What does high caste chauvinism look like?A few months ago, a relative of mine shared with me his thought about an empowered Dalit in his Chitwan neighbourhood. This Dalit man had completed his Master’s in Nepali language, had a successful business and owned a three-storied house in Chitwan.
A few months ago, a relative of mine shared with me his thought about an empowered Dalit in his Chitwan neighbourhood. This Dalit man had completed his Master’s in Nepali language, had a successful business and owned a three-storied house in Chitwan. However, when the Dalit man invited his “high caste” neighbours to this daughter’s wedding reception, he was told that the cooks in the reception needed to be Bahun. My relative confided to me that though his Bahun friends and he could not reject the invitation because of the man’s economic status, they could never possibly think of eating food prepared by a Dalit. The Dalit man then agreed to the demand and hired Bahun cooks. The wedding reception, I was told, had two kinds of food stalls. The first one was for high caste guests, while the second one was reserved for low caste guests. After narrating the story, my relative then went on to claim that he did not believe in caste-based discrimination.
This is the state of Hindu high caste perspective when it comes to educated and urban Dalits. An educated and economically successful Dalit is somewhat better than their rural, poor and illiterate counterparts, but he/she is still ‘impure’. This is exactly opposite of the social mobility that urban Dalits are promised in a capitalist liberal democracy: We all are equal citizens in the first place but if you get educated and become economically successful, then we are definitely equals. The Dalit man ticked all the boxes that was required of him, but he was still not accepted by his high caste neighbours. If this is the situation that a successful Dalit must face, imagine how difficult the situation of the more economically and geographically marginalised Dalits must be. To a rural high caste landlord, they are nothing more than lesser humans born to serve him.
In an evening of the late 1990s, my maternal grandfather—who snugly fits into that category—told me that a “Dalit can never be equal to a Bahun.” When I asked him for the reason, he simply said that “however well you wash a donkey, it can never become a cow.” The cow referred to Bahun ‘purity’ and the donkey represented Dalit ‘impurity.’
This is a classical approach of high caste Hindus when it comes to Dalits. According to this view, Dalits are filthy, foolish and hence they should serve the high castes with their heads down. They are born to do this. On the contrary, Bahuns are intelligent, the custodians of Hindu scriptural knowledge and they should have all the social and cultural privileges. The differences are supposedly innate and go back to a Hindu myth. Essentially, this is the prejudiced extreme of Hindu high caste consciousness.
Then, there are the watered down high caste Hindus. They do eat food prepared by Dalits, drink water touched by Dalits, let Dalits worship in the same temple as themselves and treat Dalits minimally as humans. With this basic social aspect of equality, they can cover themselves with a liberal façade. They can still claim that they are against caste discrimination. However, when it comes to political, economic and educational equality, they are furious that Dalits are getting “quotas in everything.” They are against the minimal reservations that Dalits are receiving in the public service sector. They are livid as Dalits are getting parliamentary seats according to Proportional Representative (PR) system. And this fury is not present only in old high caste Hindus who are equated with social conservatism. This reactionary anger is also rampant in the younger generation of ‘liberal’ and urban high caste Hindus. If they could do it, they would instantly erase all the affirmative actions.
But since the unified Hindu high caste consciousness that is representative of the above three kinds, was not able to undermine the demands of affirmative actions raised in various movements of marginalised people, a sly clause was pushed inside the constitution through the back door. The PR system that was originally conceived to level the playing field for the marginalised communities, was deliberately used for the continued dominance of Khas-Arya, high caste Hindus from hills. Consequently, Khas-Arya still dominate political representation of this country. They constitute 31.2 percent of Nepali population but occupy 45 percent of Federal Parliament seats. With no surprise, one of the least represented groups is still Dalit, both Pahadi and Madhesi, with a combined population of 13.8 percent but with only eight percent of seats in Federal Parliament.
If the inclusion of Khas-Arya in the PR system does not show Hindu hill high caste chauvinism, then what does? Of course, there are poor Khas-Arya, but surely, they do not become PR parliamentarians in a system peddled by contractors, businessmen and economically sound hill high caste Hindus. Also, the PR system was supposed to address the political representation angle. It cannot possibly become a full-fledged economic overhaul on behalf of working and peasant classes. But the current avatar of PR system is sadly only a modern-day federal and republican adaptation of the high caste Hindu prejudices of elites. Letting Dalits enter a temple, eating and drinking with them is unquestionably important. However, at this juncture of Nepali history, minimal social equality is not enough. Representation in all levels of state is equally important to uplift the situation of Dalits.
Caste discrimination and marginalisation of Dalits is not a matter that will slowly and gradually fade away. As Pradip Pariyar, a Dalit activist wrote some time ago—only death comes slowly and gradually. They demand instant and overarching redress. The first step towards this historic correction is the wider Hindu high caste community’s acknowledgement of our socio-cultural privileges, the past and present injustices done towards Dalits, and a sincere political will to redress the situation.