Drawing caste linesMore than quotas, the focus should be on building a meritocracy, which will lead to better inclusivity
Caste must be Nepal’s curse as we can’t seem to get rid of it. No sooner had ‘bahunbaad’ started to decline than arose ‘revolutionary bahunbaad’ or ethnocracy. In other words, the ethnic politics (not the same as justice for marginalised groups) currently in play is a continuation of bahnubaad since the modus operandi is the same: ethnicity as an explicit state policy to run social and political affairs where individuals are subordinate to social groups and caste trumps every other identity. In particular, its focus on ethnic homogenity, exclusive rights, and its portrayal as a revolutionary right makes revolutionary bahunbaad particularly dangerous.
A critique of the system has long disappeared and what remains are attacks against individuals, blunt flaunting of racism with Bahun-Chhetri bashing being the favourite. It looks to be bloody too. Recently, an ex-member of the Federal Socialist Party revealed how the party promotes ethnic hatred under the a slogan of ‘chopping Bahun-Chhetris off’. Padma Ratna Tuladhar has even talked of the ‘voluntary’ migration of people whose castes may not match that of the to-be-formed federal provinces. Prachanda has declared that he wants to start afresh by purifying himself with blood, thankfully from his own head this time around.
This issue goes beyond single versus multi-ethnic identity federalism or ethnic versus identity-based federalism (the nuances of which get manipulated anyway). The concern is how ethnicity now influences our psyche and the arrogance of violent politics. The lack of effective closure to the Maoist war now perpetuates a society where no one fears punishment for the crimes they may undertake. Add historic grievances to this and we get a minefield.
One historic grievance I would like to focus on is probably the epitome of perceived bahunbaad. Baburam Bhattarai recently put it like this, “Nepal’s population is approximately one-third from Khas-Arya group, one-third from Tibeto-Burmeli, and one-third from Madhesi but different institutions of the state are dominanted by more than 80 percent hill Khas-Arya’. I do not deny this. To borrow a line from sociologist Michael Young, “Whether or not these grievances were organised by Populists, they were certainly organised by history’. My concern is that as important as it is to recognise history, it is equally important to redress it responsibly and rationally. This is where Nepal faults.
Bhattarai asks, “is this just and according to modern loktantrik values?” Expecting us to say ‘No’, he prescribes identity and proportional rights for the ethnically disadvantaged. On one hand, this seems fair and would not have been problematic had it been conducted in a non-ethnically charged communal manner. But this narrative has been over-exploited to explicitly promote hatred against select communities.
The equality equation
Broadly, equality can be attained through rights to opportunity (meritocracy), conditions (concerted efforts to offset disadvantages of birth), or outcome (equalisation of end results; generally an income equalisation stratgy). What I see in Nepal is a downplaying of merit, lack of interest to overhaul conditions, and twisted application of outcome equality (ethnocracy because Nepal’s communists have no class orientation; while ethnicity requires an additional response, it should remain secondary to the class framework).
To go back to Bhattarai’s quote, many would oppose that quota and proportional representation are fair, even if they are necessary at times. On the other hand, very few would argue that meritocracy is not just. The 80 percent of hill Khas-Aryas that are being vilified for dominating state institutions did not capture it (capturing the state is in fact a Maoist strategy); they were not given these posts for their castes, even if ethnicity may have given them selective advantages.
To answer Bhattarai, yes it is fair and modern because they were recruited through a formal legal system, whether for the civil service, army, or other organs; even Maoist fighters had to abide by this despite their revolutionary credentials. What are unfair are the conditions that create biased representation. What is also unfair is assessing this 80 percent based on their caste and not on their jobs and making all hill Khas-Arya people bear collective guilt for an ancient ideology they did not create. But so adept have we become at revolutionary clichés that we fail to distinguish between normal individuals and a system that creates them, nor do we disassociate the past from the present.
Of course, meritocracy is not always perfect; ‘source-force’, discretionary, and discriminatory provisions are used to bypass merit, but by and large meritocracy is accepted as just and with efficient procedures, it will lead to better inclusivity. That a merit-based system can lead to better diversity and success is seen clearly in our cricket team. That one day, Nepalis, including Bahuns, would be chanting ‘Kami! Kami!’ not to shoo him away but in exhileration is as unbelievable as it is liberating. Some commentators have jumped to conclusions that preferential treatment to disadvntaged ethnic groups leads to better results even when the case is exactly the opposite. It was meritocracy that led to the cricket team’s success and ethnic diversity; its inclusive representation was simply a byproduct of this process. By and large, players Kami, Khadka, or Gauchan were selected because they can play cricket, not due to their ethnicity.
An ideal society would nurture individual potential by not simply having meritocracy but also through concrete strategies to enable them to compete on a level playing field. Otherwise, while everyone can join a race some would be starting much nearer the finish line than others. Due to complex factors, structural and individual, such accidents and privileges of birth (a poor uneducated person versus a rich educated person), historic internalisation of socialisation (children born into the army are socialised towards that job), or individual preferences, Nepal has been unable to offset historic inequalities. Statistically, it is not possible that only Bahuns want or are good at civil service jobs, many of them may even be better suited for other jobs but due to an uneven playing field, even with a fair process, the current ethnic composition in the state apparatus is so lopsided. But due to a distorted narrative, we attack meritocracy itself, rather than attacking its weaknesses.
Our political battle should not be to only get the most powerful jobs, but to ensure that the most disadvantaged get the same opportunity and services as the most powerful, so that they all start at the same starting position, whether it be for President or peon. Unfortunately, little is done to address equality of conditions. Schools, one of the most important sources for equalisation, are in fact the most stratifying factor in our country and need a radical overhaul. There may be questions on why the military needs separate schools, nonetheless Nepal’s army schools and hospitals offer an egalitarian model for reducing stratification by providing the same quality service to children of lowest to highest ranks.
It is not that that equality of outcome has no place. Because investing in children and schools is a long-term process, preferential treatment is required to jump start a more equal society, provide role models, make everyone feel inclusive, and offset inefficient meritocracy. While positive discrimination for the marginalised is useful in this regard, it is complex and should be implemented by causing least resentment of receiving groups. Even then, discrimination favouring the poor is more accepted than that based on gender or caste, as is positive discrimination in ensuring equality of conditions rather than outcomes. Moreover, a proportional system can also be misused for political patronage (take the Lharkyal Lama case); Ram Kumari Jhankri, despite having merit, was bypassed by both the direct and proportional systems in the last Constituent Assembly elections.
Given a chance, Nepalis will seek a society that combines merit, inclusivity, and egalitarian outcomes, and is fair for everyone, whatever the caste. These are complex issues that require institutional mechanisms at many levels, simply tinkering at the top or creating provinces with hyphenated ethnic names will not suffice. It is unfortunate that at this important historical juncture, we see the rise of revolutionary bahunbaad, which instead of decreasing bahunbaad is contributing to its resurrection, sandwiching normal citizens between the two ‘baads’. It is time to give the bahunbaad narrative, revolutionary or otherwise, a final burial.
Khadka has a PhD from Monash University and writes on international development, social policy, and child rights