Why is the dominant ethnicity preserving the status quo?I wish the marginalised communities started to speak about economic class in the same breath as ethnicity
After having read about Brahminism and ethnic movements, my spirit, at large, has been with marginalised communities. I have previously written and presented about Madhesis and Janajatis, but have always stopped short of talking about my own roots. Under the surface, however, in these aeon of hyper ethnic nationalism, is a conversation, I feel, should find space in the mainstream discourse: the ethnic development, mobilisation, fears and aspirations of Bahuns.
The stories and research propagated by the likes of Dor Bahadur Bista, who wrote about how Bahuns slowly established their cultural dominance over Nepal, have always struck a chord with me. And though ethnic autonomy was not on King Mahendra’s mind, it is true that Nepal was ‘Hinduised’ by King Mahendra, seeking to homogenise the heterogeneous cultures and traditions of Nepal. And Nepali Hinduism, which is as cultural as it is religious, again had the Brahminical hierarchy with hill Bahuns at the top.
But let’s not homogenise Bahuns in Mahendra’s ‘Hinduisation’ image. Allow me to present two broad types of Bahuns on social levels, although there might be other Bahuns who identify themselves anywhere between these two types. Also, the characteristics of the two types can overlap with each other. Likewise, it cannot also be claimed that these ideas are exclusive for Bahuns. People from other ethnic groups might have also accepted and internalised some (or all) aspects of both these ideological ends.
The first Bahun group are those who do not see anything wrong with the persistent socio-cultural status quo. They are very proud of their pure (or purer than others) blood line. For them, Nepali language is superior to other languages in Nepal and it would create an unnecessary social confusion and administrative hassle to allow other languages of Nepal to flourish. Nepal needs to be reverted to a Hindu nation, to preserve the cultural sanctity and historical distinctiveness. To their worldview, Dalits are untouchables, even the softer version of them would not allow Dalits inside their kitchen. And as nothing really was wrong with the ethno-linguistic past, they are taken by surprise by marginalised communities’ demands for social justice. Most distinctively, they are not just against federalism based on identity but against any kind of federalism as it has a potential to break a country. Finally, to them, the historical domination, as a matter of fact, reaffirmed that the Nepali language, hill-based Hindu culture and above all—the cultural supremacy of Bahuns—as inherently better than other mechanisms.
The second type of Bahuns would like to become dependable allies of marginalised communities in their struggles to re-‘heterogenise’ Nepal. They feel sad to know that many Newari friends grieve their gradual decline of Nepal bhasa and support some on-going movements to revive and preserve other ethnic languages. They genuinely feel that if Madhesis want land within Nepal itself as federal entities, they should have the right to self-govern themselves. After all, self-governance is the basic tenet of democracy. And if democratic practices are to be enjoyed at a fairer level, then the state and any religion should be separated from one another. They want Muslim and Christian friends to be equally proud of Nepal like the Hindus. But at the same time, since the majority of Bahuns are economically poor, marginalised groups will fare better, if they further the poor Bahuns’ interests too.
I recently read an article by Oxford University academics, Krishna Adhikari and David Gellner, about Bahuns mobilising themselves politically. For me, these Bahuns represent the first Bahun type, who felt the agonising urge for self-preservation. The article explains how Bahuns who never saw a need to organise around their ethnicity, started organising vigorously especially from the year 2007 around the time of the first Constituent Assembly election. The article goes on to explain how Bahuns created a nation-wide organisation, called Brahman Samaj Nepal in 2009. Working together with Chhetris, Sanyasis and some hill Dalit groups, they demanded the state that they too be named as an “indigenous” group. They were successful in doing so in 2012. Therefore, to understand the overall picture of ethnic movements in Nepal, all major ethnic movements: Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits, including Bahun-Chhetris must be understood and studied.
The first Bahun type as a political community has become increasingly fearful because of the prevalent rhetoric of marginalised communities’ movements. I also have to admit that there is a tinge of fear even within me (as the second Bahun type) about possibilities of movements based on social justice turning themselves into a communal force. That is even furthered by the state by failing at worst, and hesitating at best, to address identity-based federalism demands made by marginalised communities. A few years ago, there were outright communal sloganeering and speeches from Janajati and Maoist leaders like Dev Gurung against Bahuns, listening to which, any peaceful person would feel fearful. Some Bahuns were threatened into leaving their villages and were ultimately displaced during and after the Maoist movement, according to the report by International Crisis Group in 2011. To be sure, marginalised communities definitely have legitimate reasons to speak against the prevalent cultural hegemony, however, it seems there is a very thin line between movements of social justice and communalism.
“Garib uniharu maatra ho ra? Karnali kaa baahun ra Bagmati kinar ko chaapraa maa basne bahun hun shoshak?) (They are not the only poor in this country. Bahuns in Karnali and those who live in the huts in the banks of Bagmati river, are they the oppressors?) “Hamro ta kunai rajya thiyena ta, pachhi uniharu le bhagaaye bhane haami kahaa jaane thiyaun?” (We did not have our federal states in the proposed designs. Where should we have run to if we were kicked out of “their” states?) These are some of the sentiments that I have heard often and this kind of insecurity has been slowly creeping in, which must have prompted the anti-ethnic/identity federalism backlash especially in the first Bahun type.
Ethnic politics is fine, as long as it talks about marginalised communities because it is largely associated with social justice. However, once ethnic politics is chosen by the dominant communities, the first type Bahuns in our case, things can end up being messier. At the same time, I really wish that marginalised communities started to speak about economic class in the same breath as ethnicity. When that happens, the poor among Bahuns, will find enough reasons to support movements of marginalised people because they will then see their aspirations tied together with Madhesis, Janajatis and Dalits. They will then have no problem in living in “your” states.