”
Even as he has spoken out in their support, Oli fell into the trap of conjuring up stereotypes of Sherpas and Gurungs as simple-minded folk who work hard for their success. The emotions he tries to evoke are those of pity and sympathy, which is typical of attempts at infantilisation. I am also quite sure Oli would never use “One Bahun” or “That Chhetri” as descriptors since such formulations are always reserved for the Other.
Words do matter, and those with a public presence have a greater responsibility in how they use language. Advocate Pandey has learnt that simple fact the hard way. Oli obviously could not care less.